Jennifer J. McComas, PhD and Alefyah Shipchandler from the University of Minnesota discuss the current state of the evidence for communication intervention for individuals with Rett syndrome
Researchers who investigate habilitative treatments for severe neurodevelopmental disorders rely on human participants agreeing to serve as the subjects of our experiments. Some families consent to participate because they have experienced something like this: they gave birth to a healthy baby and watched that baby hit developmental milestones for the first six or more months of life, only to observe their child, who has developed fine motor and some early vocal language, go through a period of regression in which they lose motor and communication skills.
Without motor and communication skills, it is nearly impossible to know their cognitive abilities, but most experts report cognition is also severely impaired. Although this condition is rare, affecting approximately one in 10,000 girls born worldwide (it is exceedingly rare in boys), it is nevertheless devastating. The neurodevelopmental disorder, now known as Rett syndrome (RTT), was first described by an Austrian pediatrician1, but for decades, individuals with RTT were misdiagnosed as having autism due to similarities in behavioural phenotype2. In 1999, Huda Zoghbi and her colleagues discovered that genetic mutations in the gene MECP23,4, located on the X chromosome, cause RTT. Systems that experience impairment often include speech, motor skills, breathing, cardiac function, chewing, swallowing and digestion.
Although extensive research on the genetic basis and medical treatments for RTT in non-human populations has occurred in the past 20 years5,6,7,8, the goal of that research has been a better understanding of the causal mechanisms, potential treatments and cures for the disorder. Far less experimental research has been conducted in the area of treatment of communication deficits. Yet, while families wait for effective treatment of symptoms or a cure, they are in need of empirically validated interventions that will allow their daughters with RTT to communicate their wants and needs.
Persons with multiple disabilities, including severe physical and communication disabilities, often need assistive technology in the form of augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) devices to communicate. Eye-gaze technology that involves an eye-tracking device and a computer-based programme that produces vocal output is an emerging technology for individuals with severe motor impairments9 and is increasingly recommended for individuals with RTT10, 11, 12.
Despite claims of individuals with RTT using eye-gaze technology to converse with their families12 and to read13, there is little published empirical evidence of effective use of eye-gaze devices by individuals with RTT. As such, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, funded our research project designed to develop a reinforcement-based intervention model for addressing the complex communication needs in RTT. As part of that project, we examined the published peer-reviewed empirical literature on the use of a behavioural intervention to teach or improve communication of individuals with RTT and our findings were somewhat surprising.
A systematic search was conducted in the following electronic databases: PsychINFO, PubMed and Academic Search Premier. In all databases, “Rett syndrome” was inserted into the search field along with one of the following: “behavioural + intervention,” “communication + intervention,” “educational + intervention,” “habilitative + intervention,” and “augmentative communication,” for a total of five search term pairs.
From the resulting 310 publications, chapters, non-peer-reviewed papers (e.g., dissertations) and non-English articles were excluded. In addition, articles that focused on genetics, reports of general characteristics of RTT, medical interventions and interventions conducted with non-human subjects were excluded. Finally, any article in which communication was not reported as a dependent variable or that did not describe a procedure related to teaching or improving a communicative response was excluded. A total of 15 studies were identified for evaluation.
Next, we evaluated each of the 15 studies using the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC): Standards for Evidence-Based Practice in Special Education14. In addition, an indicator of conceptualisation underlying the study15 was included in the review. The CEC’s standards for evidence-based practice contain sub-features of each indicator. For an indicator to be considered “met,” the study needed to address all the relevant sub-features of the indicator. For example, quality indicator five ‘Implementation Fidelity’ includes three sub-features pertaining to adherence, dosage and duration14. For an indicator to be scored as Yes (Y), all sub-features needed to be adequately addressed. One rater independently evaluated all 15 articles according to the CEC standards, and a second rater independently evaluated eight of the 15 articles using the same criteria. Inter-rater agreement for the nine indicators was 100% across all articles that were evaluated by both raters.
All 15 studies addressed non-vocal forms of communication and targeted either motor responses or eye gaze as their target behaviours, with some including both. Target communicative responses included unaided responses (e.g., signs, gestures) or technology aided responses that involved either low technology (e.g. pictures, microswitches, 2D symbols, 3D objects) or high technology (e.g., speech generating devices [SGD] activated by eye-gaze). Of the fifteen studies, two studies utilised eye-gaze technology 16, 17.
Results of the evaluation of the nine quality indicators for evidence-based practice described by the CEC (#1-8) and research described by Gersten and colleagues (#9) are presented in Table 1. The ratings of the quality indicators varied widely across the 15 studies. All 15 studies met the criteria for describing participants, all but one met the criteria for conceptualisation and all but two met the criteria for describing the practice. Only one study met the criteria for all nine indicators18 and 1/3 of the studies (five of 15) met the criteria for at least seven of the nine indicators. Four studies (1/4) met criteria for three or fewer of the nine indicators.
In our experience, families affected by RTT have been exceptionally generous with their time and energy in voluntarily participating in research projects, despite the challenges they encounter caring for a loved one with severe multiple disabilities. As researchers, we owe it to these families and to our science to conduct rigorous investigations and disseminate our procedures and results in a way that is replicable by other researchers. In our role as reviewers for publication outlets and funding recommendations, we must take stock of the body of evidence and demand continuous improvement in the quality of evidence pertaining to treatment for critical skills such as communication.
In summary, within the body of work to date, the claims vary widely pertaining to the utility of high-technology devices that involve eye-gaze for individuals with RTT. As the field matures, more studies that meet the quality standards of evidence-based practices and research and that improve understanding for whom and under what conditions particular technologies and practices are effective are imperative for continued progress in the field 19, 20.
The research described in this profile is supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD/NIH) Grant No. 1R21DC015021-01A1.
Note: * Indicates the article was included in the review
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18 Simacek, J., Dimian, F. A., & McComas, J. J., (2017). Communication Intervention for Young Children with Severe Neurodevelopmental Disabilities via Telehealth. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 744-767.
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Jennifer J. McComas, PhD
University of Minnesota
Tel: +1 612 624 5854
University of Minnesota
Tel: +1 612 624 5854
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