Measuring Success in Autism Treatment

by Samantha Alexander

Have you ever asked yourself If your child’s treatment for autism is working or if the measure of success of the therapists is correct? Wondered if the time, money, and emotional depletion was making any difference? You are not alone.

So many of the changes in our children are imperceptible. So much growth happens where we can’t measure or observe. Trying to discern progress is so much more than a developmental checklist, 2-3 word sentences or sensory motor milestone. Sometimes we need to look to unconventional ways to measure or determine growth.

So often we teach to the “test” when working with our children. Teaching skills that fit into goals that were developed based on tests, assessments, or the insight of experts. This focus can lead to losing sight of the valuable experiences that lead to growth. As a caregiver, what you teach should fit into the specific moment you are experiencing.

Teaching to the moment is hard. It entails thinking on your feet and occasionally tossing your well laid plans aside so that you can teach to the growth potential of the moment. Those moments may or may not fit into predetermined goals.

Here are 4 ways to measure growth beyond static skill acquisition:

1. Ask: A bit of an ah-ha but step one in determining if your child’s treatment, intervention, or therapy is working is likely to be asking them. Using language and methods appropriate for your child’s age development and skills – just ask. Then listen.

2. Parent Participation in Active Engagements: Are you enjoying your interactions with your child? Examining your behavior can give insight into your child’s growth and behavior. Are you having fun together? Often family members’ increased enjoyment and engagement in activities in the biggest indicator of child growth available.

3. Child Participation in Active Engagements: Does your child attend to social or learning tasks and maintain engagement throughout the activity? Even if there doesn’t appear to be any progress with the actual tasks attempted there can be growth. Look for physical orientation to the task, cognitive orientation (e.g., questions or responses) and/or emotional/motivational orientation to the learning partner.

4. Process not Outcomes: Track progress and process towards a skill rather than the mastery of the skill. Look at how often you practice hair brushing and the quality of the practice instead of the number of ponytails successfully tied.

In a perfect world, we could all be confident that the effort put into our child’s treatment would without a doubt bear positive and transformational results. Welcome packets would come with timelines! However, in the crazy, wonderful, mind-blowing world we live in sometimes we must set less traditional goals and look for growth in places that aren’t as easy to see or measure.


  1. waneloba John

    what standardized tool of assessment can i use to determine those four questions?

    • Samantha Alexander

      Hi! The 4 ways I included to determine growth are qualitative and best measured via frequency tracking, simple likert scale measures or even subjective experience sharing. A pre/post data analytic approach would likely be the easiest way to capture the change over time if that was our primary goal.

      The standardized tools I most frequently use – while necessary and integral for programming and tracking – measure and report on a multitude of indicators that aren’t always necessary and integral to our everyday lives. That’s what guided me to think of ways to determine growth and progress separate from tests and measures.

      All the best!


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