TRIAD study aims to improve hospitalizations for children with autism

Stock photo of young boy in hospital bed

The VKC Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) has launched a pilot research study to improve treatment of children with autism hospitalized for serious behavioral issues.

At times children are admitted to an inpatient psychiatric facility because their behavior is believed to pose a threat to themselves or others. Physicians and hospital staff are trained to assist typically developing children, but what happens when an admitted patient has an autism diagnosis? To meet the need of these patients, TRIAD has launched a pilot research study to compare traditional methods of treating behavior in children on the spectrum with a new approach that includes supplementary assessment and intervention.

“I think that we have all seen the difficulty that some children with autism have with inpatient hospitalization. Our hope is to evaluate a behavioral intervention that can help decrease the impact that this is having on our patients and the hospital,” said Kevin Sanders, M.D., TRIAD medical director and assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Clinical Pediatrics.

“Around the country, patients with autism and their families have experienced unique challenges when trying to access medical care,” said John Staubitz, M.Ed., BCBA, TRIAD behavior consultation coordinator and behavioral/educational consultant. “When children with autism exhibit severe behavior, this can often increase the need for inpatient intervention, interfere with the application of necessary medical treatment, and ultimately prolong the length of hospitalization. Our team is interested in piloting a service model that will directly address severe behavior in patients through behavioral assessment and treatment. It is our hope that given this additional support for patients and medical staff, better health care outcomes can be achieved for children with autism. Specifically, our team hypothesizes that the costs of additional time and effort devoted to assessment and treatment will pay off through reduced durations of hospitalization and overall medical costs to families.”

The behavior of participants who receive the traditional treatment model will receive medical treatment that is standard for patients at VUMC. This includes medication management, as well as monitoring and support through hospital staff who have engaged in basic training related to autism and behavioral supports. For patients who receive supplementary treatment, a Functional Analysis will be used to plan treatment delivered within VUMC by behavior analysts.

The treatments are provided during the course of a child’s hospitalization. All families who receive the traditional or supplemental treatment receive materials and recommendations to address severe behavior after the child has been discharged from the hospital.

This pilot study is made possible through an Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (HRSA AIR-P) grant (ATN-AIR-14-07); Kevin Sanders serves as principal investigator. AIR-P focuses on physical conditions affecting children on the autism spectrum. The study is aided through collaboration with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, and the Department of Special Education in Peabody College.

For more information about the hospitalization study, contact Sarah Marler, project coordinator, at

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