Interacting with Autism: A USC-RAND Partnership

Female ABA therapist working with an autistic boy on patterns and sorting

Female ABA therapist working with an autistic boy on patterns and sorting, photo by ktaylorg/Getty Images

The prevalence of autism in the United States has increased 600 percent over the past several decades. Early intervention services can assist individuals diagnosed with autism, but families often need to learn more about appropriate options, navigate approaches to treatment with health care providers and educators, and make informed choices.

To help facilitate such choices and information gathering, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts ( partnered with RAND’s Southern California Evidence-Based Practice Center (EPC) to produce a video-based website about autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Interacting with Autism presents the most current, evidence-based information on autism in an emotionally compelling and accessible form. The more than 30 videos on the website were all carefully reviewed by the EPC and leading autism researchers and medical doctors in the field. They were also tested in focus groups of doctors, educators, and parents of newly diagnosed children with autism.

The high-quality videos on the Interacting with Autism website give viewers insight into ASD, as well as how to treat and live with the disorder. Trailer video courtesy of the University of Southern California School of Cinema. The video is hosted by Vimeo. RAND is not responsible for materials originating from this third-party server.

Understanding, Treating, and Living with Autism

The three main sections of the Interacting with Autism website—Understanding, Treating, and Living With—sort video and other content for easy access to the most relevant material. Users choose whether to view the website in English, Spanish, or Chinese. Over 10 hours of interviews appear across the videos, which feature the personal stories and experiences of ASD.

The prevalence of autism in the United States has increased 600 percent over the past several decades.

Videos in the Understanding section of the website illustrate the diversity of individuals with ASD and the range of the autism spectrum; parents' perspectives; what is known about autism: sensory issues, causes, diagnosis, and prevalence; and the controversy over vaccines. It also provides an interactive database of how autism has been portrayed in documentaries, fiction, and television series. One of the most watched videos in this section is an animation that enables the user to experience what it’s like to suffer from sensory overload.

The site's section on Treating ASD delves more deeply into several approaches to caring for individuals with autism, including videos on real therapy sessions that are annotated by researchers, therapists, and parents. Popular segments include videos on developmental interventions for children called Floor Time and JASPER (Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement, and Regulation), a treatment approach created by Dr. Connie Kasari of the University of California, Los Angeles. Other videos discuss occupational and speech therapy; social skills groups; and medications. Text articles provide additional information about each of the principal therapies and can be downloaded as pdfs.

The Living With section documents the stories of children, adolescents, and young adults with ASD as they make friends, find romance and community, navigate the educational system, and share their talents with the world. Personal stories of coping with, and also looking for causes of, autism across ethnic communities are found here, as well as educational and advocacy resources, including a video about the Neurodiversity Movement.

Additional Resources

The Resources section of the Interacting with Autism site features expert information on what to look for to recognize the signs of autism and provides a comprehensive summary of state and federal regulations regarding rights to health care coverage and educational resources. Paired with the videos, this information orients caregivers to their role in advocating for a loved one with ASD, how to seek help and obtain financial assistance with interventions, and the range of treatment and educational options available in different localities.

About the Team

RAND staff who provided technical assistance on this effort were Margaret Maglione, Sydne Newberry, Aneesa Motala, and Paul Shekelle.

Mark Harris, Producer and co-PI on the series, is a Distinguished Professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, the author of several award-winning children's novels, and a three-time Oscar winner for Best Documentary.

Marsha Kinder, Producer and co-PI, is an Emerita University Professor at USC, best known for her work on Children's Media Culture and Spanish Cinema. Since 1997, she was the founding director of the Labyrinth Project, a research initiative and art collective producing interactive projects featured in museums, conferences and websites worldwide.

Scott Mahoy, Creative Director, has over 20 years' experience producing educational multimedia, websites, documentary video and infographics transforming research data and information into emotional, visual designs.