STUDENTS WITH AUTISM
Glen Dunlap and Lise Fox
is a disability syndrome characterized principally by significant
problems in the development of communication and social functioning.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a broad definition
of autism that includes related disabilities such as Asperger
Syndrome, Rett's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Autism and ASD are labels describing students with a great range
of abilities and disabilities, including individuals with severe
intellectual challenges as well as students who are intellectually
gifted. With appropriate teaching, all students with autism can
digest provides an overview of considerations for teaching students
with autism. Students with autism are, first and foremost, students.
They have many more similarities to other students than they do
differences. Although some students with autism present genuine
instructional challenges, they learn well with appropriate, systematic,
and individualized teaching practices.
General Considerations of the Instructional Context
provide effective instruction for students with autism, some general
considerations should be addressed:
that the student is in good health, free from pain and irritation,
and in a safe, stimulating and pleasurable setting.
structure in the environment, with clear guidelines regarding
expectations for appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
tools, such as written or picture schedules, to ensure that
the flow of activities is understandable and predictable.
the curriculum on the student's individual characteristics,
not on the label of autism. A diagnosis of autism does not
indicate what or how to teach.
on developing skills that will be of use in the student's
current and future life in school, home, and community.
plan transitions to new placements and new school experiences
usually require careful planning and assistance
parents and other family members to participate in the process
of assessment, curriculum planning, instruction, and monitoring.
They often have the most useful information about the student's
history and learning characteristics, so effective instruction
should take advantage of this vital resource.
with autism have significant challenges in understanding and using
language for communication. Classroom environments must provide
students with information on events, activities, and expectations
in a manner that students with autism can easily understand. Visual
activity schedules may be used to provide students with an overview
of the instructional day and information on tasks that will be
assigned. Many teachers also find mini-schedules helpful; they
provide a visual analysis of the steps in a task or assignment
that need completion by the student. In addition to providing
supports for understanding classroom expectations, many students
will also need supports for communicating to others. While most
students with autism will learn to use speech to communicate,
many still have great difficulty in expressing their needs and
desires. They may need to use visual systems, sign language, or
augmentative devices as an additional form of expressive communication.
is important that the classroom environment provides activities
and materials that are interesting and motivating. Actively engaging
the student within instructional activities is critical to effective
instruction. The teacher should observe the student in multiple
activities and interview family members to identify the motivating
activities or objects for the student. These preferred objects
and activities may be used for instruction, or as reinforcers
for activity engagement or completion. Instructional arrangements
should also provide opportunities for choice-making to the student.
Research has shown that when students have an opportunity to choose
the activity, location, or materials for an instructional task,
they are more likely to be engaged in the activity. Providing
the student with frequent and personally meaningful reinforcement
is often critical to sustaining motivation to engage in instruction
and persist with activities.
trial training is an effective instructional format for teaching
specific skills in an intensive, efficient manner. Skills are
taught within a highly structured, one-to-one format providing
clear and concise instruction, an additional prompt (as necessary),
and an explicit reinforcer (reward) for performing the skill successfully.
Discrete trial training typically uses a least-to-most prompting
hierarchy, moving from a verbal prompt to physical guidance when
verbal and nonverbal prompts are inadequate. Trials of instruction
are provided on a single behavior in a massed fashion (one after
another) with only a brief pause between trials.
instruction describes the instruction of targeted skills within
activities and routines that are meaningful for the student. Instructional
trials are embedded within student-initiated, routine, or planned
activities. Skills are taught within relevant activities and across
contexts, increasing the probability that the student will generalize
the skill to noninstructional activities and environments. For
example, an arrival routine for a student may include putting
his backpack away, finding his desk, and taking out his daily
work folder. If the student were learning how to greet others,
request help, and follow a visual schedule, skill instruction
could be embedded in the arrival routine and within multiple activities
over the day so that an adequate number of instructional trials
are provided to the student. Systematic instruction is used within
each of those activities to provide instruction on the embedded
with autism may also be taught effectively in small groups. In
inclusive classrooms, nondisabled peers have been effective in
providing instructional support. Cooperative learning groups also
provide a format for includeing the student with autism who may
be learning skills that are different from his peers.
students with autism may exhibit excessive passivity, while others
display patterns of disruptive or even destructive behaviors.
Years ago, the common response to these behaviors was punishment,
time out, or exclusion to stop or suppress the behavior problems.
The currently preferred approach is known as positive behavior
support (PBS), a proactive, constructive educational approach
for resolving behavior problems. It is based on extensive research
as well as principles regarding the rights of all students to
be treated with dignity and to have access to educational opportunities.
The PBS approach is supported by the discipline regulations of
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
involves a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and the subsequent
development and implementation of an individualized behavior support
plan. The FBA process gathers information about the purpose or
"function" of the behavior and the circumstances associated
with its occurrences and nonoccurrences. The results of the FBA
contribute to the individualized behavior support plan, which
usually includes procedures for teaching alternatives to the behavior
problems, and alterations to the environmental and instructional
circumstances most associated with the problems. Such alterations
can involve aspects of the curriculum, instructional techniques,
social milieu or other feature linked by the FBA to behavior problems.
The PBS intervention helps prevent problems from occurring, and
helps the student acquire more effective, desirable ways for interacting
with the environment.
focus of instruction shifts as students with autism move from
early childhood programs through elementary school to secondary
settings. In the early years, instruction focuses on developing
communication, social interaction, and adaptive behavior. As the
child ages, elementary programs may focus more on academic instruction
in addition to teaching language and social interaction skills.
In secondary programs, instruction should shift to preparing the
student for adulthood.
for young children should begin as soon as the disability is identified.
Effective early intervention programs are ones that directly teach
early communication and social interaction skills, use a functional
approach in addressing problem behavior, provide intensive and
systematic instruction, provide parent instruction and family
support, and provide transition support as the child enters preschool.
elementary school, instruction should support the child's growth
in skill areas that are delayed and promote growth in areas of
strength. Curriculum adaptations may be used to assist students
in progressing in the traditional academic areas. School programs
should also focus on helping the student learn how to negotiate
social environments and develop friendships.
the secondary and high school years, instruction should focus
on the areas identified in the transition plan. The transition
plan addresses post-school outcomes for work, community living,
community participation, and recreation activities. Instruction
for the transitioning student may include community work experience,
using public transportation, and learning skills that will be
important for living in the community. In high school, instruction
may continue within general education settings although an individual
student's schedule may reflect a greater emphasis on the importance
of learning relevant post-school skills. For example, a student's
schedule may include classes in computer, cooking, and chorus
instead of courses in chemistry, algebra, and American literature.
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2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill
with permission by:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC
The Council for Exceptional Children
1110 N. Glebe Rd.
Arlington, VA 22201-5704
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