ERIC Identifier: ED435148
Publication Date: 1999-10-00
Author: Dunlap, Glen - Fox, Lise
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Teaching Students with Autism. ERIC Digest E582.
Autism 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 learn.
This 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.
SOME GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS OF THE INSTRUCTIONAL CONTEXT
provide effective instruction for students with autism, some general
considerations should be addressed:
1. Ensure that the student is in good health, free from
pain and irritation, and in a safe, stimulating and pleasurable setting.
Provide structure in the environment, with clear guidelines regarding
expectations for appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
Provide tools, such as written or picture schedules, to ensure that the flow of
activities is understandable and predictable.
Base 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.
Focus on developing skills that will be of use in the student's current and
future life in school, home, and community.
Carefully plan transitions to new placements and new school experiences usually
require careful planning and assistance.
Encourage 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
Students 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
It 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.
Discrete 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
Activity-based 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 skill.
Students 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.
POSITIVE BEHAVIOR SUPPORT
Some 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).
PBS 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.
AGE SPAN CONSIDERATIONS
The 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.
Instruction 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.
In 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.
In 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
Carr, E. G., Horner, R. H., Turnbull, A. P.,
Marquis, J. G., McLaughlin, D. M., McAtee, M. L., Smith, C. E., Ryan, K. A.,
Ruef, M. B., Doolabh, A., & Braddock, D. (1999). Positive behavior support
for people with developmental disabilities: A research synthesis. American
Association on Mental Retardation.
Dawson, G., & Osterling, J. (1997). Early intervention in autism. In M.
J. Guralnick (Ed.), The effectiveness of early intervention (pp. 307-326).
Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Dunlap, G., DePerczel, M., Clarke, S., Wilson, D., Wright, S., White, R.,
& Gomez, A. (1994). Choice making and proactive behavioral support for
students with emotional and behavioral challenges. Journal of Applied Behavior
Analysis (27), 505-518.
Koegel, L. K., Koegel, R. L., & Dunlap, G. (Eds.) (1996). Positive
behavioral support: Including people with difficult behavior in the community.
Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Olley, J. G. & Reeve, C. E. (1997). Issues of Curriculum and Classroom
Structure. In D. J. Cohen & F. R. Volkmar (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and
Pervasive Developmental Disorders. 2nd ed. (484-508). New York: John Wiley &
Peck, C. A. (1985). Increasing opportunities for social control by children
with autism and severe handicaps: Effects on student behavior and perceived
classroom climate. The Journal of he Association for Persons with Severe
Handicaps (10) 183-193.
Westling, D. & Fox, L. (2000). Teaching students with severe
disabilities. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.