The number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is increasing around the world. More teachers are responsible for educating children with autism in mainstream schools. But what is the best way to support these learners and their teachers?
Monash’s Umesh Sharma and Erin Leif examine the research and provide some advice for teachers.
As a teacher, finding time to support students with autism – as well as a full classroom of students – may feel overwhelming in terms of time and resources. In this article we look at the research and provide some practical strategies for your classroom.
There is no set way of teaching a student with ASD – each will have different needs, abilities and interests.
As a teacher your first step is to seek support. You cannot do it alone. Talk to your principal. What time and resources do you need? Build a team around your student of allied health professionals, positive behaviour support coaches or special educators. Work together to create a learning plan and monitor progress.
Using these evidence-based strategies is likely to have a positive impact on all students, not just those who have a disability.
1. Early assessment and intervention is important
There is overwhelming evidence that shows early assessment and intervention have great benefits for learners. Difficulties are identified early on, and targeted interventions are possible.
Early assessment and intervention improves emotional, educational, and social development of the students. It also reduces the chances of secondary disability in the child.
It is important to intervene early if you have concerns about the emotional, behavioural or academic development of your student. Taking a ‘wait and see’ approach when we have specific concerns about a student can lead to the student falling further behind.
If you have a concern, identify the right people to speak to. This may include the student’s parents, as well as your principal. What resources are available to you and your student? How can you set up a network of support?
Making small changes early – for example, providing some extra support in a specific academic area of concern – may significantly reduce the need for individual support later on.
2. Ongoing assessment and monitoring of student progress is vital
It is critical that regular assessment and monitoring take place and are used to determine future learning goals. The assessment method may need to be modified to determine student’s understanding.
This may sound onerous, however, if assessments are planned and implemented in consultation with the rest of the school community, they become an effective pedagogical tool.
For students with ASD, this ongoing monitoring provides a way to measure their progress in acquiring necessary skills. For teachers, it shows where additional support is required, particularly where no progress has been made.
Classroom mini-quizzes are one of the best ways to determine what a student knows about a topic and to highlight gaps, regardless of whether they have ASD. The results provide a snapshot of how each student is performing. The information can be used to plan differentiated learning activities for everyone.
Another strategy is to spend one-on-one time with your student, siblings and their parents. This interview can provide rich information which help you adapt tasks to suit a student’s personal interests, abilities or preferences.
3. Focus on teaching new skills
A recent review of interventions for learners on the autism spectrum (Wong, et. al. 2015) identified 27 teaching strategies that meet the criteria for evidence-based practice. These strategies generally involve:
- providing structured, systematic instruction such as breaking skills down into smaller teachable components
- providing prompts for new behaviours using visual supports, modelling, scripts, social stories, and computer-assisted technology
- reinforcing the occurrence of new or pro-social behaviour
- using augmentative and alternative communication (such as PECS, the Picture Exchange Communication System).
For a learner with ASD, communication is one of the most important skills we can work on. Even for those students who appear to have strong receptive and expressive language skills, communicating their wants and needs can be a challenge.
Try to find lots of opportunities to help the student communicate with you, be sure to listen and provide positive feedback. If a student in your classroom is unable to communicate using vocal speech, using alternatives – such as the Picture Exchange Communication System – can work well.
Involving other people – such as parents, speech pathologists or a behaviour analyst – within your school – to teach with PECS (and other systems) means the intervention can be used in multiple environments and it improves the chances of success.
Breaking down skills into smaller parts
Some students with ASD have difficulty learning composite skills in the same way as other students. They can learn component skills when larger tasks are broken down into small, teachable parts.
If your student struggles or shows behaviours of concern, then the task may be too difficult. Break it down, practice the skill yourself – or ask another student – and write down each individual step toward the end goal.
Start with the first step in the sequence. Wait for your student to do it independently and then add the next step. Continue until the student can perform the composite skill on their own. You can change the order of the steps you will teach depending on how easy or difficult it was for your student to perform the task.
A student should get some sense of accomplishment and acknowledgement for the effort they put in.
4. Be proactive
There is strong evidence that targeted behavioural interventions result in improved learning and behavioural outcomes.
Interventions derived from the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) generally show positive outcomes in increasing appropriate behaviours and reducing behaviours of concern.
Proactive and preventative strategies used within a whole school framework have been found to be more effective than interventions directed at managing consequences.
Use of functional behaviour assessment in developing individual behavioural intervention programs has often shown positive outcomes for students with ASD.
However, no single behavioural strategy can be identified as most effective, as each individual student’s abilities and preferences need to be taken into account in deciding about the intervention.
Proactive and preventative strategies can benefit all students, not just ones with ASD. Some excellent proactive and preventative strategies include:
- Organise materials in your learning space. A well-organised classroom, in which all needed materials are available, accessible, and clearly labelled goes a long way in promoting student independence.
- Model the desired behaviours for your students and provide opportunities for students to practice these skills. These include requesting, sharing, turn-taking, waiting, helping and cleaning up.
- Catch students doing the right thing and aim to have at least 80% of your feedback to be positive. It’s too easy to pay more attention to the things students are doing wrong rather than what they are doing well. Provide frequent positive praise and recognition.
5. Work collaboratively with families
When parents are involved in the education of their child, there are positive outcomes. This is particularly the case when parents are empowered to deliver instruction in social, communication and behavioural skills.
One-off training was not as effective as training provided over a time period. Investment by schools in developing parent training programs enhanced parental satisfaction with the school programs for their students.
Genuine efforts also need to be made to involve students in their educational planning along with the parents and siblings.
At the beginning of the school year, it is very helpful to share information about the curriculum you will follow with parents, especially those who have children with ASD.
This allows parents to provide additional opportunities to their children to practice skills at home, where there are less distractions and more time for one-on-one attention.
A letter of introduction explaining your teaching philosophy and the best way parents can communicate with you is a powerful way to connect.
Frequent positive communication with families show you are genuinely interested in working with them, and take the education of their children seriously.
6. Schools should invest in high quality professional learning for teachers
Successfully including students with ASD in regular classroom requires that teachers and para-professionals have the necessary skills and knowledge to teach and support all students.
These staff need to learn and acquire technical skills to effectively educate students with ASD, and to work with other para-professionals and parents.
Key skills include:
- preventing and managing challenging behaviours
- co-operative learning
- small group instructions to target specific skills for individual students.
Teacher assistants need to learn the best way to work successfully with teachers in delivering effective educational programs for students with ASD.
Teacher assistants should not always be asked to work with targeted individual students. Instead they provide support in a small group. This reduces the chance of stigmatising a student who has additional needs.
It is also important educators apply effective and proven teaching strategies with the highest degree of fidelity. Strategies only work when applied by knowledgeable people, otherwise the technique is unlikely to deliver the expected outcomes.
Professional learning programs for educators and para-professionals need to make every effort to equip people with all the key aspects of using specific teaching strategies.
Traditional teacher professional development programs can be too didactic and have not proven effective.
You are more likely to implement new skills when you have been provided with multiple opportunities to practice, and can receive feedback from your trainer based on your performance as an individual.
For schools this means allowing teachers to practice new skills with support until they can achieve a high degree of independence, confidence and accuracy.
Teachers and principal should seek professional development opportunities that utilise highly active training tactics such as modeling, role-play, and feedback.
7. When coordinated collaboration with a range of professionals is needed
A student with ASD may require the services of a range of professionals.
It is critical all relevant service providers collaborate and co-ordinate to avoid confusion and deliver the programs in consultation with the families.
One way to promote this would be to establish an Autism Specific Multi-Agency Team at school or district level.
The team takes overarching responsibility of coordinating and delivering services to the students and their families.
Talk to your principal about setting up a collaborative team around the student with autism.
- Does the student have speech and communication difficulties? You probably need a speech pathologist on your team.
- Does the student display behaviours of concern? You may need a behaviour analyst or psychologist on your team.
Asking a professional to simply conduct an assessment is unlikely to be effective. Every team member needs to contribute to the development and implementation of individual supports for the student.
A set of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals for the student by each professional is recommended. These goals should clearly map what your student will learn, how they will do it and how progress will be monitored.
That progress needs to be monitored by all the professionals over the school year, and the program needs to be modified if a student is not making progress.
8. Plan for the future
Some students with ASD find it difficult to transition to new environments. It is important that systematic plans are in place for transitioning students with ASD at different stages of schooling.
Both sending schools (or agencies) and receiving schools (or agencies) need to plan and co-ordinate for smooth transition of students to the new environments. Families are at heightened levels of stress at the time of transition and they also need to be supported and consulted to ensure positive experiences for their children with ASD.
During a period of transition, it is important that the student with autism receives continuity of support.
Teachers can facilitate smooth transitions by sharing information about individual learning plans, behaviour support plans, communication systems, and other classroom supports (such as visual aids) with the new teacher before the transition occurs.
Simply sharing information is not likely to be effective. The new teacher will need specific training on how to implement behaviour support strategies and how to understand and use the student’s communication system prior to the new school year. This training should include a mix of discussion, modeling, role-play, and in-classroom coaching.
The key research findings from this article were drawn from an extensive review of the available research, conducted for the Victorian Department of Education and Training (Sharma, Forlin & Furlonger, 2015).
For more information on the resources available to you in Victoria go to the Department of Education and Training website.
- Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pdf).Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(3):150-165.
- National Autism Center (2009). Evidence-based practice and Autism in the schools: A guide to providing appropriate interventions to students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pdf).
- National Research Council (2001). Educating students with autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Students with Autism. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- Parsons, S. Guldberg, K., Macleod, A. Jones, G., Prunty, A. & Balfe, T. (2011). International review of the evidence on best practice in educational provision for students on the autism spectrum, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26:1, 47-63, DOI: 10.1080/08856257.2011.543532.
- Simpson, R. L. (2005). Evidence-based practices and students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20(3), 140-149.
- Sharma, U., Forlin, C. & Furlonger, B. (2015). A review of contemporary models of funding inclusive education for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and learning disabilities (pdf). Department of Education and Training for the State of Victoria, Melbourne.
- Virginia Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Student Services (2011). Models of Best Practice in the Education of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Author: Virginia: USA.
- Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for students, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-014- 2351-z.