Children with autism have both strong and weak points when it comes to learning – like all children. A significant tendency to progress at different rates across developmental domains is generally the case. Further, there can exist an uneven performance within a single area. Since language is a primary deficit for these children, training in this area is commonly a major teaching focus. Language is a highly complicated process involving a wide range of behaviors or skills that are particularly difficult for the child with autism: listening, observing others, waiting, initiating, remembering, integrating sights, sounds and touch. While these behaviors are integral to language development, they also apply to other teaching objectives as well.
When planning to teach and support this population of young learners, we should keep in mind that autism is a spectrum disorder. Two children with the same diagnosis can be completely different from one another and have varying capabilities, and each child with autism presents uniquely. However, each child can learn and progress with appropriate treatment and education.
Below are two different approaches to learning/teaching techniques that can be utilized with children with autism.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA is an empirically based approach to teaching, and data shows is efficacy. The technique operates under the principle that behavior that is rewarded or reinforced is more likely to occur again than behavior that is ignored or punished. Within an educational context, ABA is the application of the science of behavior to teach language, academics, socialization, daily living skills and motor skills. This modality is identified empirically as being significantly effective in addressing the needs of children with autism and other related disorders.
One of the key aspects of ABA is learning through discrete trials of instruction which is built around the ABCs of behavior: Antecedent (or prompt), Behavior (or elicited response) and Consequence (which in this case is the reinforcement). ABA is often used to teach skills ranging from adaptive behaviors to academic concepts and language.
Verbal Behavior (VB)
VB is a behavior-based approach to instruction based on Skinner’s works in the 1950s. Instructional modalities in this approach include:
- Intensive trial teaching: one-to-one instruction
- Dyadic instruction: teaching in pairs, focus on speaker-listener instruction
- Natural environment teaching: teaching “away from the table” and embedded in the naturally occurring, enjoyable events and activities of a child’s day
VB includes a set of teaching procedures including:
- Errorless learning: a set of instructional procedures used to ensure the prevention of student errors when teaching a new skill
- Mixing and varying tasks
- Regular presentation or reinforcement
- Teaching to fluency
When using VB, there is an emphasis on function skills (over form) and quick generalization.
Strategies to Facilitate Successful Learning for Students with ASD
Children with autism respond well to highly structured, well organized environments. Use consistent routines as much as possible. Break down a task into its component parts so that the child is successful at each step, making it more manageable for them to move through the task.
1) Implement pairing procedures:
- Pairing is the “process by which you establish yourself as a reinforcer in order to build a positive relationship and rapport with a learner.”
- Creates a positive association between the child and you and the learning setting. Like putting money in the bank upon which you will draw when placing demands or making requests of the child.
2) Engage in effective reinforcement:
- Identify strong reinforcers for each child. Use checklists, systematic reinforcer assessments, and/or observations.
- Find a variety of reinforcement to be used at a variety of different levels. Reserve the most potent reinforcer for the most challenging tasks.
- Vary reinforcement often to avoid satiation (i.e., when the child is no longer interested in/or reinforced by the item).
- Initially deliver reinforcement immediately so that a contingency is established between the wanted action/behavior/response on the part of the learner and the delivery of reinforcement. This also allows us to be confident that we are reinforcing the identified or targeted behavior.
3) Provide visual instructions, rules and schedules:
- This will capitalize on their visual strengths
- Visual reminders will facilitate and increase their ability to function independently
- Will better support and facilitate the child through transitions
- Can take the shape of picture cues or written social stories
4) Be aware of a child’s high anxiety levels and signs of challenges related to their sensory integration and/or emotional regulation difficulties and other signs of stress:
- Tied to their ability to express themselves/their current set of functional language
- Signs may include: putting hands over their ears or repetitive behaviors
- Help the child learn to self-calm or sooth through the use a calming or “quiet” area
5) Capitalize on the child’s interests to introduce new and difficult tasks. Use strong interest areas as motivators to assist the children in engaging with new and/or challenging materials.
6) Use multimodal instructional techniques pairing verbal information with visual and/or gestural cues.
7) Decrease the verbal information you may be providing the child and use more direct, “teacher” driven language so that information can be more successfully processed. Simplify language; do not “over talk” what the child should do.
8) Any learning strategy should be directly tied to the young child’s cognitive functioning and developmental level rather than their chronological age; adjust expectations accordingly.
9) Allow for modifications and differentiations in instruction as appropriate.
For more than 60 years, The Arc Westchester’s Children’s School for Early Development has utilized these techniques frequently for preschoolers with special needs. Determining which strategies work best for each child may take time but can lead to great success.
Ann-Marie Sabrsula, MA, is the Education Coordinator at The Arc Westchester’s Children’s School for Early Development, the largest provider of community-based and specialized services for young children with developmental disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, in Westchester County, NY. Ann-Marie has worked at The Children’s School for over 20 years and has had the privilege of supporting young children and their families in both highly specialized programs as well as fully inclusive settings with a specialization in preschoolers on the autism spectrum. She holds a Master’s Degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from Fordham University and is working towards an additional Master’s Degree in School Building Leadership at Manhattan College.
Alberto, P.A. & Troutman, A. C. (2009). Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Publications.
Barbera, A. & Rasmussen, T. (2007). The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Behavior Analysts, Inc. (2001). Quick Tips Series One: Behavioral Teaching Strategies. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.
McClanahan, L.E. & Krantz, P.J. (1999). Activity Schedules for Children with Autism: Teaching Independent Behavior: Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.