Unlike many disorders that are treatable with a pill or procedure, the most important form of treatment for an autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is education. However, the traditional special education model, notwithstanding the great advances made in public education, individualized programing and evidence-based practices, remains largely confined to the classroom (e.g., Kavale & Forness, 1999). The classroom remains the primary context in which children with autism are educated despite the fact that once graduation day comes, these ex-students will never again spend another day in a carefully organized, highly staffed, and attractively decorated classroom environment. As such, the continued utilization of the traditional classroom model may, in fact, be one of the greatest of the many barriers currently standing in the way of an education that results in meaningful outcomes for individuals with ASD.
Learners with ASD face many challenges. These include social and communication deficits along with behavioral excesses or idiosyncrasies. The complex nature of the core deficits and the diversity that is the autism spectrum can be an overwhelming challenge for educators. Individualizing programming to meet the unique needs of each student is, in itself, often an overwhelming endeavor for the educator. Add to that the variability in resources both between and within states, and mandated adherence to state curriculum standards and the complications multiply exponentially. In the face of all of these challenges (and there are many, many others not noted), it may be time for school systems to consider simplifying the process and embrace an environment that allows for the easiest and fastest acquisition of skills under circumstances that maximally promote generalization and maintenance of these skills in a manner that has the greatest potential to teach important skills and decrease unwanted behavior. These circumstances are found in the community at large.
Let’s start with this simple maxim – generalization and maintenance of skills over time is a significant challenge to individuals living with ASD. A primary consideration in promoting generalization of skills is that instruction needs to be provided where the behavior is most likely to be displayed. There is ample documentation (e.g., Simpson & Otten, 2005) that individuals with ASD are not proficient at generalizing skills to new environments or maintaining skills across time. Given that for transition-age students the classroom will shortly cease to be their primary environment, effective instruction must emphasize skills necessary for success in the environments where they will spend the rest of their lives (i.e., their neighborhoods, communities of faith, home, jobs, etc.). For example, teaching purchasing or money concepts in the isolated context of a classroom may have little, if any, impact on an individual’s ability to use money in exchange for desired goods at the supermarket. Being able to differentiate coins by value, while a potentially usable skill, is a significantly different skill from using money to purchase a candy bar. As individuals begin to age out of the educational entitlements, specific attention needs to be given to context of instruction whether that is the classroom, the home, or out in the community. This concept is illustrated in Figure 1 (Gerhardt, Zawacki, & Satriale, 2012).
In an effort to improve the generalization of skills from teaching settings to daily use in the real world, comprehensive behavioral interventions have modified traditional applied behavior analysis techniques in a way that permits instruction in natural environments. Rather than being tied to specific procedures, applied behavior analysis includes any method that changes behavior in systematic and measurable ways (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2012).
Behavior Analysis is recognized as the pre-eminent educational approach for individuals with ASD. The educational model that has the greatest potential to reduce many of the challenges to the overall effectiveness education for individuals with ASD combines behavior analysis and Community Based Instruction (CBI; Sigman, et al., 1999). CBI is regular and systematic instruction in meaningful, functional, age-appropriate skills in integrated community settings, using naturally occurring materials and situations, designed to help the student acquire and generalize life skills that enhance opportunities for meaningful experiences and relationships within the general community. The emphasis is on acquisition and application of functional and age-appropriate skills in a naturalistic context. Instruction is driven by the principals of applied behavior analysis and targets individual strengths and needs, using consistent teaching strategies, as well as accommodations designed to enhance the student’s participation in typical activities. Functionally relevant skills are taught in home settings and community surroundings such as shopping centers, convenience stores and/or grocery stores, local recreational centers such as local fitness clubs, movie theaters, and family entertainment centers. Community resources such as public libraries and post offices are also important potential instructional settings. Additionally, skills important to a quality of life such as travel training, pedestrian skills, money use and management, leisure skills, and restaurant use are taught within appropriate community settings. For older students, the community includes vocational settings in order to instruct important skills necessary to be successful in the workplace.
Community-Based Instruction should not be confused with the more traditional field trip that is used in public schools. CBI is cumulative with frequently used skills targeted intensively, minimally three times per week and are assessed weekly. Field trips are not CBI and are not a legitimate substitute for systematic instruction in functional, age-appropriate skills in natural settings. Because field trips tend to be episodic, one-time activities, student needs for consistency, repeated practice, and systematic generalization are difficult to address in the context of a field trip, no matter how often field trips are scheduled.
CBI and teaching functionally relevant skills within the natural contexts which evoke the proper behavioral responses simply means that teaching the sequences of behaviors (skill sets) necessary to complete a purchase in a store must be taught in the community in an actual store so that all of the naturally occurring cues that will facilitate long term learning are available. Teaching within natural contexts (the community) versus contrived circumstances (within the classroom) promotes flexibility and coping skills. Teaching in the community allows for repeated practice to function within societal expectations and leads to a successful immersion into the community in which the student is actually expected to function as an adult graduate of the educational system.
There are many indirect benefits of instructing within the community as well. One collateral benefit of teaching within the community is that the community members becomes educated regarding autism and the positive aspects and successes of these individuals. Teaching within the community also provides exposure to the natural supports that exist within the community that will aid the adult individuals who no longer have the resources they had available in the educational system supported by IDEA and the federal mandate to provide a meaningful education.
Of course, instructing within the community has challenges of its own, every approach does. Instructing in the community requires access to and acceptance by the community at large, sufficient financial and supervisory resources to participate in community activities, and potentially presents liability concerns not ordinarily at issue when education is provided within the predictable, contained environment of a classroom. However, the research supports and common-sense dictates that a community-based model of education has the greatest potential to lessen the challenges and increase the chances for developing a comprehensive, productive, functionally independent quality of life for individuals with ASD.
Gloria M. Satriale, Esq, BCAB, is Executive Director of PAAL. Thomas L. Zane, PhD, BCBA-D, is a Professor of Education and Director of the Applied Behavior Analysis Online Program at the Van Loan Graduate School of Endicott College and serves on the professional advisory panel for Preparing Adolescents and Adults for Life (PAAL). You can contact Dr. Zane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerhardt, P. F., Zawacki, J., & Satriale, G. (2012). Adaptive behavior in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. In P.F. Gerhardt and D. Crimmins (Eds.), Social skills and adaptive behavior in learners with autism spectrum disorders. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1999). Efficacy of special education and related services. Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Retardation.
Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2012). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Second Edition. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.
Sigman, M., Ruskin, E., Arbeile, S., Corona, R., Dissanayake, C., Espinosa, M., Kim, N., Lopez, A., & Zierhut, C. (1999). Continuity and change in the social competence of children with autism, Down syndrome, and developmental delays. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 64:1–114.
Simpson, R., & Otten, K. (2005). Structuring behavior management strategies and building social competence. In D. Zager (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorders: Identification, education, and treatment (pp. 367-394). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrenc Erlbaum.