Seven keys to an effective autism education program

With 35,000 new cases of autism diagnosed each year, educators are preparing for an influx of students with autism.

With incidences of reported autism increasing exponentially, educators are struggling to accommodate the needs of this growing population of students. But some key steps, including individualized assessments and data tracking, can help schools create effective programs for students with autism, one expert says.

During a recent webinar, Jamie Pagliaro, executive vice president of Rethink Autism and founding executive director of the New York Center for Autism Charter School, gave schools valuable advice for teaching students with autism.

“Key Components of an Effective School-Based Autism Program” identified seven important steps that researchers and practitioners agree are necessary to provide effectual support for autistic students:

  1. Individualized assessment
  2. Functional curriculum
  3. Research-based teaching
  4. Low staffing ratios
  5. Family involvement
  6. Data tracking
  7. Training and supervision

“We started to ask questions about the common components for schools and programs that are doing a really fantastic job dealing with autism,” Pagliaro said.

According to 2009 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism, leading to 730,000 youths with autism spectrum disorders in the United States alone from ages 0-21—a 70-percent increase from the prior estimate of autism incidences in 2002.

“That 70-percent increase is really a staggering figure,” said Pagliaro. “It’s particularly challenging in the school district environment, where we’re facing one of our most difficult economic climates we’ve seen in the last few decades.”

With 35,000 new cases of autism diagnosed each year, educators are struggling to prepare for an influx of students with autistic spectrum disorders as class sizes increase and budgets, including funding for special education, are stretched thin.

If public schools are deemed unfit to provide education to autistic students, the costs of private schooling for autistic children rests squarely with them. As demonstrated by the tragic case of Ben Barnhard, an autistic student whose mother killed him and then herself because she’d reportedly given up trying to have him educated properly, many families are ill-equipped to deal with the private schooling costs themselves.

“I think the theme I’m hearing from districts nationwide is, ‘How do we do more with less?’ Let’s not kid ourselves, obviously if you are going to do the right thing, there are costs associated with that, whether it’s staffing or training support,” Pagliaro said.

Pagliaro said technology is a cost-effective alternative, but he added that educating students with special needs is still a costly venture.

“Ninety-five percent of the costs associated with educating children with autism are at the expense of the local public school district,” he said.

He added that some of the seven requirements look daunting, but they can be broken down into manageable steps.

“One-on-one [instruction] doesn’t mean it has to be happening throughout the entire school day. Those times of day when you already know you’re providing one-one-one instruction because a student needs help are great times for the para-educator to do some structured teaching [with a student with autism] around dressing themselves, or washing their hands in the bathroom,” Pagliaro said.

He also spoke about the importance of assessing students individually. Students with autism might be quite advanced in some academic areas, but relatively deficient in others.

“We can’t just put them in a grade level,” Pagliaro said. The key is to ensure that educators look not just at the child or simply identify skills to be taught, he said, but that the educator takes a child’s individual abilities and comfort levels into account.

A quantifiable system for measuring progress also is critical.

“We need to make sure what we’re measuring is something that’s easily observable. If two or more people can agree on when the skill is happening or not happening, we’re using a reliable system,” he said.

Training educators and their helpers for an autistic learning environment is a process that must be standardized, said Pagliaro. He said it’s important to provide verbal and written instruction, have the skill modeled by an experienced specialist, and provide verbal performance feedback. He also pointed to video use as a way to standardize training.

“When you use video modeling as a form of training, performance increases. People like it, as opposed to lecturing them or having someone come in and tell them how to do something. It’s also more economical,” Pagliaro said.

“Educating Children with Autism,” a 2011 report from the National Research Council, discussed effective ways to teach students on the autism spectrum.

Some of the techniques discussed in the report are familiar to educators, such as beginning early, individualizing attention, the theory of 25 hours of instruction, and repeated opportunities to learn.

“What did come as a shock were the focus areas,” Pagliaro said. Those included teaching functional communications, social instruction, play and leisure, cognitive and academic skills, and generalization and maintenance.

“The state standards we’re working with are not necessarily accounting for these areas and skills,” said Pagliaro. He said teachers are not held accountable for those effective practices, and instead are asked to adhere to state standards.

“It’s really easy to place blame on others and point fingers, but [educators must] really be accountable and use the resources you have creatively to make sure you’re doing the best for your students every single day,” he said.

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