Autism disorder: Appropriate Educational Approaches for Students with Autism


Autism Spectrum: the determination of an appropriate educational approach for students with autism must be based on the needs of each individual child. Careful assessment by a team of professionals in consultation with parents or guardians will help determine an appropriate educational program for each student. Highly structured educational setting with appropriate support and accommodations tailored to individual needs. The educational program should build on the interests of the child and use visuals to accompany instruction.

When necessary, it should incorporate other services, such as speech or occupational therapy, to address motor skill development and sensory integration issues. Children with ASD may be educated in classrooms partially or fully integrated with typical peers, in specialized classrooms within the regular school, or in a specialized school for children with special needs. Higher functioning

individuals may be mainstreamed (included with peers without autism) for all or a portion of their school day. Others may require placement in a special education setting to receive an appropriate education. To be effective, any approach used should be reviewed and evaluated frequently. It also should provide a smooth transition between home, school, and community environments. Essential to an appropriate educational program is ongoing training of teachers, as well as support systems for parents and guardians to help the child to generalize learned skills to all settings.

Increasingly, children with autism are entering the school system after participating in an early intervention program.These programs vary, but most concentrate on the development of communicative, academic, social, and life skills to prepare the child for his or her school experience. The “Resources for More Information” section at the end of this booklet includes several publications on early intervention programs and other teaching methods for children with autism.

Students with Autism in the Regular School Environment

Until IDEA mandated that all children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” most children with autism were educated in segregated classrooms or schools where they had little interaction with children without disabilities. Fortunately, today children with autism have more opportunities to learn side-by-side with peers who do not have autism, and they benefit greatly from daily exposure to age-appropriate social models.

Classmates without disabilities also benefit from their experiences with students with ASD, developing a compassion for and an understanding of children with special needs. Their self-esteem is boosted by the positive role they take in helping a friend with autism learn.

Parents and professionals may use terms such as inclusion or mainstreaming interchangeably to describe the participation of students with autism in the regular educational environment. In some instances students with autism attend school with their age and grade peers. Some may receive all their instruction in a regular education setting with support services brought to them. Others, when it is determined appropriate to meet their individual needs, might be “pulled out” to another educational setting to participate in certain educational experiences.

Interacting with children with autism at school can be a very enriching experience for all involved. Integration of a child with autism into the school community may help address the core deficits children with ASD have in social and communication development. Research indicates that exposure to peers without autism, if carefully planned and organized, may enhance social and communicative development, elevate self-esteem, and allow for opportunities to learn from positive role models in the classroom, on the playground, and in the community (Wagner, 1998).

Collaborative efforts to provide such a learning environment give teachers and school administrators the opportunity to work with professionals rom other disciplines, such as speech pathology, occupational therapy, behavioral management, and special education. Teachers can play pivotal roles as creators ofan accepting environment in the classroom and developers of mentoring and buddy systems to assist the child with autism.

Classmates in the regular education environment can enhance their own self-esteem, and their compassion and understanding of those who differ from the norm, by serving as peer models for behavior, communication, and socialization. Research has shown that acceptance of the child with a disability increases significantly when classmates receive information about the student with special needs and when they are given the chance to act as “peer tutors or buddies” with the full support of their teacher (Goldstein & Ferrell, 1987; Goldstein & Wiskstrom, 1986).

Special Education Settings for Students with Autism

The more severe challenges of some children with autism may be best addressed by a special education setting that is highly structured with a low student-to-teacher ratio and ample accommodations to address core deficits. Such accommodations may include extensive use of visual “cueing” or augmentative communication devices to address communication difficulties, as well as supportive therapies to address sensory processing impairments. Most special education curricula employ individualized behavioral interventions to help the child establish appropriate life skills.

Some special school settings provide opportunities for reverse mainstreaming. In this instance, a few children from other classes within the school are brought into the special education setting for a portion of the day. Interactions between these students and the students with autism are facilitated to promote modeling for communicative and social development. Another method used to provide age-appropriate models in the special education setting is to set up opportunities for peer tutoring. Children with autism are paired with “buddies” to help learn a particular subject or to perform a task.

Students benefit from a low teacher-student ratio. Professionals specifically trained in the unique learning styles of their students and who are proficient in accommodating the needs of each individual can help all students reach their highest potential. Many special education schools have on site special equipment and services that would not usually be found in most other schools. Also, schools for children with special needs usually employ a family support coordinator who is available to provide families with resources for additional information, services, financial assistance programs, and more. Many such coordinators also conduct monthly parent meetings to help families support one another and to share experiences. Finally, schools for children with special needs generally provide respite services, emergency care, parent/guardian home training services, and sibling services (Harris, 1994 ). Autism Society


Goldstein, H., & Ferrell, D. (1987). Augmenting communicative interaction between handicapped and non-handicapped preschool children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 52, 200-122.

Goldstein, H., & Wiskstrom, S. (1986). Peer intervention effects on communicative interaction among handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19(2), 209-214.

Grandin, T. (1988). Teaching tips from a recovered autistic. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 1, 1-8.

Gray, C. (1995). Teaching Children with Autism to “Read” Social Situations. In K.A. Quill (Ed.), Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies to Enhance Communication and Socialization (pp. 219-241). Albany, NY:Delmar Publishers.

Gray, C., & Garand, J. (1993). Social stories: Improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 8, 1-10.

Gresham, F. (1982). Misguided mainstreaming: The case for social skills training with handicapped children [abstract]. Exceptional Children, 48.

Harris, S.l. (1994). Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Hodgdon, L.A. (1995). Visual Strategies for Improving J Communication. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Siegel, B. (1996). The World of the Autistic Child: Understanding and Treating Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Wagner, S. (1998). Inclusive Programming for Elementary Students with Autism. Atlanta: Emory Autism Resource Center.