by David Freschi, MA
Autism Asperger’s Digest| March/April 2012
Inclusion sounds like such a nice word—full of promise and goodwill. But is it really working out for kids on the spectrum? Maybe we haven’t asked all the right questions. The idea that providing supports for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should be successful in the general education classroom is intriguing—but what about concepts such as individualized and appropriate that are supposed to be part of the individualized educational plan (IEP) process as well?
What about the very nature of students with ASD? The academic and social environment of the general education classroom seem to be counterintuitive. In fact the environment seems to center on teaching through areas that are most challenging for the student with ASD. Many of our students have trouble switching focus quickly. When they are confronted with educational content coming in through a variety of modalities, students with ASD can become overwhelmed. Much of the content in the general education classroom is auditory. This puts the visual thinker at a severe disadvantage right from the start. When we add the social dynamics of a classroom with rapid changes in expression, mood, and interpretation, it is a wonder that we don’t see even more meltdowns from spectrum kids.
Let’s take a look at a few students who currently participate in inclusive classrooms and see what careful observation shows us. Then let’s note some ways in which we might improve the school experience for students with ASD and their peers.
“Inclusion” Observations in General Education Classrooms
Larry is a first grader. He is nonverbal and while he has a visual system and an augmentative device, he rarely employs them to initiate communication. When we see Larry he is in morning meeting with his peers. He is looking everywhere but where his peers are looking, and Larry is getting frustrated at the level of language used and concepts that have little to no reinforcing value for him. He has a 1:1 paraprofessional (para) who is struggling to keep him in the meeting. Larry’s behavior degenerates to attempts to escape and attention-seeking. The classroom teacher stops the activity several times to try to engage him, and his peers have to wait. The benefits of inclusion for Larry are questionable at best.
On our next visit Larry is at the side of the classroom working on “academics” with his para while his peers do a math lesson. Larry’s lesson consists of trying to do a one-to-one correspondence math problem with limited success. He “escapes” several times and runs through the lesson, trying to get someone to chase him. Time off task is 80 percent. Interruptions to peers are 12 in a 15-minute period. Larry ends the math period by taking a break outside the room for several minutes.
Carmine is a sixth grader with ASD. He attends several classes with same-aged peers and has a full-time 1:1 para. He has little functional verbal language and uses a visual system to communicate. When we observe Carmine he is in class during a social studies lesson. The teacher is delivering a number of facts and concepts while occasionally breaking to keep other students on task. Carmine rarely looks in the direction of the teacher or at the board. He does frequently look at his para.
During the course of the 30-minute session, Carmine receives 37 prompts from his para, ranging from attempts to get him to attend, follow directions, and even open his book. However, he does remain in the classroom and does not cause any behavioral difficulties. His teacher and para both say Carmine did well because he was able to stay in the room. Based on observation, the total instructional time is negligible.
Dorian is a junior in high school. He has a diagnosis of ASD and is highly verbal. He also displays frequent signs of anxiety. Dorian’s academic achievement is at the third-grade level. He is, much to the delight of the school, “included.”
An observation of Dorian shows that during one 90-minute period, Dorian interrupts or blurts out inappropriately 37 times. He continually interrupts the teacher, the class, and the support para with questions that are off task or indicate a level of social ineptitude. When the teacher presents a quiz, Dorian is not able to answer the questions even when highly modified.
Annabelle is a fourth grader with ASD. Academically she can keep up with her peers in many areas; in some areas she surpasses them. She doesn’t require a 1:1 para to get through her day and can participate in most activities. Social interaction is a challenging area for Annabelle. She can be standoffish, avoiding any interaction with her peers. Or she can be extremely blunt and insensitive when she does want to be with her peers. She has difficulty understanding or accepting correction and is often seen as defiant. Her teachers and her parents are worried that, while she may be in an inclusive classroom, she is not a part of the group and her resistance and lack of social understanding will become an ever increasing challenge for her.
On one occasion we see Annabelle reading silently. The teacher tells the students they are switching to a math lesson, and Annabelle refuses to switch. She states to her classroom teacher, “Math is stupid and you’re not a good math teacher.” One can see how this might cause some problems.
You might think that the above descriptions are exaggerations or selected to indicate a negative view. However, as far as the schools and various administrators are concerned these children are successfully included. It doesn’t take a skilled mathematician to realize that the neurotypical child is, hopefully, receiving about six hours of instruction per day, and the students with ASD in this article are receiving far less.
Critical gaps are also being ignored. When the class is reading a chapter in a difficult book and then discussing it, they have received solid content. A student with ASD, who has missed large chunks of the verbal discussion, is now at a disadvantage for the next day; the gap will continue to grow each day.
Making the Most of an Inclusive Classroom
We can, if we try, make the school experience better and more effective for students with ASD. We can do better. Let’s take a look at some strategies that have been used in some schools to make the inclusive experience more successful.
- Assume an Inclusive Mindset: Let’s look at the school as a total environment. When we do that we will see that the range of inclusive opportunities expands dramatically. Remember the law says individualized, appropriate, and a continuum of services. We don’t need to fit the model as much as we need to fit the student. Our goal should be the success of all students. Students with ASD need to learn real skills, not just some artificial standard of inclusion. We can eventually pound a square peg through a round hole, but that doesn’t mean we should try. As my father used to say, “When you do that, you end up with neither.”
- Use Needs Assessments: While there are any number of good diagnostic assessments available, we need to go further. Look for assessments that help us identify foundational needs for students with ASD. Examine assessment of social competence versus basic skills. I have had success with the Underlying Characteristics Checklist—High Functioning (Aspy and Grossman 2007), and the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, Jed Baker, and others.
- Define Targets: The objective should not be to sit quietly in a classroom. The targets include academic, social, organizational, functional communication, and life abilities. Leave any of these out and the student on the spectrum is in for trouble. If there are only 10 minutes during the day when a student with ASD can be successful in class, so be it. Ten minutes of success is a thousand times better than six hours of failure and frustration. Sitting in a class where the student is receiving no value and learns nothing is not inclusion; it is segregation and the robbery of learning opportunities. Time in class can be increased as learning opportunities allow. Yes we write objectives in IEPs, but IEPs have morphed into administrative monstrosities, lawyers’ playgrounds, and lead weights around good teachers’ efforts. We still need to select targets that are known to all who work with the student with ASD and reflect real needs.
- Maximize Instructional Time: There are approximately six and one-half hours in the school day. The neurotypical student probably gets four hours of instructional time on a good day. Students with ASD often end up getting much less. The school day is time limited. Our goal should be “bus-to-bus” instruction. Every minute of the day should be planned and have targets. A para helping a student transition from one class to another can have a language target, an organizational target, and a social target to practice with the spectrum kid. The principal can have a communication target, rather than just giving a “high five” to a spectrum kid. We have found The Comprehensive Autism Planning System (Henry and Smith Myles 2007) to be invaluable for establishing a day map for students on the spectrum.
- Use Proven Strategies: Think about supports. If we need to provide 1:1 assistance, we should know exactly what we expect that assistance to be. Hint: a para is not a mom’s spy, teacher’s disciplinary proxy, or student’s servant. All of our spectrum kids can learn to carry their own backpacks and be more independent. Fill the day with a maximum of practice opportunities. Keeping track of negative behaviors may be useful, but it falls short of teaching and learning. Finally, use proven instructional design and strategies.
- Activate an Inclusive and Effective Environment: Look at all the opportunities available in the school environment and use them. Schedules in school can be flexible if we get a little creative. I have seen students on the spectrum learn far more from 20 minutes with the custodian or school resource officer than they can in 3 hours of class time where the language and social expectations are overwhelming. An inclusive environment also demands staff ownership. Try measuring the number of interactions the classroom teacher has with a student with ASD who also has a 1:1 para. The result might be surprising and disappointing.
- Evaluate Staff Development: If we have set our targets accurately, we should be seeing the results in students with ASD. Staff development is always important. Unfortunately workshop days don’t have high effectiveness ratings, especially for paraprofessionals (paras). We remain, although there has been some improvement, in a strange position with paras. We have increased their use tremendously yet we invest little in their training and support. We ask them to work with our most challenging students while denying them the support and tools they need to be successful. We have developed a list of “indicators” for paras (see the online companion article at www.autismdigest.com).
Finally, for parents, teachers, and administrators, the two most important questions are as follows:
- What are we going to teach this student with ASD today and this school year?
- What did this student learn?
Situations with students on the spectrum like those described in this article occur in many schools. One has only to look with an objective eye to find that these students are facing serious challenges that aren’t being dealt with. If we, as parents and professionals, can remember the words individualized and appropriate in conjunction with inclusion, our students will get the education they deserve.
David Freschi, MA, operates Simple Good Ideas (www.sgilearn.com), a special education consultation and training service for school districts and organizations. He has more than 30 years of successful experience with children and adults with ASD.
Aspy, R., and B. Grossman. 2007. Underlying Characteristics Checklist—High Functioning (UCC-HF). Overland Park, Kansas: AAPC.
Henry, S., and B. Smith Myles. 2007. The Comprehensive Autism Planning System (CAPS) for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome, Autism, and Related Disabilities: Integrating Best Practices Throughout the Student’s Day. Overland Park, Kansas: AAPC.
Indicators for TAEP (Teaching Assistant Educational Project) Rating Scale
Simply Good Ideas
David F. Freschi
- Displays knowledge of student’s reinforcing items, activities, and tasks.
- General comments to students are observed to be reinforcing in nature.
- Reinforcement is directed to student performance (work = reward).
- Reinforcement language is effective and avoids “blackmail” situations.
- On request, identifies student reinforcers, objective of the reinforcement strategy, and how it is applied.
Communication Development with Students:
- Demonstrates/articulates student communication needs.
- Encourages spontaneity.
- Uses minimal prompts in eliciting language.
- Articulates criteria for talking/not talking when engaged in communication.
- Responds appropriately to student communication attempts and expands student communication.
- Employs differential reinforcement with communication.
- Employs encouragement strategies versus demand strategies.
- Communicates progress accurately.
With Colleagues and Families:
- Communicates professionally.
- Contributes to meetings.
- Supports statements of others or questions appropriately.
- Encourages input from peers and others.
- Seeks information as needed.
Positive Behavior Supports:
- Provides clear expectation statements or indicators to students.
- Reinforces alternatives to inappropriate behavior.
- “Do” statements exceed “Don’t” statements.
- Accepts/understands age-appropriate behavior.
- Speaks in neutral, firm tones when requesting compliance.
- Identifies acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
- Offers reasonable alternatives when requesting student to stop a given behavior.
- Provides consistent responses.
- Articulates the function of challenging behaviors.
- Describes positive behaviors when the student engages in them.
- Maintains strong reinforcement schedules.
- Avoids statements/actions, which may humiliate student.
- Avoids “setting-up” the student for behavior difficulty.
- Keeps assistance at minimal levels for success.
- Allows initials errors and avoids error repetition.
- Teaches problem solving.
- Encourages the use of natural cues.
- Increases distance from supports over time.
- Raises level of demands.
- Teaches change tolerance.
- Teaches independent schedule following.
- Encourages information seeking from others, environment, etc.
- Reinforces independent steps and activities.
Lesson Modifications and Adaptations:
- Adjusts language/communication to meet student needs.
- Constructs visual modifications.
- With supervision, identifies essential components of lesson/activity.
- Demonstrates basic task analysis skill.
- Constructs Task Analysis of organizational skill and self-care skill.
- Provides “on the spot” modification of activity to ensure student success.
- Fades modifications when possible for student.
Prompting Usage and Reduction:
- Employs minimal verbal prompts.
- Use natural cues when possible.
- Can identify the natural cues in a lesson/activity sequence.
- Varies verbal prompts when used.
- Can articulate a prompt hierarchy for lesson/activity.
- Follows this hierarchy seamlessly.
- Teaches silently when appropriate.
- Encourages and reinforces initiation, independence, and completion.
- Inserts verbal prompts at appropriate junctures in activity.
- Articulates three primary correction strategies—4-Step Error Correction, Back Step, and Anticipatory Prompt (Frost and Bondy 2002)
- Identifies the appropriate correction strategy for specific types of errors.
- Delivers the correction strategies in a positive, effective manner.
- Identifies the correction strategy needed in a variety of settings and error types.
- Inserts correction strategy before repeated errors have been practiced.
Data Systems and Usage:
- Demonstrates the ability to collect basic classroom data.
- Conducts frequency counts of selected behaviors.
- Reports data information accurately to teacher/team.
- Records information required accurately and legibly.
- Demonstrates appropriate meeting and communication behavior.
- Demonstrates knowledge of and adherence to all confidentiality expectations.
- Follows communication chains as defined by school rules.
- Refrains from discussing students when they are present.
- Refrains from discussing students, their families, peers, and other staff in any derogatory manner.
- Reports conflicts and attempts to resolve in a positive manner.
Frost, L., and A. Bondy. 2002. The Picture Exchange Communication System Training Manual, 2nd ed. Newark, DE: Pyramid Educational Consultants, Inc.
Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.