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First and foremost: KUDOS TO ALL OF OUR TEACHERS!!

General Caveats

Parents often share their frustrations with the school system particularly children who are mainstreamed into an inclusion classroom. Some of the concerns include the perceptions that their child’s teacher does not understand the impact of autism on learning ability or that the teacher does not “believe” that their child has autism. The spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders can be confusing even to professionals. Please be assured of a few things:

  • The autism diagnosis is very difficult to obtain and the cluster of symptoms is such that it is not easily misdiagnosed. In other words, a child can erroneously be diagnosed as having ADHD as there are multiple presentations and types of ADHD. The disorder is easily misdiagnosed just by the sheer number of professionals who are allowed to diagnose the disorder, oftentimes from nothing more than anecdotal parental information. Be assured that Autism is not diagnosed in that manner.

  • Autism involves having very specific atypical traits and social and communication impairments. However, autism also involves a spectrum with a continuum of severity and frequency of traits. This means that no two children “look” the same. Even with years of specialized training, it is difficult for me at times to diagnose even with the appropriate amount of data. Again, be assured that as a general rule, your student did not obtain that diagnosis easily.

  • On that spectrum, there are a variety of factors that impact children and any combination of those factors manifest in differing ways. Some children even in the Severe Range may have very little sensory dysfunction while others may have severe sensory problems yet may only have Mild autism. This is the reason that a thorough assessment is conducted and educational planning is then developed from the individual results.

  • There are oftentimes comorbid conditions with autism, to include attentional deficits, mood disturbances, etc. Even atypical traits interfere with classroom performance. I have seen students with autism that have punitive corrective measures outlined in their IEP plan for erroneous things, such as “constantly moving of hands.”

  • By asking for education about autism, teachers will be better prepared and more knowledgeable about their student’s special challenges. Remember: it is your right as an educator to have the necessary tools to do your job.

  • We encourage parents to work WITH their child’s educators and not against the “system” as we are ALL learning more and more everyday about autism. Parents have taught me…and continue to teach me…many things about the uniqueness of autism. These same parents have the capacity to also teach their child’s educators if allowed to do so. This is one reason we strongly recommend that parents become a vital component and active participant in their child’s educational planning and IEP team member.

  • Be sure to check out the “resources” link for forms, strategies, suggestions, etc. to help in the school system


The clinic’s mission includes certain
underlying assumptions

Firstly, WE MUST OFFER TOOLS TO INDIVIDUALS WITH AUTISM!! Research indicates that applied behavioral analysis offers the necessary step by step teaching that individuals with autism require. Research also indicates that pictures and other visual strategies are generally successful in teaching persons with autism. These interventions are necessary to acquire, encode, retain, and retrieve information in order to optimize his or her learning experience. Parents are encouraged to advocate for such strategies and teachers are encouraged to request training on these specific methods.

We also believe that our teachers need the best tools!! These wonderful individuals are entrusted to our children’s care and have the extraordinary task of educating children who process and learn differently than traditional students. As such, the methods that the teachers have been taught during their formal training are often ineffective with children with autism.

Applied Behavior Analysis is the paramount research-based effective treatment for autism to date. Children with autism deserve the “best treatment” for their disability just as if they would deserve the best medication in a medical disorder. We continue to advocate for research-based IEP objectives, 1:1 ABA intervention, and functional assessment based positive behavior support plans. Teachers are encouraged to ask for specific training if you teach a child with autism.

Oftentimes autism includes movement disturbances and processing delays. Unfortunately, most test and learning material are given orally, and persons with autism typically learn best through their visual systems and language deficits may also interfere with processing the test information.

Also, it is important to realize that in our culture, cognition is very much tied to language. Sometimes it is erroneously thought that children with autism are cognitively impaired when that is not always the case. By definition, language components are impaired, but not necessarily cognition.

If we presume competence in each individual with autism to achieve their full potential then we must not only address their needs, we must also begin to think in terms of his or her STRENGTHS.

Each individual has skills, strengths and capacities, and if our public school systems here in the Caddo-Bossier area provide typical socialization and communication opportunities, then we have the opportunity to surge ahead in supporting individuals with autism.

Behavior is functional and it is your right as an educator to request for the autism specialist or school psychologist to conduct a functional assessment to help identify the function(s) of behavior. Otherwise, there is no way to offer a more adaptive way to communicate. If a student with autism has a “melt-down” when leaving the computer station everyday, then strategies for easing the transition can be implemented. It does little good to simply manage the problem behavior without identifying its function. The following is a summary of a positive behavior support plan based on a functional assessment:

Positive Behavior Supports

  • All Behavior Intervention Plans must be based on a Functional Behavioral Assessment.

  • Functional Behavioral Assessment is a systematic look at behavior(s) and its context in order to determine its function(s).

  • The underlying assumption is that all behavior has a function, or purpose. By understanding the function we can determine what is maintaining (reinforcing) the maladaptive behavior and then structure the student’s environment to eliminate or reduce this reinforcement.

  • At the same time we must teach the student an adaptive way to achieve the same function.

Steps in Functional Behavioral Assessment

  • Clearly define the behavior of concern, answering the questions: WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHO, WHO ELSE

  • Collect data to clarify the above questions, as well as HOW MUCH, HOW OFTEN, and HOW LONG

  • Examine Setting Events: Long-term factors that may predispose the student to behave in a certain way  (e.g., illnesses, side effects of medications, family values and beliefs, etc.)

  • Situational: The context of the behavior: time, place, activity, people, etc.

  • Examine Antecedents: “Triggers” that may precipitate the behavior

  • Examine Consequences: What typically happens after the behavior (Some helpful, efficient forms for collecting data are: scatter plots, ABC charts, Motivation Assessment Scales)

  • Determine possible functions of the behavior (based on the above)

  • Determine Reinforcers: Things the student likes (including praise, privileges, etc.) that can be used to strengthen new, adaptive behaviors); let child choose from a REINFORCEMENT MENU that has things on it the child prefers. Remember: what is reinforcing to us may not be reinforcing to someone else. Also remember that children with autism typically do not respond well to only “social praise” and tend to like tangible primary reinforcers, such as food, treats, etc.

  • Replacement Behavior: What you will teach the student to do to get his needs met. THIS MUST WORK AT LEAST AS WELL AS THE MALADAPTIVE BEHAVIOR IT REPLACES.

  • Crisis Plan: What should be done when the behavior occurs. This should minimize reinforcement

  • Behavior Intervention Plan: How you will reduce the maladaptive behavior and increase adaptive behavior

  • List responsible parties for implementing and tracking the plan

  • Set dates for review of the plan and for modifications as needed.


Functional Behavioral Assessment

All behavioral intervention plans must be based on a functional behavioral assessment! A Functional Behavioral Assessment should be conducted for all students whose behaviors impede learning, regardless of classification of disability.

General tips for teachers and support staff:

Students often feel the need for specific guidance and structure. Part of the solutions presented to the students are not stand alone solutions and are only effective when they are part of the overall school policy.

Oftentimes, the chosen solutions must be frequently reviewed for their effectiveness. The usual yearly or quarterly IEP team meetings are typically not suffice for students with autism.

It is important for teachers and supporting staff to accept that processing information and communication disorders require particular adjustments in typical teaching methods, structure in the classroom, and social skill negotiating. After all, the teachers and staff members are the ones who can provide the necessary support and ultimately the student’s success.

In general, teachers and support staff are the ones who can ask the student(s) and/or parents the best communication process. There is no reason to “guess” for several months!

Do not expect a student with autism to “give back” to teachers, as it is oftentimes quite difficult to build a functional relationship with the autism student. However, there are some tips that might help build such a relationship and at the very least decrease frustration and increase learning:

  • While the following “tips” or steps take extra time upfront, a teacher will be rewarded in the long run by the probability of optimal performance.

  • Give concrete information about desired and expected behavior.

  • Factors that should generally be taken into account include problems with group work, auditory processing, sensory filtering, and peer teasing or bullying.

  • A student with autism will generally need help organizing work, seeing the “whole picture,” and even with the rubric of language.

  • For example, a student may indeed have absolute content subject mastery that is being asked on a test. However, he or she may not even recognize what information is being requested.

  • Students with autism have difficultly with “weighing” the importance of information. They tend to misunderstand the rubric of language and cannot distinguish that the “and’s and the the’s” in a multiple choice question carry different weight than the other content.

  • This is one of the REASONS students often need alternative ways to test if showing the mastery of content is the real goal….and you as the teacher might be the one to mention the need for this accommodation during the IEP process.

  • Likewise, the timing of handing in work, homework loads, writing assignments, etc., must suit their capabilities.

  • It is also important that teachers understand that language deficits do not necessarily reflect cognitive deficits. In students with intact cognition, “raise the bar” for them to keep them stimulated.

  • This is especially important in younger children who are sometimes erroneous placed in a “Developmentally Delayed” classroom when most of the peers have cognitive or global deficits.

  • Conversely, the teacher and/or support staff should respect that a student with disabilities has perhaps reached their peak of independence and offer enough support that the student does not get frustrated while showing respect and acceptance at this stage.

  • At ANY stage, a child with autism is not going to benefit from “peer shaping.” In other words, typically developing children might learn independent toileting skills at a quicker pace from other preschool student’s negative comments or nonverbal behavior.

  • In autism, that type of social feedback loop will not be instrumental in shaping behavior and should certainly never be encouraged.

  • In students with autism, using their “restricted interests” can be beneficial in engaging them to learn about other subjects.

  • For instance, if a child is “obsessed” with trains, then use trains as a starting point for other areas of study. You could transition to geography by showing pictures of German trains, trains in the Swiss Alps, etc.  You could use trains to teach the concept of time by making/utilizing a train time table, and so forth. The only limiting factor is your creativity.

  • Your student with autism probably possesses an unusually good propensity to remember large amounts of detailed information in subjects they are interested in.

  • Remember: it is FAR easier to get into their world than expecting them to arbitrarily engage to ours.

  • One of the most difficult tasks for individuals with autism is to generalize information. That is why that they may have difficulty performing a task in the classroom that they have mastered at home and vice-versa.

  • This lack of ability is yet another reason parents should be vital components of educational planning, as they can assume responsibility for generalization of skills in the home, providing information to teachers, etc.

  • It is VERY important to know that most children with autism have special abilities too. I like the term “Gifted Disabled” as it accurately describes the majority of students with autism.

  • Their islets of competency or “splinter skills” should be utilized as their learning tools.

  • Again, always presume competence!!

  • Students with autism may have very large auditory memory, iconic memory, musical talent, special drawing skill, etc.

  • Research has shown children with autism perform/learn best with discrete trial training, the use of visual supports, and they will need one to one instruction even if very “smart.”

  • They do not necessarily need 1:1 classroom support all day, but will greatly benefit when a teacher takes a few minutes daily with them and teach them the concepts in the manner the student learns best.

  • An older student might benefit from a pragmatic and business like approach when offering lesson material, tasks and instructions.

  • Older students can benefit from a 20 min. meeting every 1-2 weeks.

  • It is good to invite the student and allow participation or even allow the student to take the lead/control. In this manner, you are allowing the student to invest and engage in his or her own educational planning.

  • Plan the meetings on a fixed time of the day and fixed day of the week.

  • Asking a set number of concrete questions is best.

  • Discuss with the student a suitable study plan that both of you agree upon.

  • And yes, this method of individual “side teaching” of course takes extra time, but a teacher will be rewarded in ways he or she must value and love, and this is the reason they chose this wonderful profession to begin with.

  • The bottom line: Teachers and support staff can always work together with the support of experts in the field.

  • DO NOT BE SHY OR RETICENT ABOUT ASKING FOR THE ASSISTANCE OF THE AUTISM SPECIALIST IN YOUR PARISH, as it your right as a teacher and the child’s right as a student!!

  • Sincere kudos to all teachers!!! 

General Tips for Teachers of Students with Autism:

  • As a general rule, it is useful for a parent to inform teachers upfront of their child’s specific limitations, strengths, sensory factors, communication styles, etc.
  • If the student is an older child, he or she can inform the teachers (and sometimes fellow students if appropriate) about functional obstacles in relation to processing information and communication.
  • Always try to identify and formalize a manner to best communicate needs. Most parents (and/or older students) benefit from a 10 minute talk with the teacher(s) every 2-3 weeks to discuss the progress and plan the next activities. 
  • If a student finds it hard to ask for help, then they should be encouraged to find another method, such as email or written notes, in order to explain or arrange a meeting with teacher(s).  A nonverbal or language impaired younger child will need some type of communication system or tool when assistance is needed. 
  • Processing information can be difficult for a student with autism, and he or she may find it hard to distinguish the main subject from the extraneous details. It can be difficult to understand abstract concepts
  • Also, given too much information at one time causes “overload” problems due to poor cognitive organizational and planning skills. 
  • Students with autism are sensitive and distracted by lights and sounds.
  • Having a structured routine works best due to inflexibility problems. Also it is best to have a clear understanding of what is expected from the student with autism.
  • Remember that students with autism have difficulty with change. Inform students about changes clearly and in time.
  • Students often have strong interest(s) in particular subjects and may subsequently overestimate their general abilities; this phenomenon is particularly true with Asperger’s Disorder.  

Tips for Lesson Planning for Teacher of Autistic Students:

  • When planning lessons for students with autism, use clear language that can be interpreted in one way only.
  • Avoid word play and imagery, as these can often be taken literally.
  • Give lessons with a clear structure.
  • Give clear oral explanations with written information. Likewise, give clear written explanations with oral information or presentations.

  • Give assignments within the reasonable expectations of students’ ability to independently execute the task.
  • Or — if help is needed and allowed — then clearly explain this alternative.
  • Give an overview of material you intend to cover and make connections with related material.
  • Review new, important words and concepts and write them down.
  • Give good clear feedback.
  • Take the student’s atypical traits into consideration. For example, frequent breaks may be needed simply due to tactile pressure of sitting for a length of time.
  • Be aware of sensory issues such as “humming” computers or florescent lights. Accommodations are recommended in some psych evaluations for an alternative to dry erase markers due to the olfactory sensitivities.
  • Assume that support is needed and consider the difficulties involved for a student with autism to ask for help. As such, OFFER help and support.
  • Give the opportunity after the lesson to ask questions or to give information. Or offer the opportunity to ask questions via email.
  • Remember the caveat that “who, what, when” questions may be difficult to organize and articulate. As such, develop other methods that students with autism can let you know they need help.
  • Sometimes giving them a literal “question mark” made of card board or similar material would be a good method.

Please remember that children with autism usually have rigid cognitive patterns. Typically developing children have flexible patterns. That is, when information comes their way, it is either accommodated or assimilated. They are able to make 'new folders' for new information, so to speak. Individuals with autism have a very difficult time in making 'new folders,' and this is why they have difficulty with routine transitioning and why they like doing things the same way over and over again.  On the surface, it may even seem like he or she has a propensity to "lie" but in reality it is because they have no way to explain a situation unless the information is in their 'folder.' One of the things we do in therapy is teach children to 'make new folders' to accommodate new information. For instance, if your student has no 'folder' for a Field Trip, then you are likely to observe aberrant behavior the day of the trip. This is where the beauty of Visual Aides comes in, as you can teach the new information by showing pictures of the field trip destination, show changes in the regular school day schedule, etc. When your students with autism encounter novel situations--from social interactions, academics, or activities--remember that they probably cannot accommodate the information in their 'current folder' and need specific instructions.

No Referral Needed

DISCLAIMER: Autism is a complex disorder. The information presented here is designed for informational purposes only and is presented as a public service. The contents of this web site are not medical, legal, or technical advice and must not be construed as such. Dr. Marsiglia’s “opinions” are based on research but are nonetheless opinions only. The information contained herein is not intended to substitute for informed professional diagnosis, advice or therapy. The website information is not for diagnosis or treatment without personal consultation.


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