In the past few years, school districts across the country have been experiencing an increase in referrals for special education services for students with autism spectrum disorders. As a result District personnel, i.e. assessment teams, general educators, special educators and specialized services providers, have been taxed beyond their limits in terms of resources and time. School district special education and general education budgets have been stretched to cover the costs of both district and nonpublic services necessary to meet the needs of this population of students. School district special education administrators have been challenged to develop comprehensive and effective autism programming within their district in order to reduce costs and their reliance on outside agencies to provide the behavioral expertise and specialized services for their students with autism.
There are several factors to consider when developing programming for students with autism spectrum disorders within the district. First, research literature on teacher preparation in schools highlights that the experience and knowledge base of the teacher as well as school professional development programs that support teachers in gaining and using evidence-based practices are positively related to student achievement outcomes. (USDOE, 2003) As such, one of the critical components for successful ASD programming is effective and quality designed staff development. Staff training begins with broad based foundations trainings that include in-services and workshops to increase understanding about the core cognitive strengths and deficits of students with autism spectrum disorders and expand knowledge about the methodologies that have been shown to be effective with this population including behavioral problem solving. In addition, practice based learning of evidence-based skills and strategies for students with autism should be provided through intensive in-classroom modeling and coaching by an expert trainer for the teacher and paraprofessional staff.
Secondly, district assessment staff must have up-to-date assessment tools and knowledge of how to use those tools to understand the unique needs of students with autism spectrum disorders. Training for school psychologists, special education teachers, speech therapists and others providing services to this population is essential in providing appropriate and comprehensive assessment of students with autism spectrum disorders. All areas of development including cognition, adaptive behavior, communication, social and emotional development as well as fine and gross motor skills should be thoroughly assessed to gain an understanding of the student’s overall functioning. Evaluation of the student’s sensory processing differences or atypical behaviors and the impact on the student’s daily functioning is also essential. Parent input about their child’s development as well as concerns about their educational progress must be included as part of the evaluation of the student. A thorough assessment will provide the essential information about the student’s present levels of performance and serve as the basis for the development of an individual educational program (IEP) for the student.
Another factor to consider when programming an IEP for any student with an autism spectrum disorder includes the development of educational goals/objectives that describe the skills to be taught within 1 year. Goals should target skills in the core deficit areas of autism including social development, expressive verbal and receptive language, nonverbal communication skills, functional communication, fine and gross motor skills, cognitive skills including academic skills, joint attention and engagement as well as organizational and problem solving skills to support independence. For students with interfering problem behaviors, goals that describe replacement behaviors should be included in the IEP. (Educating Children With Autism, 2001) The National Research Council in Educating Children With Autism, recommends “systematically planned, developmentally appropriate educational activity aimed toward identified objectives” for a minimum of 25 hours per week, 12 months a year.
Progress toward mastery of the goals for each student should be monitored closely and on an ongoing basis. If a student demonstrates lack of progress over a 3 month time period, the IEP team should reconvene and consider necessary changes to the IEP that might increase the intensity level of the student’s program. This might include any of the following: increase hours of programming and/or services, increased individualized instruction, change/modification of curriculum, placement change or even additional training or expert consultation. (Educating Children With Autism, 2001)
An essential component of any program for students with autism should include research-based behavioral interventions. All teachers and paraprofessionals should be trained so that consistent application of the elements of the specific behavior intervention strategies is applied across settings for all students. All staff should be trained in positive behavior intervention strategies. For students with more significant behavioral needs, individualized behavior support plans should be implemented.
Finally, a full continuum of placement options must be available to meet the unique needs of each student. Placing all students with autism in one placement option does not fulfill the IDEA requirements for Least Restrictive Environment. Placement options may include full inclusion in a general education classroom with supports and services provided in the general education classroom; placement in a general education classroom with portions of time in a special education classroom or other specialized setting; placement in a special education classroom with mainstreaming into a general education classroom for selected activities or alternative or nonpublic school program.
Consideration of the above factors when developing a plan for programming for students with autism will lead to building capacity within the district for the implementation of consistent and effective services for students with autism.