By Clelia Sigaud, M.S.
bSci21 Contributing Writer
As a teacher to young children with autism in a self-contained public school classroom, one of my important professional responsibilities this year is to prepare my students for success in the general education setting. Grade level achievement in academic subjects is often thought of as an indicator of a student’s readiness to rejoin typical peers. However, the reality is that behavioral manifestations of a more functional nature often bear much more weight in the overall decision-making process when determining how much of the time a child should be integrated into general education. This is my first year in public school, and although there is certainly much to be learned from this environment, it is equally clear to me that evidence-based practices are applicable across age groups and settings, and that gaining key skills in functional areas is pivotal to everyone’s success. “School survival skills” are therefore very high on my list of priorities as I plan instruction, based on the philosophy that, while not everyone can achieve academically at grade level, all students can – with relevant behavioral and skill building interventions – participate in the general education setting on some level and engage with typical peers. I’d like to share some “biggies” on my horizon as I embark upon a school year alongside children significantly impacted by autism.
An essential skill that I prioritize for my students across ability levels is requesting escape or termination. So many young children with autism struggle to communicate their needs appropriately in a classroom setting, which often leads to interfering behavior and subsequently a more restrictive placement. Using functional communication training with individuals on the spectrum who are in self-contained environments is a vital step in getting them ready to re-integrate. The goal is to help students navigate everyday situations by teaching them to communicate that they are “all done” with the activity or item and would like it, or themselves, removed. This can be done vocally, by signing, with a speech generating device, with a symbol exchange, or in any other manner that best fits the needs of the child and the context. The relevance of this skill is made all the more apparent once the child begins to visit the regular education classroom – appropriately asking to leave in that setting, rather than engaging in interfering behavior such as tantruming or aggression, may make a world of difference in terms of that student’s relationships with peers and general education teachers.
I also specifically target leisure skills for functional skill acquisition. Most children with autism have at least one activity that they can safely engage in independently, often involving high tech items such as the computer or iPad. While any level of independence is laudable, having a variety of reinforcing and developmentally appropriate independent activities from which to choose during unstructured times can be extremely helpful to a child with autism, who may otherwise be overly reliant on adult support within both self-contained and general education settings. Developing a wide array of interests and leisure skills involves ongoing preference assessments, and careful introduction of new materials and play skills over time. Selecting developmentally appropriate activities that can provide reinforcement to individual students, while also keeping in mind their chronological age and grade level, can be a challenge, but it is vital in order for the child to continue to use those skills across settings. For example, a student who enjoys drawing or scribbling on paper can do so within a grade-appropriate notebook or binder. Another strategy is to place pages of a child’s favorite books inside page protectors within a binder, which can present as more age appropriate than the book itself. Some students enjoy looking at and using timers and calculators, which are legitimate classroom tools. Creativity is key when teaching appropriate leisure skills!
A hallmark of behavioral interventions for students with autism is the focus on increasing successful transitions between locations and/or activities, most often locations or activities that are more reinforcing to those that are less so. Navigating transitions while practicing good self-management is an expectation in even the lowest elementary grades, and a significant skill deficit in this area tends to put students with autism at a disadvantage as they participate in the general education classroom. Putting a great deal of emphasis on transitions from the very beginning is one of the best ways we can help our students reintegrate. While nothing I say here could replace individual behavioral assessment and program planning, it is fair to say that visual supports, good attention to student motivational shifts, and a dense (and judiciously distributed) schedule of reinforcement, tends to be very helpful. Students will not transition smoothly if engaging in interfering behavior is less effortful and leads to more or better reinforcement, so special attention to how staff respond to student interfering behavior during transition tasks can be especially helpful.
Teaching “school survival skills” to our children most significantly impacted by autism takes thoughtful consideration of each individual and their specific skills and environments, as well as careful planning and collaboration with general education teachers, educational technicians, and related service providers. While challenging students academically is important, I support a classroom emphasis on social problem solving and self-management, which can make the difference between a child remaining in a self-contained setting long term and that same child accessing the general curriculum with typical peers.
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Clelia Sigaud, M.S. is a teacher to children with developmental disabilities in urban Maine (to the extent that “urban” and “Maine” can be used in the same sentence). She has several years of experience working with special needs individuals, from preschool through age 20, in a variety of settings. Outside of work, she is earning her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine. Her interests include functional communication training, interventions for sexualized aggression/sexually problematic behavior, treatment of self injury, paraprofessional training, and ethical practice within the field of ABA. In her spare time, she enjoys authoring her own social stories.