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Autism & Special Education Strategies

Updated on September 30, 2012
Three-year-old Joey Adams identifies items from flash cards during an in-home therapy session.
Three-year-old Joey Adams identifies items from flash cards during an in-home therapy session. | Source

When my son was less than two years old, he was diagnosed by a pediatric psychiatrist with pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. In other words, he was on the Autism spectrum. By the time he was ready for school at the age of three, the school gave us a diagnosis of Autism, moderate to severe.

At the age of three, believe it or not, your local school district takes over any educational needs for your child, if he or she is diagnosed with autism and it’s determined that special services are needed. These include more than just education; they include speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

The most popular special education strategies, depending on age, include Floortime/DIR, ABA Therapy, social skills education, and TouchMath. On top of that, placement (inclusion or mainstreaming) and any necessary accommodations or modifications to curriculum and standardized testing must be determined.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, Founder of Floortime, Speaks


Floortime therapy was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist. It’s based on the Developmental Individual-difference Relationship-based model, and the idea that parents, therapists, and teachers will engage best with children on the spectrum by participating in whatever it is the child wants to do. The central concept behind Floortime is “opening and closing circles of communication.” Each time the child does something and the adult mimics it, the circle has been opened the closed. There are six aims of Floortime: two-way communication, emotional ideas, emotional thinking, complex communication, intimacy (engagement in human relations), and self-regulation and interest in the world. Floortime can be combined with other types of therapy and education.

ABA Therapy and Autism Awareness Month

ABA Therapy

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. The basic definition of ABA is using positive reinforcement (giving rewards for desired behavior) in order to “bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior.” It began in the 1960s, but at that time, it also included spanking and hitting as part of the method. That is no longer used, obviously, and since the changes have begun, it has become the most popular treatment for Autism. ABA is used in an educational setting to help with basic skills, from looking and listening to imitating to reading to holding conversations. It is used within almost every educational setting, and it is also used with younger children.

Teaching Social Skills

One of the major problems that children on the Autism spectrum suffer from is dealing with social situations. Most education strategies used for children on the spectrum include teaching them social skills. In general, five steps are followed in teaching social skills. First, the teacher determines the skill the child needs. It may be something as simple as taking turns in a game. Second, the teacher will use teaching techniques, such as social stories, to explain the situation and how it normally works. Third, the teacher will use peers to role-play and let the student practice the situation. Fourth, the teacher will let the student actually participate in the situation, but in a limited setting. Fifth, and finally, the student is asked to participate in the situation in a regular daily activity.

For example, my son bowls for the Special Olympics. The first step would be determining that he needed to learn how to take turns bowling. The second step would be to read a social story about someone bowling. The third step would be my son playing a version of bowling, even if it was just using some plastic pins and a plastic “bowling” ball. The fourth step would be my son playing at the bowling alley, but with instruction and support. The fifth and final step would be him participating in a game of bowling, such as at the Special Olympics tournament where extra assistance is not allowed.


TouchMath is one of the most popular ways to teach math to Autistic children who are struggling with learning math. As per their website, “students count aloud as they touch the single TouchPoints once and double TouchPoints twice. This multisensory approach engages students on auditory, visual and tactile/kinesthetic levels…Students touch, count, and repeat each problem and answer aloud to reinforce fact mastery.”

"Structured Learning" Autism Classroom

Placement: Inclusion and Mainstreaming

Depending on the student’s level of functioning, they may be placed in a separate (inclusion) classroom with peers who are also handicapped or in the general student population (mainstream). In some cases, students may have an aide accompany them to some classes or all their classes. They may have a “resource room” or an in-class teacher’s aide who is there to provide additional support. The level of support provided varies by school district, grade level, and student’s level of functioning.

Accommodations and Modifications

Finally, some students may need additional help with their studies in the form of accommodations and modifications. Accommodations and modifications can include having a teacher read the test to the student, extra time on the test, visual strategies (such as images instead of words), extra large fonts on tests, the ability to use computers or Alphasmart word processors for note taking, or any number of different changes that can be made to help the student.

Some changes can also deal with the level of work. For example, while one student may learn about how matter changes from liquid to solid through reading a textbook, another student may learn through practical, hands-on experience by making jell-o. Or perhaps while one student may label a map when learning about geography, another student may instead learn how to match the names of countries to names that already exist on the map. It’s a question of the level of ability of the student and how best to teach the student.

Three-year-old Joey Adams reaches for a fork after correctly identifying the utensil to Board Certified Behavior Analyist (BCBA) therapist Kenna Nelson during an in-house therapy session.
Three-year-old Joey Adams reaches for a fork after correctly identifying the utensil to Board Certified Behavior Analyist (BCBA) therapist Kenna Nelson during an in-house therapy session. | Source

Life Skills

While a lot of parents and teachers don’t like the term “life skills,” they are an important part of special education strategies for some students with Autism. Life skills are often used as a fall-back when educators struggle to teach students, but in many cases, they are necessary and helpful. Life skills refers to such things as learning how to do laundry, dishes, self-care
(bathing, bathroom, etc). For students who are unable to achieve success on an academic level, they may be more suited to learning things to help them succeed and live on their own. They may learn how to do basic skills for jobs to help support themselves.


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    • dialogue profile image

      dialogue 5 years ago

      Interesting article, very long back i have gone though the topic Autism. Good read once again. Great work!

    • tipsheets profile image

      tipsheets 5 years ago from Philippines

      very informative and very detailed article. i will share this with a friend who has a son with autism.