TEACHING STUDENTS WHO
WHO ARE THEY & WHAT SHOULD WE TEACH?
by Dr. Cathy Pratt & Rozella Stewart
During recent years, interest in individuals with
autism who are high- functioning has grown as increasing numbers
of students who fit that description have been identified. During
the same period, those who advocate on behalf of students with severe
cognitive disabilities have continued their search for information
on teaching, working, and living with individuals perceived as belonging
to this more challenging group. Before discussing programming issues,
it seems important to first attempt to clarify who these individuals
are who are referred to as low-functioning.
The most common tool for identifying this population
of students are standardized test scores. It is commonly believed
that 70% of students with autism also have cognitive disabilities.
However, we need to be careful when using formal instruments to
determine levels of cognitive functioning. During the past several
years, professionals and family members have become keenly aware
that traditional methods for measuring true intelligence, such as
standardized tests, are often flawed in ways that can reap highly
unreliable results. Although information gained through the process
of testing can provide us with valuable information about how a
person learns and about areas of difficulty, standardized tests
are virtually never a true predictor of future success. Many adults
who were considered severely disabled as students, are now able
to secure jobs, live in a variety of home environments, and are
able to become members of their community when appropriate supports
are in place and when taught necessary skills. Labeling a person
as low functioning may in effect serve to limit the person's potential
by limiting our vision for that person.
Clearly, students with autism who have severe
cognitive limitations can be challenging to educators. However,
as professionals and family members review the literature on autism,
beware of the dichotomy between low- and high- functioning. These
two groups often are referred to as if they are two discrete and
separate categories of individuals. Realize that there are individuals
with autism who may be gifted in certain areas but who are extremely
challenged in others. Conversely, students with the label of severe
disabilities can possess exceptional talents. In other words, students
labeled as high-functioning may be severely disabled by their autism.
And those who are labeled as low- functioning may be less affected
by the characteristics associated with autism.
Generally, those who are labeled as having a severe
cognitive impairment are individuals who have greater difficulty
with social skills, and academic performance. They often have few
readily recognized and/or socially appropriate means for communicating
with others. It should not be surprising then, that these individuals
may more readily exhibit challenging behaviors, such as self-injury
and aggression. This may be because they simply have not learned
a better way to act or to cope with the demands of daily stressors,
or may have no better means for communicating with others. These
individuals may also engage in more sensory-related activities such
as hand flapping, spinning, or rocking.
When designing educational programs for students
with autism labeled as severely disabled, professionals and family
members are cautioned to remember that programs for specific students
are to be individually determined through the individualized education
program (IEP) process. There is no IEP for people who are low-functioning
versus people who are high-functioning. There are only IEPs for
each student. Individualized programs must describe strategies for
providing the student with acceptable and understandable ways of
communication, teaching situation-appropriate social behaviors,
and providing experiences that satisfy sensory needs by promoting
desensitization or reducing sensory overload in specific settings
If a student has greater difficulty learning,
it seems that the valuable school years should be spent teaching
him/her to participate in important or functional activities. A
functional curriculum is comprised of activities the person will
need in order to live, work, and recreate in his/her community.
Activities such as balancing a check book, recreating at the neighborhood
YMCA, eating at a restaurant, maintaining a job, and shopping are
targeted. Note that the program a student is engaged in is not a
categorical decision. The mandate for an individualized education
program is misapplied when one set of goals or a category-driven
placement is adopted for all students with a given disability or
a perceived level of functioning. Typically, when such practices
prevail, the IEP neither guides instruction nor results in acquisition
of life skills that are relevant to the student's present or future.
No canned curriculum fits all students with autism; no canned curriculum
or label-specific placement fits all students who are perceived
as functioning on similar levels. It is a simple truth that not
all students who have more severe cognitive limitations will choose
the same path in adulthood. What students learn in school should
reflect this diversity of preferences.
By definition, individuals across the autism spectrum
have a restricted repertoire of skills. For those who have difficulty
learning, this repertoire may seem further restricted. A good place
to begin the discussion about what to teach a student, is to work
with the family and the individual him/herself to identify daily
life activities in which the individual will be expected to engage.
For example, the family and student may desire participation in
grocery shopping. The job of the instructional team is to identify
all the skills the student will need for grocery shopping. Possible
Making a Grocery List
Identifying Food Labels
Pushing the Cart Appropriately
Saying Hello to Friends or Acquaintances
Initiating a Request for Help in Locating an Item
Ordering Food from the Deli Counter
Matching Coupons to Selected Food Items
Paying for Groceries
As a classroom teacher, the challenge is to teach
community life skills in the context of the school setting. An elementary
or middle school teacher, could write the following goals to ensure
that students with severe disabilities learn these skills in the
general education setting:
During lunch time in the school cafeteria, Susie
will request two specific food items using a communication board
during 4 out of 5 days.
During art class, Jimmy will cut coupons from the local newspaper
for 15 minutes once a week.
During math class, Jill will identify the amount
needed for 10 specific food items using the next dollar strategy
with 90% accuracy.
During break time, Mark will greet two classmates
in the hallway each week by pointing to Hello, how are you? on his
Scott will trace 5 words which represent grocery
items twice weekly during writing class.
When the student reaches high school, instruction
should increasingly occur in real world settings. If grocery shopping
is the desired activity, then the student should learn in a grocery
store. Teaching students to shop for groceries in a mock classroom
grocery store rarely prepares them for shopping in a real grocery
store. Students with autism tend to learn cues which occur in specific
context. They cannot easily generalize learned skills across significantly
different settings. Students also may become dependent on adult
coaches whom they come to perceive as part of the learned tasks,
on sequences of events which characterize mock situations, and on
other factors that frustrate their efforts to generalize skills
from contrived to real-life circumstances. Recruiting peers who
can model appropriate behaviors and coach individuals with autism
in learning skills appropriate to natural settings is often useful
in reducing dependency and in fostering self-initiation, self-confidence
and greater flexibility as new challenges are met.
helpful suggestions in teaching low-functioning students with
For students who may have greater difficulty learning,
the following suggestions may be helpful to consider:
Train staff! In addition to workshops, conferences
or other training events, there is a wealth of information on autism.
Information about what and how to teach students who are severely
disabled is also useful. Books written by those who have autism
can provide valuable insight into those who have greater difficulty
Work closely with parents so that skills practiced
in the school setting can be practiced in the community with family
Use a team approach to make sure that the communication
and sensory needs of these students are being addressed in ways
that are natural to environments frequented by the student.
Take time to teach each skill. Students may need
repeated opportunities to learn and to practice a skill. Even when
a skill seems mastered, students need to practice from time to time.
It is also important that significantly more emphasis is placed
on what a student is to do, rather than on what he/she is not to
do. Accentuate the positive; remember that success begets success.
A focus on failure reaps futility and future avoidance.
Identify the type of supports individuals will
need, and do not remove supports when a task is mastered. If a student
needs visual cues to learn a task, he/she may always need visual
cues associated with the task. If the students need a visual sequence
board for the activity, do not take it away once the activity is
It may be difficult to engage students for prolonged
periods of time. Be prepared to shift activities, and to provide
both easy and difficult tasks so that the student will be challenged
while experiencing success. A typical day should include significantly
more opportunities to perform easy tasks which promote security,
than to engage in new and challenging tasks.
Provide students with clear information about
the beginning and ending times of an activity, and about the expectations
of the task. Avoid taking apart and/or redoing a task that the student
perceives as finished. If additional practice is needed, intersperse
it throughout the day rather than requiring sequential trial repetitions.
Embed communication into all aspects of the school
day. Make sure students who are nonverbal have augmentative communication
systems that are readily available throughout the day. Communication
devices must also contain relevant messages for students. For example,
the picture for toilet is probably not as motivating as a picture
that depicts a student's need for time alone.
If a student is engaging in difficult behavior,
conduct a thorough assessment to determine why the behavior is occurring.
Utilize positive behavior support approaches which focus on teaching
students alternative ways of responding to difficult situations.
Take time to teach essential skills in places
and at times when skills are needed. For example, take time to teach
students to put their coats on when it is time to go outside. Have
them learn to take out and put away during natural activity sequences.
Avoid the tendency to do essential life tasks for students while
rushing to get to less essential tasks. Generally, avoid doing for
the student what he/she can be taught to do for him/herself.
All students can learn. As educators and as family
members, it is our job to ensure that an environment conducive to
learning is provided and that student's valuable time is used wisely.
This is true regardless of the functioning level of the student.
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
Click here for the full range of Asperger's
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