James Ball, Ed.D., BCBA-D, Immediate Past Chair of the Autism Society of America

Dr. Ball, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral, is the President/Chief Executive Officer of JB Autism Consulting. He has been in the field of autism for more than 25 years, providing behavioral, educational, residential, and employment services to children and adults affected by autism.

Back to School Tips

As I am sure you understand, your child has a very unique learning profile. The goal for your School wide program must understanding this profile. His profile may be markedly different than that of the child with autism of a parent you met at a support meeting. The program right for that child might be disastrous for you child, or your family. Through assessments, observation and your input, the School team will learn this profile and assist in knowing what a “right fit” is. As the parent, you have a right to ask questions and expect intelligent answers from the professionals at the School. This will make for a successful transition to the beginning of the school year.

Having said that, there are common strategies that you should look for in evaluating the overall School environment. First you should familiarize yourself with the National Institute of Mental Health guideline is choosing the right overall School environment:

-How successful has the program been off other students with autism?
-How is their track record in placing other students in their School program?
-Do staff members have training in working with students with autism?
-How are activities planned and organized?
-Are their predictable daily schedules and routines?
-How much individual attention will the child receive?
-How is progress measured? Will behavior be closely observed and recorded?
-Will the child be given tasks and rewards that are personally motivating?
-Is the environment designed to minimize distractions?
-Will the program carry over home in the home?

It is critical that you get quality answers to these question so you can have a clear picture of what the environment has to offer to your child.

Also, as we all know, training is the most important aspect of any program. The child’s individual program must have staff that are specifically trained is best practice techniques for students with autism. However, it is as important that all staff (such as: Gym, Art, Music Teachers, Secretaries, etc.) have some training on how to interact with the child. Also important is a training program specifically designed to teach the other students that are in the child’s environment. This is best achieved as a lesson on “differences” done with the whole class, including the child with autism. I always like to a scavenger hunt that gets the kids to look for “physical” differences in each other, which lead into a discussion about behavioral differences and some children deal with things differently.

When it comes to staff, we expect them to understand how to incorporate visual strategies into their classrooms. We look for reinforcement and functional communication systems. We want to see repetition in teaching, the use of shaping and chaining in curriculum and appropriate prompting techniques. We should expect some of the same in the other “special” teachers that come into contact with the students with autism, maybe not to the same degree.

There are six ways for this to happen:

Be Enthusiastic
It is critical that the child want to be part of the classroom activity. The way to do this is to be as enthusiastic as possible to capture the child’s attention. Know the child and know how loud or soft you need to be with him. Keep this in mind when choosing group activity partners too. Make the lesson an event the child enjoys, so he wants to come back for more.

Make it Fun
The activity has to be fun for the child with autism. If it’s fun, the child is not going to want to participate. The child will probably enjoy visuals, so start each lesson with an interesting picture. Watch the child to learn what he or she considers fun and go from there. Once they are having fun, you can slowly introduce other activities.

Begin with a Preferred Activity
Start the lesson with something you know the loves to do and can be successful doing. You can always refer back to that activity if you begin to lose the child.

Offer Choices
As much as possible, and in as many situations as possible, give the child choices. Understand the non-negotiables, and give all other situations choice. Do you want the red or green paper?

Start Structured
In the beginning, the agenda should be very tight and structured so the children learn the routine and become more comfortable. You want minimal down time, because it is during these nebulous “what do I do now” times that inappropriate behaviors surface. Remember, as the child becomes more and more comfortable, begin to introduce choices and loosen up the structure to allow more natural ways of learning.

In general, you always want to look at the whole School and get a feel for how it operates. Meet the office staff and the school administrators. Ask questions to assess their attitudes towards children with disabilities. Is it positive and supportive, or negative and neglectful? Probe beyond the basic questions until you’re sure you’ve gotten to the core attitudes. What kind of support, supervision and encouragement does the classroom staff receive from administration? What is the turnover rate in the building? This will tell you a great deal about how supportive the administration is towards staff.

A school with a structured curriculum in place, ample opportunities for basic and ongoing specialized training, and a supervisor who is knowledge in autism will be much better equipped to minimize the impact of change on the child with autism, which could lead to inappropriate behavior. Be cautious on programs whose success depends heavily on that one special teacher or staff person that works “magic” with students with autism, an administration that doesn’t display an active, ongoing commitment to teacher training, and program staff that is untrained and inexperienced with autism. These conditions do not suggest a good school environment, your “gut” reaction will guide you. Have a great school year!