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Gathering Background Information on Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning as much as you can about a student with autism spectrum disorder will help you understand and serve the student properly. This lesson discusses ways to gather the appropriate background information.

Why Background Information Matters

Kathryn is a special education teacher in an inclusive setting, one where children with disabilities learn and grow alongside their typically developing peers.

Each year, Kathryn has noticed that she has at least one student with autism spectrum disorder in her class. Though autism spectrum disorder can manifest very differently in different individuals, it has some common characteristics such as:

  • language delays
  • trouble managing sensory input
  • challenges with self-regulation
  • struggles in forming meaningful relationships with others.

Kathryn is starting to understand that the more she knows about the background and history of a student with autism spectrum disorder, the better she will be equipped to meet their needs in the classroom. She starts to think about what she can do to acquire necessary background information about these students.

Interviewing Teachers and School Staff

First of all, Kathryn knows that her colleagues at school can be a wealth of information about children with autism spectrum disorder. After all, some of them have taught her students in previous years, or have worked with them outside of the classroom such as in music and art class.

She knows that ancillary service providers like speech and occupational therapists will often know a great deal about what works and does not work with these students as well.

When interviewing her colleagues, Kathryn uses a combination of formal checklists and more informal interviews. Some of the checklists that are commercially available include:

  • the Checklist for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which can be used for diagnostic purposes and provides an extremely detailed view
  • the Child Behavior Checklist, which has a validated form specifically oriented toward teachers and school behavior
  • the Autism Symptoms Checklist, which can help an observer pinpoint which symptoms and behaviors are present in a child.

Kathryn also knows that informal interviews with school staff are also helpful. In these, she often asks the following questions:

  • What did you find most helpful when working with this student?
  • What do you see as her most pronounced strengths and areas of struggle?

Interviewing Families

Kathryn understands that her students' families hold a great deal of information about their children. Before each school year begins, she is afforded the opportunity to conduct a home visit, in which she meets the family in their home environment.

Kathryn finds that families often struggle with the fact that their children are present during these interviews. She advises that they find an activity that will keep their child occupied while they speak. However, if the child is on heightened alert, Kathryn is sensitive to the fact that the parents might not want to discuss acute challenges.

From families, Kathryn tries to learn more about the child's developmental history and current strengths and struggles in the home environment. She gets a parental perspective on what strategies are helpful with this child, as well as what goals, hopes, and concerns the parents have for their child.

Kathryn can also learn a lot from observing the home environment. She attends to what sort of structures are in place, what the child seems to enjoy, and what kinds of behaviors the child presents when she visits them at home.

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