Teaching Strategies for Students with Low-Functioning Autism

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

Students with a diagnosis of autism can display a wide range of abilities and needs. If you are teaching students with low functioning autism, with severe needs, there are a number of strategies that can be useful.

Low Functioning Autism

You may be familiar with some characteristics commonly displayed by students with autism, such as difficulty with communication and social interaction, dependence upon routine, and repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviors. Classroom accommodations can help students with autism to navigate the general education classroom.

For some students with low functioning autism, however, accommodations are not enough. Some students with low functioning autism are far behind their age peers and experience critical deficits in communication, self-help skills, social skills, fine motor skills, and cognition. These students require specially designed instruction to address their needs and allow them to make progress in the school curriculum. Let's look at some teaching strategies that can be used for these students.

Total Communication

Students with low functioning autism are often non-verbal. For non-verbal students, establishing a viable means of communication is foundational to all other learning objectives. A total communication approach incorporates multiple modes of communication into every aspect of classroom life, maximizing the students' opportunities to learn and understand language. What does this mean? Some features of a total communication classroom can include:

  • verbal language
  • written language
  • sign language
  • picture communication systems
  • voice output devices

Ms. Keller uses a total communication approach for her substantially separate class of first graders with autism. When she goes over the daily schedule, each event (math, lunch, recess, etc.) is displayed using both words and a picture symbol. Additionally, when she names each item, she also uses the hand sign for that activity. Ms. Keller incorporates picture symbols and sign language into many activities during the school day. With the help of the speech therapist, she targets each student's communication goals and encourages them to use and improve their communication skills in the context of meaningful and motivating learning activities.

Task Analysis

For students with low functioning autism, daily tasks can be overwhelming. In order to teach complex tasks, you might choose to use task analysis, determining the steps that are needed to complete an activity and teaching them one at a time.

Ms. Keller is teaching her students to check out a book at the school library. She identifies the following steps, and teaches each step to her students:

  • take one book from the shelf.
  • stand in line at the library counter.
  • give the book to the librarian.
  • get the book back.
  • sit on the library rug with the book and wait for the rest of the class.

Discrete Trial Training

Discrete trial training goes along with task analysis, and is one method used to teach individual skills or steps. A student works with an adult on one specific skill, using a combination of prompts and positive reinforcement. Discrete trials teach skills in isolation, and then the skills are generalized into the school environment.

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