The amount of time a student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is actively attending to and interacting with his/her environment has been cited as one of the best predictors of positive student outcomes (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003). When a student is engaged it is more likely that connections are being formed, productive routines are being created, and interactions are occurring. When unengaged, students lose out on important learning opportunities and may become distracted, disruptive, or may demonstrate challenging behaviors. When these challenging behaviors occur, it is important that elements in the environment are examined—including variables related to the curriculum. Curricular variables may include the length of the instructional activity, the difficulty of the content, the types of materials, the organization of the task, and/or the relevance of the information presented (Dunlap, Kern, & Worcester, 2001). Following are some practical strategies, supported by research, designed to increase active involvement in students with ASD by modifying the instructional activities.
Engagement of students with ASD is less likely unless careful planning in the design of educational materials and activities occurs. Traditional teaching procedures and resources, such as standard lectures and worksheets, may not be appealing or easy to understand for students with ASD. Several additional considerations may be required.
Organization: Students with ASD may have greater difficulty in organizing and sequencing materials due to deficits in executive functioning (Mesibov, Shea, & Schopler, 2005) and/or challenges in modulating sensory input. Worksheets with a great deal of information, or large quantities of materials that may fall or become mixed together may be distracting or overwhelming for students. It is often necessary for staff members to assist in organizing materials, and to present them in a minimally stimulating manner. The placement of materials in containers, folders, baskets, or trays may be beneficial, as well as limiting the amount of information and size of the work space to reduce stimulation.
|Organization of a math worksheet: limited number of problems and limited amount of space; worksheet is organized so student knows where to put responses.|
|Organization of an alphabetizing activity: materials are placed in containers and stabilized on tray; limited letters (A-E); no extraneous information; work space is defined.|
|Organization of an art activity: steps are listed sequentially for student to follow.|
|Organization of desk area: all materials are placed in color coded folders and binders; school supplies are placed in a container on the desk.|
Clarity: Students with ASD may also have difficulty interpreting the importance of information and give undue attention to details (Mesibov et al., 2005). It may be necessary to emphasize the most important aspects of the task or activity in an effort to make the meaning more salient. This may require the use of color coding, numbering, highlighting, or adding additional visual cues.
|Clarifying the sequence of steps: numbers (along with the container) are used to identify the order of steps in setting the table.|
|Clarifying the item to recycle: both pictures and an example of the actual object are used to highlight what item should be placed in each drawer.|
|Clarifying the name when sorting mail: both pictures and written words are used to highlight where mail should be delivered.|
Wide Range of Materials
Using a variety of materials is important for students with ASD for several reasons. Students may become rigid in their use of a material if a range of options is not presented. For example, if students are learning to sort objects by color and only colored bears are used, the skill may not generalize to sorting colored paper, colored socks, or colored cubes. Using multiple exemplars for each skill is essential if generalization is to occur (Horner, Dunlap, & Koegel, 1988). A range of materials can also make the difference between students simply being present, and students participating and being engaged (Kluth, 2003). When a variety of materials are used, students have a chance to be successful and learn in a way that suits them.
Several studies have indicated that varying materials can decrease challenging behavior and increase time on-task (Kern, Childs, Dunlap, Clarke, & Falk, 1994; Dunlap, Foster-Johnson, Clarke, Kern, & Childs, 1995). Kern et al. (1994) found that when a student was asked to complete tasks requiring fine motor skills, he engaged in challenging behaviors. When a laptop computer or tape recorder were provided, self-injury decreased and all assignments were completed. Similarly, Dunlap et al. (1995) found that when a student was required to assemble ballpoint pens, problem behavior occurred. When the materials were changed, and the student assembled sandwiches instead, on-task behavior increased. Kluth (2003) provides some examples:
|IN ADDITION TO TRYING:||TRY USING:|
|Books||Adapted books (laminating pages, rewriting text to make it easier of more relevant), magazines, comic books, advertisements, audio books, movies|
|Worksheets||Adapted worksheets (highlight information), laminated sheets and EXPO marker or grease pencil, small chalkboard or wipe board, overhead projector|
|Pencils||Computer, typewriter, rubber stamps, magnetic letters or words, pencil grips|