2002, Vol 17, No.2.
AUTISM: CHARATERISTICS, CAUSES AND SOME EDUCATIONAL INTERVENTIONS
Autism is a behaviorally defined disorder which occurs within the first three years of life. Autism is a life-long, complex, and severe disorder. Children with autism have many common characteristics. Language delay is one of the most significant and serious characteristics of students with autism. They also often experience abnormal responses to sensations, relate to people and objects in abnormal ways, and have disturbed social skills. The causes of this disorder are still unknown but researchers have made significant progress. Past theories of blaming the parents have been replaced by theories about differences in autistic persons neurological and brain systems. Educating students with autism presents a challenge to special education teachers. Many effective technologies have been developed to ensure that these students can function adequately in society. Overcoming stimulus overselectivity and a lack of motivation are just as important as teaching these students academic skills.
Autism is a very broad and complex behavior disorder. It is a very severe and life-long disease. When a child is diagnosed with autism it usually has a huge impact on the child, family, schooling, and community. Children with autism are extremely challenging and it is rare to hear of a recovered autistic person. The label of autism often tells us very little about the child because it can coexist with other disorders. Children with autism can range from high functioning to nonverbal (Schreibman, 1988). Intelligence of individuals with this disorder measured in IQs may range from less than 10 to more than 130. About two-thirds of those affected by autism have some degree of mental retardation, yet the autism presents their primary learning problem (Coleman, 1992). Autism has been called the ultimate learning disability because people with autism have great difficulty understanding both language and social behavior. This affects their ability to communicate with others and relate to the outside world (Schreibman, 1988). Educators need to gain a better understanding of this diverse and complex disorder so that these students can obtain an adequate education.
In the past there has been much confusion about the distinction between autism and childhood schizophrenia. We know now these are two separate and distinct syndromes. Within the definition of autism it is called a severely incapacitating, life-long, developmental disability, which appears within the first three years of life. It occurs in approximately five out of every 10,000 births and is four times more common in boys than girls. Autism has been found throughout the world in all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds.
No known factors in the psychological environment of a child have been shown to cause autism. It is a behaviorally defined syndrome. There are also two types of autism. Infantile autism is when the child has displayed pathological behaviors that are evident from the first few weeks or months of life. The second type includes children who seem to develop normally and acquire some speech and other appropriate behaviors but suddenly lose these skills (Schreibman, 1988). Teachers need to be aware of all of these things and do their best to be updated about current procedures.
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Characteristics of Persons with Autism
Persons with autism hold many common characteristics but because they are labeled as autistic it does not mean that they display all of them. The most obvious characteristic of learners with autism is delayed language development. This delay is often the first sign to parents that something is abnormal with their child’s development. A child with the most serious form of autism may never learn to speak or understand the spoken word. Others may develop language but show serious limitations. One common behavior is repeating the phrases of others because they cannot understand the rules of communication that make it possible to create statements of their own or express themselves in a meaningful manner (Grandin, 1996; Lovaas & Newsom,1976). Their symbolic language is also usually lacking (Coleman, 1992). These wide range of language deficits, such as mutism, echolalia, and lack of expressive language, makes it extremely difficult to educate and relate to these children (Marcott-Radke, 1981). Echolalia is the repetition of words spoken by others and it is usually non-communicative. Another language problem an autistic child may display is pronominal reversal or total literalness. For example total literalness would be if someone said it was raining cats and dogs an autistic person might think cats and dogs were falling from the sky. Also, fifty percent of autistic persons never develop functional speech (Schreibman, 1988). Language delay alone does not automatically indicate that a student has autism.
The intelligence of autistic persons has been researched extensively. In the past this information was greatly misinterpreted. Some researchers believe that autistic persons are not retarded and it is only their deficits in other areas that make them seem intellectually handicapped (Schreibman, 1988). On intelligence tests 60% of children with autism score below 50, 20% between 50 and 70, and 20% above 70. These scores place the majority of children with autism within the moderately retarded range (Coleman, 1992). There have been many concerns as to how reliable these data are because these children are often hard to test. They may be unmotivated, uncooperative, and may not have the pre-requisite skills for test taking (Schreibman, 1988). Although some autistic persons are functionally retarded some have been found to have remarkable rote memories for songs, television commercials, poems, or other things. They also may have amazing musical, mechanical, or mathematical skills (Coleman, 1992). An example of this was portrayed through the movie Rainman. Dustin Hoffman played an autistic man who had an amazing way with numbers.
Another characteristic which is commonly found throughout the autistic population is the fact that they need and want their environment to be the same (Schreibman, 1988). This makes it extremely challenging to parents and educators. If any change in a daily schedule or routine is made it is potentially upsetting to the autistic person. Even if the change is slight it could still be enough to cause the person to tantrum or refuse to engage in the varied activity. Some examples of this need for the sameness in the environment are that an autistic person may always want to take the same route to school, have the same bus driver, or eat with the same utensils (Coleman, 1992). Children with autism deal better with change when they adapt to a new environment with gradual exposure. It is also helpful if someone explains to them beforehand what changes are going to occur that day (Ferster, 1985).
Some children with autism also have unique characteristics related to their learning, among them stimulus overselectivity, diminished motivation, and abnormal responses to reinforcement. These aspects will be discussed in detail later in this paper. Autistic persons also display restricted attention to the environment. Often they do not attend to people but instead to objects and treat people as objects (Coleman, 1992). They also may be unresponsive or overresponsive to the physical environment. They may over-react and throw a tantrum or not even notice a loud noise. This means they usually display flattened, excessive, or inappropriate affect and may have little or no differential emotional reactions in varying situations. Sometimes they also demonstrate irrational fears (Schreibman, 1988).
Autistic persons may also have an inability to relate to others in a normal way. They often have deficits in social attachment especially with parents and other family members. Infants often do not cry to get attention as other babies do but instead only to get their basic needs met. Also, as babies they may not show any emotions to being held and cuddled. As they grow older they often fail to engage in eye contact and other crucial social skills. Often they are found by themselves in their own worlds. Also, they usually
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do not feel comforted by their parents or families. Children with autism have also demonstrated a lack of peer contact and play (Schreibman, 1988).
Lastly, autistic persons sometimes display self-stimulatory or self-injurious behaviors which may have detrimental effects. A self-stimulatory behavior is one that has no function but to provide sensory or kinesthetic feedback. Some examples of this are rhythmic body rocking, jumping, hand flapping, gazing at lights, waving fingers, using objects to spin, or playing with body parts. These things can also give auditory and visual feedback. These behaviors are often looked at as bizarre by peers and others, especially as the children with autism get older. A self-injurious behavior is when an individual inflicts physical damage on their own body. Some common self-injurious behaviors are head banging, biting, slapping, or pulling. These behaviors can vary in intensity. If they get to be severe the autistic person could possibly inflict major damage or even kill themselves. It is important to remember that self-stimulatory and self-injurious behaviors are not particular to autism. These behaviors can be treated but according to Schreibman, (1988) they may require punishment techniques to eliminate severe self-stimulating and self-injurious behaviors.
Various Theories About the Etiology of Autism
To this date there are no known causes of autism. There have been many different theories researched and proposed. Among the causes of autism, the influences of heredity, parental personality, critical or vulnerable periods in infancy, disturbed neuro-physiologic mechanisms, underlying developmental factors, and pre-natal circumstances have been considered (Ornitz & Ritvo, 1985). Several different studies have been conducted to research both the biological and parental factors. Not one pre-supposed cause has been confirmed.
Recent emphasis is more on identifying biological causes rather than focusing on other factors (Schreibman, 1988).
In the 1940’s and 1950’s the cause of autism was blamed on the parents. This theory is called the psychogenic or psychodynamic theory and it implies that the social environment plays a large role in autism. In 1943, Kanner described the parents of children with autism as different than other parents. He observed these parents to be highly intelligent, well-educated, cold, formal, emotionally reserved, and compulsive and mechanistic in their child-rearing. Kanner does mention that this may not be the sole cause of autism, but he does believe that the autistic behaviors may come from parental rejection, family breakup and stress, faulty communication, or insufficient stimulation. This theory still has proponents today but it was especially popular through the 1960’s. Today we realize that Kanner’s data were anecdotal rather than empirically based (Schreibman, 1988).
Several research studies have refuted the psychogenic theory which blames the parents for the development of autism in their children (Coleman, 1992). In a study completed by Wing (1976 ), it was found that the child-rearing argument and this aspect alone is hardly likely to produce a disorder such as autism (Schreibman, 1988). The psychogenic theory caused parents to feel ashamed and guilty, and added much unnecessary stress to their lives. There are many problems with the psychogenic theory. First, some children with autism are born to parents who do not fit the autistic parent pattern. Next, parents who do fit the pattern often have typically developing children. Many researchers have found no significant differences between the parents of children with autism and typical children. Last, siblings of children with autism are often found to be normal (Rimland, 1985). Evidence has shown that this theory is not a reliable one. No known factors in the psychological environment have been proven to cause autism (Hollander & Kwon, 1995).
Recent research supports a physiological or biochemical causation of autism. Several neurological abnormalities were found in children with autism (Coleman, 1992). A study by Freeman and Ritvo (1984) showed that there may be a significant difference in brain metabolism patterns when autistic persons were compared with a control group. A lot of research has also been done on the cerebral neurotransmitter serotonin. The level of blood serotonin is related to age. Higher levels of it are found in normal infants, it decreases throughout childhood, and then stabilizes at a lower level in adulthood. Thirty to forty percent of autistic persons studied showed that an elevated level of serotonin persisted throughout life (Schreibman, 1988).
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Other researchers investigated pre-natal factors and the delivery of children with autism. The results were inconclusive. Some researchers reported more problems and difficulties in the pregnancies and deliveries of autistic babies and some have not (Ornitz & Ritvo, 1985). Gillberg and Gillberg (1983) found that there were increased complications during pregnancy and birth with children with autism when compared with control groups (Schreibman, 1988). Gillberg and Coleman (1992) found many cases where pre-natal factors such as chromosomal abnormalities, intrauterine viral infections, metabolic disorders, and Rh incompatibility were thought to be causes of autism. If one of these problems acts on the brain in early pregnancy, then the growth of the posterior fossa brain structures may be affected and as a result hypoplasia of the brainstem and cerebellum may occur (Hashimoto et. al., 1995).
Most of these findings may only be correlational and have no definite link between these factors and autism (Schreibman, 1988).
No specific gene marker for autism has yet been identified but several studies of familial factors have suggested a genetic involvement (Schreibman, 1988). Determining the role of genetic factors and inheritance is difficult since children with autism rarely reproduce. Brain injuries may play a large role. The high concordance rate among monozygotic twins, compared with dizygotic twins, suggest genetic factors are important to the etiology of autism (Rutter & Folstein, 1985). Autism has also been related to the fragile X chromosome. This abnormality is identified by using a microscope to examine the X sex chromosome. It is usually characterized by a weakness or break in the structure of the chromosome (Schreibman, 1988).
Neurological research is just beginning to document the exact nature of autism. Some research shows that certain cell groups in the brains of persons with autism are abnormal in size or proportion. This causes significant problems in sensory perception and linking information from various parts of the nervous system. Other studies have reported that children with autism process audio information at a different rate than they respond to visual stimulation. For such learners, their entire lives appear like a motion picture with the sound track running at the wrong speed (Grandin, 1996; Hollander & Kwon, 1995). When comparing EEG’s of autistic and normal persons 65 % of autistic persons showed abnormal patterns. There has also been evidence of abnormalities in the cerebellum which regulates incoming sensations (Schreibman, 1988).
Research at the Seaver Autism Research Center reports some dysfunction in the cerebral cortex in the brains of autistic persons. Eric Hollander, M.D. believes that the biological causes of autism differ for each individual. This research center has also found that the neuropeptide and opiate systems, the dopaminergic systems, and the neurotransmitter serotonin may all play a role in the cause of autism. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has also identified a specific area of the brain that has been repeatedly found to have differences between normal and autistic individuals. Another subtle cause in the brain may be the way synapses develop in individuals with autism (Hollander & Kwon, 1995).
In the study done by Hashimoto et. al. (1995) the growing acceptance of infantile autism as an organically based neuro-developmental disorder was examined. The subjects in this study included both high and low functioning autistic patients along with a control group. This study found that the areas of the brainstem, the entire cerebellar vermis, and their components were smaller in the autistic group than in the control group. Other studies have supported the finding that the brainstem and cerebellar vermis are involved in autism. The results show clear evidence of cerbellar hypoplasia in autism. There was also a difference in the size and development of the posterior fossa (it was smaller) brain structures in the autistic group (Courchesne, 1995).
Educating Students with Autism
Until the mid 1970s, most children with autism were denied access to public-school programs and were placed in institutions. The passage of Public-Law 94-142 opened the door for children with autism to appropriate education. Ex-president George Bush added autism as a disability designation with IDEA was re authorized in 1990. The curriculum for children with autism should be comprehensive and include programs for communication, cognitive skills, and social and behavioral skills (Koegel, Koegel, & Dunlap, 1996). The curriculum needs to be functional and include behaviors that are frequently required in every day living.
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The skills taught and the activities these students engage in should also be age-appropriate. A functional curriculum requires the teacher to assess the child’s environment and target skills that will be useful (Donnellan et al., 1985; Lovaas, 1981; Schreibman, 1988). Academic skills are feasible for those who are higher functioning but even the lower functioning students should be taught basic skills. It may also be appropriate to carry out vocational training (Coleman, 1992). The current focus on teaching students with autism emphasizes generalization and teaching the learner to master tasks that can be practiced in settings outside of the classroom. For students with autism tasks that enhance the student’s independence, give more opportunity for personal choice, or allow more freedom in the community are considered habitation and contain their own intrinsic rewards (Grandin, 1996; Donnellan et. al., 1985). There are several other problems and controversies associated with educating students with autism.
The first step to educating an autistic student is deciding what to teach and include within their curriculum. Several different areas could be addressed such as academic skills, self-help skills, social skills, vocational training, or behavioral skills. It is important to assess each child individually because not all children with autism need the same skills. The teacher should assess for academic, behavioral, and social excesses and deficits. Assessment should be done by reviewing past records, interviews, checklists, and observational recording. Some students may not have the necessary prerequisite skills for school or instructional situations. The teacher may have to teach these skills. A good method to use with teaching prerequisite skills is modeling (Coleman, 1992). Two main skills that must be taught if children with autism are going to benefit from a classroom situation: the child must be able to learn with a group, and the child must work somewhat independently. One-to-one teaching situations are the most effective with these students. Research has found that when teachers fail to correctly use the behavior modification procedures known to be effective with students with autism, such as the presentation of instructions, prompts, consequences, and the use of chaining or shaping, the child will show little or no progress. It is also extremely important that children with autism have a chance and are involved with their non-handicapped peers who can serve as good role models for students with autism (Schreibman, 1988). One program that has been developed to reach the complex needs of children with autism is TEACCH which stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped children (Lansing & Schopler, 1978). A teacher may often be heard saying that a child cannot learn. This is incorrect. When the child shows no progress, the instructional methods need to be carefully evaluated (Schreibman, 1988).
Motivating children with autism to want to learn presents an interesting problem for educators. It demands creativity on the part of the teacher. The use of positive reinforcement has been shown to motivate them to learn skills such as language, self-help skills, school-related behaviors, and many others. If their tasks, commands, and reinforcers are varied then they are usually more motivated to work. It is also important to create situations in which students with autism can succeed because repeated failure diminishes motivation (Coleman, 1992). Children with autism do not seem to find any intrinsic reinforcement in academic achievements and may resort to other behaviors to avoid learning situations. Giving an autistic child some control over the choice of topic, material used, and activities may increase the student’s interest and motivation (Schreibman, 1988).
To increase motivation and appropriate behaviors it is necessary to identify reinforcers and strategies that will help with this process. The reinforcers that maintain a child’s behavior are often difficult to determine (Ferster, 1985; Lovaas, 1981). There are three main types of reinforcers that are used with children with autism and these are edible, sensory, and social reinforcers (Foxx, 1982). It is important to note that praise, attention, and social reinforcers often do not work. Children with autism are usually motivated to learn only by primary reinforcers such as food or avoidance of pain (Schreibman, 1988). Food is generally an effective reinforcer as long as it is varied. But the use of food may limit generalization. One can reduce the chances of satiation when using food as a reinforcer by varying the edible reinforcer or breaking it into parts (Ferster, 1985). It is important to remember that any type of reinforcer should be given immediately after the desired behavior has occurred. Sensory reinforcers also play a large role in students with autism’s lives and motivation. This type of reinforcer could be in the form of tactile, vibratory, olfactory, visual, or auditory stimulation. Music is a good example of a sensory reinforcer. The use of sensory reinforcers may also help facilitate generalization since such reinforcers are not limited to particular settings (Foxx, 1982;
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Schreibman, 1988). Teachers must also keep detailed behavioral data to determine which reinforcers will work to motivate a certain child to learn (Coleman, 1992).
Another challenging aspect of schooling students with autism is decreasing disruptive behaviors. This is often necessary since children with autism usually have some sort of excessive behaviors which disrupt the learning process. First, it is important to precisely define the behaviors for change. To decrease these behaviors a teacher may try a variety of procedures (Schreibman, 1988). Researchers have found that using the procedures of differential reinforcement of other behaviors (DRO) and differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI) greatly reduces misbehavior. DRI is especially effective because it teaches an alternative appropriate behavior (Foxx, 1982). Another method a teacher may choose to use is extinction. In this procedure the teacher withholds a known reinforcer and ignores the behavior. The only problems with this method is the behavior gets worse before it gets better and it may be difficult to identify the reinforcer to withhold (Schreibman, 1988; Foxx, 1982). Punishment may also be used but it is important to be aware of the legal aspects. One type of punishment is the application of an aversive consequence. This is not recommended for schools but may be necessary if the child engages in self-injurious behaviors which are life-threatening. The second type of punishment is the withdrawal of a positive reinforcer that decreases the future probability of the response. Time-outs and response costs are examples of this type of punishment. Often time-out systems are not effective with children with autism because they may find it reinforcing and it gives more time to self-stimulate (Coleman, 1992; Foxx, 1982). An effective procedure to use with students with autism is overcorrection. The individual has to return to the environment more skilled than at school entry and to engage in positive practice of the behavior. This is good because it is teaching an appropriate behavior but it does require one-on-one supervision (Foxx, 1982; Schreibman, 1988).
In a research study done by Carr and Carlson (1993), it was found that by using a multi-component treatment approach a reduction in inappropriate behaviors was achieved. The multi-component intervention was that five procedures were implemented at the same time. These procedures were choice, embedding, functional communication training, delay of reinforcement, and presentation of discriminative stimuli for non problem behaviors. The results were that all the participants displayed an increase in the percentage of tasks completed, problem behaviors decreased, and an increase in appropriate behaviors also occurred.
Next, communication is a basis for learning and without intervention many students with autism will not develop an organized language system. A very detailed program for use in the home has been written by Lovaas (1981). Initially it is essential to teach the child the importance of a communication exchange since many do not spontaneously initiate simple exchanges such as pointing at a desired object. Teacher prompts and cues are often necessary to attain the behaviors. Modeling and picture prompts often work well but physical guidance may also be necessary. One method of teaching students with autism to communicate is called total communication. This procedure includes many of the following elements: the use of speech, a sign system, finger spelling, auditory training, and speech reading. This system of signing exact English has been modified for autistic persons. The goal of this program is that the students can decode and sign short sentences. Research has shown that this system is effective with most students it has been used with (Marcott-Radke, 1981). Close cooperation with a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) is helpful for the teacher of a student with autism. A SLP should be able to evaluate the level of the student’s communication behavior, whether they are verbal or nonverbal. The SLP can also help the teacher decide what to expect of the student and how to structure learning experiences to enhance the student’s use of gesture, signing, or language (Grandin, 1996). Facilitated communication may also be an option and an important part of a student’s curriculum. In this the teacher must consider an integrated core of social, behavioral, and language problems of the students. The teacher must go beyond the function of the behavior and seek the individual’s intent. Facilitating communicative competence emphasizes the importance of interaction in context rather than looking at the behavior in isolation (Bauer & Sapona, 1987).
Another thing teachers need to overcome is stimulus overselectivity. Students with autism often display limited attention to certain aspects of a task. This can have a detrimental effect on learning. An example of stimulus overselectivity would be if a teacher was trying to teach an autistic child the concept of the
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number five. She used five green blocks to teach this concept and the student focuses on the color instead of the number five (Coleman, 1992). To overcome this problem the concepts that are taught cannot be abstract and they must have observable characteristics. A teacher must never vary or change the determined essential or defining characteristics, and they must always vary the irrelevant characteristics of examples. Also, concepts cannot be taught through a single example. Tasks that the student engages in should include both positive and negative examples of the concept. To determine what the essential characteristics of a concept are the teacher needs to analyze the concept thoroughly. The prompts that are used to assist with initial learning must be systematically applied and faded (Dollar, 1981).
Effective Technologies for Teaching Academics to Persons with Autism
Several studies have been conducted to look at ways to increase an autistic student’s academic progress. It is important that these students get some academic training during the school day. Although many educators differ on whether or not academics should be the focus. It is necessary to look at each individual student and assess, monitor, and evaluate their progress on a daily basis (Foxx, 1982). First, it is mandatory to keep the student engaged in the activities they are involved in. If a teacher builds upon a particular child’s talents then it will help to increase academic progress and motivation. Having structure and a daily schedule will also help the autistic student succeed (Grandin, 1996).
In a study done by Koegel and Frea (1993) found that two high-functioning students with autism benefited from self-management procedures. The self-management procedures were used to increase academic behaviors and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate behaviors. Each child was trained to use the methods and they monitored their own progress and behavior more as time went on. During this experiment a digital watch was set on random intervals and every time it beeped the students had to record their behaviors. The students increased their appropriate behaviors and the self-management procedures also generalized to untreated behaviors. Once their behavioral problems were decreasing the researchers then noticed that their academic progress increased and they became more successful. Self-reinforcement procedures have also been found to be effective with students with autism.
Peer tutors have also been found to be effective in increasing academic behaviors. The students with autism benefit from the one-on-one instruction. It is also a valuable learning experience to have them interact with non-handicapped peers. If the tutors are trained to give feedback, deal with inappropriate behaviors, and give academic instruction then the tutoring is even more beneficial. It has been shown through research studies that children with autism can learn academic skills from their non-handicapped peers. An autistic student’s acquisition rates and on-task behaviors will usually increase while working with a tutor. The tutoring sessions can be short and still be extremely effective. This procedure of peer tutoring is also fairly simple to implement. After the first few sessions the teacher could decrease his/her supervision and would then have more time to work with other children or complete management tasks. It could also help to increase the motivation of the autistic student. Literature has also shown that peer tutoring is also good for the tutor. Peer tutoring not only can help to increase academic performance but can promote positive integration of disabled and non disabled students (Kamps et. al., 1989).
Another successful technology for teaching students with autism involves the use of the discrete trial format. This is a great way to teach new skills. This procedure allows for maximum control over the relevant variables of a concept. In a discrete trial format the teacher specifies three things: the discriminative stimulus, the desired student response, and the consequence. This procedure reduces the problem of students with autism responding to an irrelevant cue or characteristic (Donnellan, et. al., 1985).
Kamps, et al.(1994) studied twelve students with autism were assigned to small groups where they were taught language and functional skills. The teachers of the small groups were trained in enhanced group instruction. The teachers used choral responding, prompted student-to-student interactions, and gave more prompts in general. The results of this study showed that small group enhanced instruction with choral responding increased overall opportunities to respond and increased levels of student responding. Higher
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gains were also made on weekly assessments. Enhanced group instruction is also fairly simple to implement and it can help increase the students’ interactions with others.
Several procedures have been designed to help increase reading fluency. Modeling and previewing have been suggested to be effective methods. Previewing is when the student looks over the material before reading it out loud and it can be done silently, aloud, or with a tape recorder. Another possible intervention requires students to read a word list simultaneously with a taped model. The taped model presents the words at a faster rate than the studentts present oral reading rate. Drill and practice procedures have also been shown to increase reading fluency. All of these procedures will result in higher correct oral reading rates and increased fluency. Research has demonstrated that there may be a direct relationship between the number of opportunities to respond and performance on a reading task (Greenwood, 1996; Skinner & Shapiro, 1989).
Direct Instruction (Carnine, 1996; Carnine, & Silbert, & Kameenui, 1999; Engelmann & Carnine, 1982; Engelmann, Haddox, & Bruner, 1983; Gersten, 1985; Gersten, Carnine, & Woodward, 1987) appears a good procedure to use when teaching students with autism how to read. This is a good method because it does not allow hard to teach students to be cast aside and considered unteachable. The goals of Direct Instruction are for the student to gain efficient acquisition, long-term information recall, and generalization. This procedure gives the students many opportunities to respond, extended practice, cumulative review, has a high mastery criteria, and uses distributed practice. Instruction usually takes place within a small group or in an one-to-one situation. The pacing of the material in this program is very rapid. Finally, Direct Instruction uses specific correction procedures for student errors rather than ignoring or punishing them. Direct instruction sees errors as an indication for the need for more instruction, not as a student defiance or lack of ability (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982; Morgan & Jenson, 1988).
Computer aided instruction may also help increase reading skills, communication skills, or other academic subjects for children with autism. For example, Heimann et. al. (1995) found that children with autism increased both their word reading and their phonological awareness through the use of the Alpha program (computer aided instruction). The Alpha program is a highly motivating and interactive program that uses on-screen animation as well as videodisc material that gives the child immediate feedback. Each noun or verb is immediately animated during sentence creation, and after completion the whole sentence is shown in text and as an animation. Although this particular program was successful it does have some drawbacks. It is important to remember that the students must have the prerequisite skills to use the computers and it may not work with all children with autism. A computer and a multimedia program might be helpful, but there is no absolute magic associated with the computer. Computer aided instruction also usually does not generalize.
In conclusion, even though autism is a complex and confusing disorder researchers have made significant progress in the last ten to twenty years. Educators must keep up with these current findings so that they can give these students the best education possible. It is also extremely important that special education teachers have a good working relationship with the parents and other assistants that work with the autistic student. Communication must be truthful and on-going. Respect is another very important thing to consider and have for the parents and other teachers. Teachers must also be aware of support services and agencies in the community so that they can inform the parents. They must never blame the parents and remember that parents may be experiencing various feelings and dealing with other problems at home (Coleman, 1992; Schreibman, 1988).
It is rare to find a recovered autistic person. Although autism is not curable there are ways to help and treat a person with autism. Through an effective and practical education most autistic persons can gain enough skills to be functional in today’s society. It is extremely important that these students have individualized programs that meet their needs (Schreibman, 1988). In order to design a child’s optimum educational curriculum the educator needs to know what skills will enable the child to function better regardless of the environment the student is in. Many effective educational techniques have been developed to help students
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with autism. Teachers should become aware and trained in these preferred practices (Lansing & Schopler, 1978). Teachers must also be aware of behavior management procedures to use with students with autism. They must also develop creative ways to overcome stimulus overselectivity and the lack of motivation to learn. Language delay is a critical problem in most students with autism lives. Many programs and strategies, such as facilitated communication or total communication, can help assist the special education teacher in educating this critical aspect of the curriculum (Schreibman, 1988).
There are still several questions about autism that are left unanswered to this date. The search for causal factors continues while the search for social and family contributions to the disorder are gradually being replaced by data and rational inferences. Researchers are making progress but finding one cause seems impossible. The current neurological and biological research looks promising, such as the differences in the way autistic persons brains function and the differences in the size of particular parts of the brain. It is important to remember that although autism has some common characteristics, every child is different (Courchesne, 1995; Schopler & Rutter, 1978). We have come a long way since the 1940s and Kanner’s research but there is still more work to be done and answers to be found.
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