Instruction for Children With Autism
By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA
communication is one of the primary defining characteristics of
children with autism. Many of these children do not speak at all
and often withdraw when approached by another person. This is a
problem because they can't ask for things they want or need. This
limitation and the frustration it causes can negatively impact their
relationships with others and lead to problem behaviors such as
tantrums, hitting, and hyperactivity.
well-designed program to develop and improve language and communication
for children with autism should, therefore, be one of the most important
intervention goals for special educators and parents.
To address language problems, it is necessary to directly teach
the skills these children are missing. Instruction should begin
as early as possible and be as intensive as possible. Communication
needs to be "functional" in terms of meeting the child's
progress is likely to occur if the child is in a "language-based"
environment in which language is the key feature of the program
and is a part of all activities, including self-care and play. Other
components of a successful program include:
Individual assessment that pinpoints current ability and identifies
- A curriculum that progresses to more complex forms of verbal behavior
- A foundation in applied behavior analysis (ABA)
- Collecting data daily to determine progress
- Targeting speech, but also using sign language and picture exchange
- A fun and rewarding learning environment that encourages cooperation
with the instructor
- Creating opportunities for language and focusing on a variety
of verbal behaviors (see below)
- A separate learning area, away from the distractions of other
- Staff who are trained in language instruction techniques, including
the use of shaping, prompting, and positive reinforcement
are listed the types of verbal behavior and examples of annual goals
that should be part of the program curriculum. This information
is based upon the work of Mark Sundberg and James Partington and
is the foundation of May Institute programs in western Massachusetts.
Requesting: Teach the child to use language to request items he
or she wants. We begin by teaching the child to point, sign, use
a picture, or speak. To encourage requesting, we use each child's
particular favorite "rewards" that are not available at
other times, such as pretzel pieces, bubbles, or a special book.
A typical goal is to teach the child to request up to 10 different
" Motor imitation: A child will learn many skills if he or
she can readily copy an adult's actions when told, "do this."
We often start by teaching the child to clap, open a book, stack
two blocks, and shake a maraca. We will work on as many as 50 different
Vocal imitation: Once progress is made in motor imitation, we add
in imitation of mouth movements and small sounds.
Vocalizations: Speech is the most desired response. Every effort
should be made to reward any vocalizations the child makes with
attention, physical contact, or other special items.
Receptive language: We want the child to listen to, understand,
and respond to the language of others. Therefore, we encourage him
or her to follow instructions such as "stand up," "jump,"
"come here," and to point to items and pictures. Our goal
is to teach the child more than 200 words.
Labeling: Similarly, we want the child to state the name of items.
We select words that are important to him or her and work towards
Advanced responses: After a child learns approximately 50 words
receptively and with labeling, we begin to teach the functions of
items (what you can do with an item), the features of items (size,
color, texture), and their general categories (animals, foods, clothing).
a child has mastered the skills listed above, we encourage him or
her to participate in conversations with other people. Helping children
with autism develop the ability to converse with others and make
their needs and feelings understood is vitally important to improving
their overall quality of life.
Institute operates schools for children and adolescents with autism
and other developmental disabilities in Chatham, Randolph, Woburn,
and West Springfield, Mass., and in Freeport, Maine. We also provide
residential and day services for adults. For more information, contact
us at 800-778-7601, or at www.mayinstitute.org.
Dr. Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300,
or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
information presented on this site is intended solely as a general
educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.