Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can bring great joy and also provide unique challenges for their teachers and support workers.
As recommended in Education for All (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005), teachers need to effectively respond to a learner’s needs and strengths through the use of differentiated instruction. This module will outline specific ways to differentiate instruction for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
A wide range of strategies and approaches are available to support the teaching and learning process for students with ASD. Integrating a variety of approaches leads to the development of programs that promote the best outcomes for students.
Any effective teaching strategies that are explicitly taught, when used in response to the profile of the student with autism, becomes a D.I. strategy.
Through this approach, the specific skills or difficulties of students with ASD can be addressed by employing a variety of methods to differentiate (or vary) the following:
- The content: The depth or breadth of the information or skills to be taught.
- The processes: The instructional approaches used with the student, as well as the materials used to deliver or illustrate the content.
- The products of the learning situation: What the end product will be or look like. This product may be tangible (a worksheet, project, composition), a skill that has been acquired, or knowledge that has been gained.
To determine the most effective strategies for students in a learning situation, it is necessary to consider the learning goals for the student in the context of the following questions:
- What do we want the student to learn?
- What essential skills or understandings do we want the student to acquire?
- Why is the student learning this?
- How does the learning goal fit into the goals outlined in the IEP for the student?
- How will the student best learn this?
- What type of activities, materials, and supports are appropriate and effective for the student?
- How will the student demonstrate learning?
- Have an accurate diagnosis of the students’ autistic spectrum disorder and description of strengths and needs in order to create effective differentiated instructional techniques
- Believe in the potential of every student and remember that all students should be provided instruction that maximizes their capacity to learn and process information
- Provide students with a consistent schedule of activities and learning outcomes
- Have a plan in place to effectively manage students with behavioral disorders that may impact their learning
- Use visuals (eg. create visual posters that show the learning objectives and allow students to create their own visual notebooks to show what they’ve learned, construct checklists for students who are unable to engage fully in the learning process, use smart boards, transparencies on overheads to project the learning objectives in a larger format for students needing more academic support from visual mediums)
- Use the IEP to direct learning objectives
ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN should be the teacher’s goal in differentiating instruction
Example of DI
- Anchor Activities: are tasks to which learners automatically move when they complete assigned work; they help to keep transitions to a minimum & provide a specific schedule for students with ASD
- Cooperative Learning: requires the teacher to instruct/model appropriate group roles and expectations & assigns a specific role to each learner; this gives the student with ASD a “script” of how to act in the group & opportunities to practice appropriate social skills
- Flexible Grouping: uses homogeneous groups or like ability groups sparingly, are intended to maximize individual learning (giving the student with ASD the opportunity to share information that they know, special interests etc.)
- Modeling: requires teachers to model learning strategies & to demonstrate the learning task giving the student with ASD a visual example of what is expected of them
- Scaffolding: gradually transfers the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner thereby fostering a more independent learner, advances learning one step at a time (making learning very predictable for students with ASD)
Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom
Differentiation involves an ongoing process of monitoring student response to the differentiated strategies and evaluating student progress on a regular basis. Strategies that are found to be effective for a student during one activity may be less effective over time or during another activity. The level and type of differentiation will need to be varied according to the student’s response and progress. Data from assessments and observations should be used to inform decisions about the effectiveness of methods being used and further differentiation that may be required.
Using Visuals Supports to Differentiate Instruction
The use of visual supports is one of the most widely recommended strategies for teaching students with ASD, as they usually process visual information more efficiently and effectively than information that is presented verbally.
Visual images help students to understand information as they provide a source that can be referred to as often as necessary and for the length of time that is required in order to process the content of the information.
- involve using a variety of materials to help students see the concept, process or skill being taught (eg. sketches, picture symbols, maps, charts, graphic organizers, manipulatives, Power Point, Smart Boards, rubrics)
- should be embedded into the lesson or routines of the classroom
- must be displayed where learners can readily refer to them during and following instruction
Visuals are mainly used to
Purpose of Visuals
When planning an activity, it is important to consider ways the information can be presented in a simple, visual format that may be effective for a student with ASD to comprehend. Visual supports can vary according to the ability of the student to recognize and understand the connection between the visual and the intended message.
There is a behaviour-communication-visual link:
- The causes of behaviour difficulties are frequently related to communication difficulties: problems in understanding and/or difficulty with expression.
- The remedy to improve behaviour is improving communication
- The method is using visual strategies to support communication
When planning an activity, it is important to consider ways the information can be presented in a simple, visual format that may be effective for a student with ASD to comprehend.
Hierarchy of Visual Supports
In order for visual aids to successfully help a student to learn, they must match the student’s level of comprehension.
Visual supports can vary according to the ability of the student to recognize and understand the connection between the visual and the intended message. The goal of using visuals is to help a student understand or convey information.
Structured Learning Environment
Students with ASD require a structured learning environment to know what is expected of them in specific situations, to assist them in anticipating what comes next, and to learn and generalize a variety of skills (Iovannone et al., 2003)
It is also important to structure the physical environment so that it is organized with “a place for everything and everything in its place”. The student’s seating arrangement needs to be consistent and in a location that affords as few distractions or exposure to sensory irritants as possible.
Developing as much consistency as possible in the environment, schedule, and instructional approaches provides structure and routines that may increase the comfort level and reduce anxiety for students with ASD.
For more details you may want to visit the Structured Teaching Module
Technology can be used by students to provide alternative methods to access information, demonstrate and reinforce learning, and interact with others. It can also be used by adults as a tool to support the teaching and learning process.
As the learning needs of students with ASD are diverse, it is important that a student’s specific technological needs be evaluated and that the use of assistive technology be carefully planned.
Students with ASD vary in their sensitivity and tolerance to sensory stimulation in the environment. It is important to be aware of the sensory preferences or sensitivities of a student and to determine possible elements in the environment that might have an impact on a student’s learning and level of anxiety.
Some students are very (“hyper-”) sensitive in one or more sensory areas and may be more comfortable in environments with reduced levels of sensory stimulation. Other individuals are under (“hypo-”) sensitive and seek enhanced sensory experience.
Applied Behaviour Analysis
As outlined in Policy/Program Memorandum No. 140, “Incorporating Methods of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) into Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)”, 2007, ABA is an effective approach to understanding and changing behaviour, and teaching new skills. ABA uses methods based on scientific principles of learning and behaviour to build useful repertoires and reduce problematic ones.
ABA methods can be used to:
- increase positive behaviours
- teach new skills
- maintain behaviours
- generalize or transfer behaviour from one situation to another
- restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviour occurs
Examples of teaching strategies using ABA methods include: prompts, modelling, reinforcement, task analysis, forward chaining, backward chaining, Discrete Trial Training, and shaping.
The methods of ABA that are used within educational programs should be varied according to the strengths and needs of individual students, and the types of behaviours and skills that need to be taught.
For more details you may want to visit the Applied Behaviour Analysis Module=
Individual Education Plan (IEP)
Students with ASD generally have an individual education plan to lay out special accommodations. They can be extremely gifted and/or extremely deficient in academic and behavioral abilities so their IEP can range from minimal intervention to a whole spectrum of differentiated support and resource services. But it’s important to get to know the disorder and understand how differentiating your lessons, accommodations and possibly modifications to your lessons are key to reaching your students with autism (Lisa Goring, with Autism Speaks).
For more details you may want to visit the Individual Education Plan Module
Check your schools for some of the following books
- Education for All, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005
- EFFECTIVE EDUCATIONAL PRACTICES FOR STUDENTS WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS, 2007
- Learning for All, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2009