Specific Learning Disabilities


Specific learning disabilities refers to a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language. This disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, and/or to perform mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual impairments, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor impairments; intellectual disabilities; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

In determining the existence of a specific learning disability, the following must be present:

  1. Does not achieve at the proper age and ability levels in one or more of several specific areas when provided with appropriate learning experiences and age-appropriate instruction in one or more of the following areas:

    1. oral expression

    2. listening comprehension

    3. written expression

    4. basic reading skill

    5. reading fluency skills

    6. reading comprehension

    7. mathematics calculations

    8. mathematics reasoning

  2. Does not make adequate progress to meet age or grade-level standards in one or more of the prior areas identified when utilizing the process of the child's response to empirically based interventions; or a pattern of weaknesses and strengths have been determined to exist in performance, achievement or both, relative to age, state-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, as determined by certified assessment professionals.



Specific learning disabilities are considered a high-incidence disability. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there are over 2.8 million students being served for specific learning disabilities. This number of students is approximately 47.4% of all children receiving special education services.



Students with learning disabilities are very heterogeneous, meaning that no two students possess the identical profile of strengths and weaknesses. The concept of learning disabilities covers an extremely wide range of characteristics. One student may have a deficit in just one area while another may exhibit deficits in numerous areas, yet both may be labeled as learning disabled.

Over time, parents, educators, and other professionals have identified a wide variety of characteristics associated with learning disabilities. These include:

  • Academic problems

  • Disorders of attention

  • Poor motor abilities

  • Psychological process deficits and information-processing problems

  • Lack of cognitive strategies needed for efficient learning

  • Oral language difficulties

  • Reading difficulties

  • Written language problems

  • Mathematical disorders

  • Social skill deficits

Not all students will exhibit these characteristics, and many pupils who demonstrate these same behaviors are successful in the classroom. For students with a learning disability, it is the quantity, intensity, and duration of these behaviors that lead to problems in school and elsewhere. It should also be noted that boys are four times more likely to be labeled with a learning disability than girls. The reason for this has not yet been determined by researchers.


Impact on Learning

Learning disabilities are historically characterized as having a strong impact on psychological processes, academic achievement, and social/emotional development.

Psychological Processes

Psychological processes is a broad term that incorporates the wide range of thinking skills we use to process and learn information. The five psychological, or cognitive, processes that are affected by a learning disability are perception, attention, memory, metacognition, and organization.



Perception is the ability to organize and interpret the information experienced through the sensory channels, such as visual or auditory input. Perception is important to learning because it provides us with our first sensory impressions about something we see or hear. A student relies on his perceptual abilities to recognize, compare, and discriminate information. An example would be the ability to distinguish the letter "B" from the letter "D" based on the overall shape, direction of the letter, and its parts. Some children with learning disabilities reverse letters, words, or whole passages during reading or writing.



Attention is a broad term that refers to the ability to receive and process information. Attention deficits are one of the disorders teachers most frequently associate with individuals with learning disabilities. Teachers may describe their students with learning disabilities as "distractible" or "in his own world." The inability to focus on information can inhibit the student's ability to perform tasks in the classroom at the appropriate achievement level.



Memory involves many different skills and processes such as encoding (the ability to organize information for learning). Students with learning disabilities may experience deficits in working memory which affects their ability to store new information and to retrieve previously processed information from long-term memory.



Metacognition is the ability to monitor and evaluate performance. This process supplies many of the keys to learning from experience, generalizing information and strategies, and applying what you have learned. It requires the ability to:

  • Identify and select learning skills and techniques to facilitate the acquisition of information

  • Choose or create the setting in which you are most likely to receive material accurately

  • Identify the most effective and efficient way to process and present information

  • Evaluate and adapt your techniques for different materials and situations

A deficit in any of these skills can have a major impact on the ability of a student to learn new information and apply it to any situation.



Organization is the underlying thread of all these cognitive processes. The inability to organize information can affect the most superficial tasks or the most complex cognitive activities. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties organizing their thought processes, their classwork, and their environment. Any deficit in these areas can have a detrimental effect on the academic success of the student.

Together, these five key processes enable us to receive information correctly, arrange it for easier learning, identify similarities and differences with other knowledge we have, select a way to learn the information effectively, and evaluate the effectiveness of our learning process. If a student has problems doing any or all of these things, it is easy to see how all learning can be affected.


Academic Achievement

Because of the effect on cognitive processes, students with learning disabilities may have difficulty in a variety of academic areas as well as social and emotional development. While a student with a learning disability may have difficulties in all academic areas, major problems are more often found in reading, language arts, and mathematics.



Reading is the most difficult skill area for the majority of students with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities in reading encompass a vast array of reading issues including dyslexia. Some of the most common reading disabilities are word analysis, fluency, and reading comprehension.

  • Word analysis includes the ability to associate sounds with the various letters and letter combinations used to write them, to immediately recognize and remember words, and to use the surrounding text to help figure out a specific word. Word analysis is a foundational skill for reading. For students with learning disabilities, it is a major issue to overcome to be a successful reader.

  • Fluency is the rate of accurate reading (correct words per minute). With processing and word analysis issues, a high rate of reading fluency is often quite difficult for a student with a learning disability.

  • Reading comprehension is the ability to understand written material. If a student with learning disabilities has difficulty reading written material, then comprehension will always be greatly affected. While problems with word analysis can affect reading comprehension, other factors that may contribute to problems with reading comprehension include the inability to successfully identify and organize information from the material.


Language Arts

Language arts is often another problematic academic area for students with learning disabilities. While language arts is a broad subject, students with learning disabilities have problems with three major skill areas that affect the entire subject. These include spelling, spoken language, and written language. Because of the close relationship of some of these skills to reading ability, they tend to be areas of great difficulty for many students with learning disabilities.

  • Spelling requires all the essential skills used in the word-analysis strategies of phonics and sight-word reading. The difficulties students with learning disabilities have in learning and applying rules of phonics, visualizing the word correctly, and evaluating spellings result in frequent misspellings, even as they become more adept at reading.

  • Spoken language, or oral language, is a deficit area for many students with learning disabilities, impacting both academic and social performance. Spoken language issues may include problems identifying and using appropriate speech sounds, using appropriate words and understanding word meanings, using and understanding various sentence structures, and using appropriate grammar and language. Other problem areas include understanding underlying meanings, such as irony or figurative language, and adjusting language for different uses and purposes.

  • Written language is often an area of great difficulty for students with learning disabilities. Specific problems include inadequate planning, structure, and organization; immature or limited sentence structure; limited and repetitive vocabulary; limited consideration of audience, unnecessary or unrelated information or details; and errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and handwriting. Students with learning disabilities often lack both the motivation and the monitoring and evaluation skills considered necessary for good writing.



Mathematics does not receive the same attention as reading and language arts, but many students with learning disabilities have unique difficulties in this subject area. Specific problems may include difficulty understanding size and spatial relationships and concepts related to direction, place value, decimals, fractions, and time and difficulty remembering math facts. Remembering and correctly applying the steps in mathematical problems (such as the steps involved in long division) and reading and solving word problems are significant problem areas.

Social and Emotional Development

It is important to realize that most social behaviors also involve learning. The characteristics that interfere with a student's acquisition of reading or writing skills can also interfere with his or her ability to acquire or interpret social behaviors. For example, individuals may have difficulties correctly interpreting social situations and reading social cues, and they may act impulsively without identifying the consequences of their behavior or recognizing the feelings and concerns of others.


Teaching Strategies

Students with learning disabilities are often served in regular classes by general education teachers with the support of a special educator. As with the education of any student with a disability, it is important that the general and special educators collaborate effectively in order to develop a set of teaching strategies for the student.

Teaching Strategies for Students with Perceptual Difficulties:

  • Do not present two pieces of information together that may be perceptually confusing. For example, do not teach the spelling of ie words (believe) and ei words (perceive) in the same day.

  • Highlight the important characteristics of new material. For example, underline or use bold letters to draw a student's attention to the same sound pattern presented in a group of reading or spelling words (mouse, house, round).


Teaching Strategies for Students with Attention Difficulties:

  • Maintain attention by:

    • Breaking long tasks or assignments into smaller segments (administer the smaller segments throughout the day)

    • Presenting limited amounts of information on a page

    • Gradually increasing the amount of time a student must attend to a task or lecture

  • Use prompts and cues to draw attention to important information. Types of cues include:

    • Written cues, such as highlighting directions on tests or activity sheets

    • Verbal cues, such as using signal words to let students know they are about to hear important information

    • Instructional cues, such as having a student paraphrase directions or other information to you

  • Teach students a plan for identifying and high-lighting important information for themselves


Teaching Strategies for Students with Memory Difficulties:

  • Teachers may need to teach the following memory strategies to students with learning disabilities:

    • Chunking is the grouping of large strings of information into smaller, more manageable "chunks". Telephone numbers, for example, are "chunked" into small segments for easier recall.

    • Rehearsal is the repetition, either oral or silent, of the information to be remembered.

    • Elaboration is the weaving of the material to be remembered into a meaningful context.

    • Categorization is when the information to be remembered is organized by the category to which it belongs. For example, all the animals in a list could be grouped together for remembering.


Teaching Word-Analysis Skills:

  • Phonics: Use structured phonics programs that:

    • Teach most common sounds first

    • Stress specific phonics rules and patterns

    • Expose the beginning reader only to words that contain sounds he or she has already learned.

  • Sight words:

    • Require the student to focus on all important aspects of the word (all letters, not just the first and last ones).

    • Have the student discriminate between the new word and frequently confused words. For example, if you are introducing the word "what" as a sight word, make sure the child can read the word when it is presented with words such as "that", "which", and "wait."

  • Context clues:

    • Control the reading level of materials used so that students are presented with few unfamiliar words.

    • For beginning readers, present illustrations after the text selection has been read.

    • Teach students to use context clues as a decoding strategy after they are adept at beginning phonics analysis.


Teaching Reading Comprehension:

  • Predictions can be based on pictures, headings, subtitles, and graphs. They can be used to activate the students' prior knowledge before reading, increase attention to sequencing during reading, and can be evaluated after reading.

  • Questions can be asked before reading to help students attend to important information.

  • Teachers may prepare an advanced organizer on the text to help focus students' attention on key material in the text. The student can review the organizer before reading and take notes on it while reading.

  • Self-monitoring or self evaluation techniques can be used when reading longer passages. For example, students can stop periodically and paraphrase the text or check their understanding.


Teaching Writing:

  • Provide effective writing instruction that includes daily practice on a range of writing tasks, teacher modeling, cooperative learning opportunities, follow-up instruction and feedback, and integrating writing activities across the curriculum.

  • Tailor writing instruction to meet the needs of individual children. Adaptations may include student-specific topics for instruction, one-to-one supplemental instruction, and adapting task requirements.

  • Intervene early on writing assignments.

  • Expect that each child will learn to write. Teacher's expectations, coupled with a supportive and positive classroom, can facilitate the writing performance of students with learning disabilities.

  • Identify and address academic and non-academic stumbling blocks such as behavior or social problems in the classroom.

  • Take advantage of technological tools for writing.


Direct Instruction:

Direct instruction commonly refers to:

  1. The identification and instruction of specific academic skills and

  2. The use of teaching techniques that have been empirically demonstrated to be effective with students with learning disabilities

Direction instruction teaching methods address the organization and presentation of instruction. The approach is very teacher-directed and includes an initial presentation based on the teacher first modeling the skill or response, then providing guided practice (leading), and, finally, eliciting independent student responses (testing).


Assistive Technology

Students with learning disabilities have a variety of difficulties in school. In order for many students with learning disabilities to be successful in school, assistive technology devices are used to accommodate the student's learning. Here are a few of the types of assistive technologies used for students with learning disabilities:


  • Text to Speech software

  • OCR software applications

  • Screen Reading software

  • Audio Books


  • Portable Word Processors

  • Auditory Word Processing Software

  • Word Prediction Programs

  • Graphical Word Processors

  • On-Screen Keyboards

  • Voice Recognition Software

  • Organizational/Outlining/Drafting Software

  • Online Writing Support

There are also an array of software packages that address specific academic areas (such as mathematics), daily living skills, and social skills.

Intellectual Disability

An intellectual disability, formerly referred to as “mental retardation”, is not an inherent trait of any individual, but instead is characterized by a combination of deficits in both cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior. The severity of the intellectual disability is determined by the discrepancy between the individual's capabilities in learning and in and the expectations of the social environment. It should be noted that while the term “mental retardation” is still widely used within education and government agencies; however, many advocacy groups feel that this label has too many negative connotations. The newer terms of intellectual disability or developmental disability are becoming far more accepted and prevalent within the field.



Prevalence ratings for intellectual disabilities are inconsistent, highlighting the often hidden nature of intellectual disabilities within other disability classifications. The U.S. Department of Education reports 5,971,495 students receiving special education services in the 2003-2004 school year. Of that number, 9.6%, or 573,264 students, received special education services based on a classification of intellectually disabled.



The large majority of individuals considered intellectually disabled are in the mild range with an IQ of 50 to 70. For many of these individuals, there is no specific known cause of their developmental delays. The validity and reliability of the IQ tests used with these individuals are often in question. However, if a student is evaluated and scores an IQ of 70 or lower, he or she is considered to have an intellectual disability. The problems with these labels are that the guidelines can be altered, as in the 1970s when eligibility guidelines shifted and thousands that were previously "mentally retarded" were miraculously “cured” by changing federal regulation. The two characteristics shared in varying degrees by all individuals with intellectual disabilities are limitations in intellectual functioning and limitations in adaptive behavior. Limitations in intellectual functioning often include difficulties with memory recall, task and skill generalization, and these students may demonstrate a tendency towards low motivation and learned helplessness. Issues in adaptive behavior may include difficulties with conceptual skills, social skills and practical skills. Individuals with intellectual disabilities also often exhibit deficits in self-determination skills as well, including skill areas such as choice making, problem solving, and goal setting. Students labeled as mildly intellectually disabled demonstrate delays in cognitive, social, and adaptive behavior skills within typical classroom settings. Often when they are in different settings, these same individuals function quite capably both socially and vocationally. In their adult lives, these individuals can be independent and well-adjusted in the world outside of school settings. It is only in the context of academic demands and intensive intellectual challenges that their abilities appear impaired. This type of school-based diagnosis has been referred to as “six-hour retardation”, reflecting the time the student is actually in the classroom and appears to be academically impaired. The assertion that intellectual disabilities is a school-based diagnosis underlines the often arbitrary nature of eligibility requirements in this disability category for future adult services. A label of intellectual disabilities prior to age 18 is necessary for individuals to receive specialized services beyond high school.


Impact on Learning

With the appropriate supports in place, students with intellectual disabilities can achieve a high quality of life in many different aspects. Curriculum and instruction must be carefully modified to help these students reach their potential in both academics and other functional areas such as independent living. While these students will have limitations in many adaptive behaviors, these limitations will co-exist alongside strengths in other areas within the individual. Independence and self-reliance should always be primary goals of all instructional strategies employed with students with intellectual disabilities.

However, a child with a significant intellectual deficit will not be able to cognitively “catch up” to his peers in terms of intelligence and academic performance. In fact, the opposite is more often true and the child will fall further behind as he gets older, particularly if no appropriate academic supports are implemented. Even with a good program in place, the cognitive and academic gap between these students and their typically functioning peers often widens with age. The child with developmental delays will learn and understand far fewer things at a much slower pace than the average child, and intellectual development will always be significantly impaired. However, the child with the intellectual deficit will continue to learn and understand some aspects of the world, but this cognitive growth is less complete and there will remain significant gaps in the student’s knowledge base. Because new learning is filtered through a younger mental context in children with developmental delays, the quality of what is learned and how it is applied will be far different than the perspective of a typically developing peer.


Teaching Strategies

To fully address the limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior often experienced by individuals with intellectual disabilities, teachers need to provide direct instruction in a number of skill areas outside of the general curriculum. These skills are more functional in nature but are absolutely essential for the future independence of the individual. Additional skill areas include money concepts, time concepts, independent living skills, self-care and hygiene, community access, leisure activities, and vocational training. Students with intellectual disabilities learn these skills most effectively in the settings or activities in which they will be asked to apply these skills. Once the skills are mastered, then additional environments can be added to work towards generalization.

General curriculum areas should not be neglected however, and there are some promising practices to help support these students in a number of academic areas. One effective early literacy strategy with these students is prelinguistic milieu teaching (Fey, et.al, 2006), a technique that ties instruction to the specific interests and abilities of the individual child. This language acquisition instructional strategy also helps support effective self-determination, as a key component of the training is frequent requesting behavior from the student. Breaking down larger tasks into their specific component parts can be an effective technique for teaching any number of skills to students with intellectual disabilities. More complex concepts or activities can then be taught over time, and as the student masters one component of the task, another is added to the routine. This type of task analysis can be taught using a variety of instructional supports, from physical and verbal prompting to observational learning. As always, the specific instructional strategies and materials used with the student should be aligned to the student’s own interests and strengths.

Useful strategies for teaching students with intellectual disabilities include, but are not limited to, the following techniques:

  • Teach one concept or activity component at a time

  • Teach one step at a time to help support memorization and sequencing

  • Teach students in small groups, or one-on-one, if possible

  • Always provide multiple opportunities to practice skills in a number of different settings

  • Use physical and verbal prompting to guide correct responses, and provide specific verbal praise to reinforce these responses


Assistive Technology

The use of real materials or actual tools in natural environments is an essential component in the effective instruction of students with intellectual disabilities. Although these materials would be labeled as “low tech” teaching resources, they serve to both motivate the student and facilitate generalization to multiple environments. An example of this type of technology would be the use of manipulatives or concrete objects for a math lesson. Teachers should keep in mind that students with intellectual disabilities in inclusive classrooms also benefit from using the same materials as the rest of the students whenever possible. In other words, a high school student would use a calculator to work math problems whereas an elementary student may be more likely to use counting blocks.

There are a number of existing software packages designed to support students with intellectual disabilities in the classroom. One promising approach in literacy software utilizes universal design for learning principles. This approach combines reading for meaning with direct instruction for decoding and understanding. The resulting software consists of an audio and video based curriculum that can be adjusted by the teacher to meet the specific academic capacities of the student.

Ultimately, any learning software that can tailor content to address the interests of the student can be useful in supporting learning with individuals with intellectual disabilities, given that the instruction can be adapted to meet the needs of the individual.


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that can have a significant impact on a student’s communication skills, social interactions, and behaviors. Those more severely impacted exhibit autistic characteristics at a relatively young age with unusual behaviors such as repetitive behaviors, self stimulating movements, resistance to change, and atypical reactions to sensory input.

A number of disorders are included within the umbrella category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. These include not only the most severe form known as autism, but also pervasive developmental disorder/not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rett’s Disorder.

  • Pervasive developmental disorder/not otherwise specified is diagnosed when the individual displays some of the characteristic symptoms of autism but does not meet the 6 out of 12 criteria defined in the Diagnostic Standards Manual IV necessary for a diagnosis of autism.

  • Asperger’s Syndrome is generally (and incorrectly) considered a milder form of autism. While individuals with this diagnosis have more spoken language, they can exhibit significant delays in the pragmatic aspects of social interaction that prevent them from being able to hold a job or live independently. Individuals in this category of autism are considered to be in the “high functioning range” of the disorder because they can speak and often test to have very high IQs. However, social impairments can prove to require a lifetime of support.

  • Rett’s Disorder is historically not considered truly autism, but it shares many of the same common symptoms along with some notable differences. Unlike autism, Rett’s Disorder is progressively degenerative. And while autism affects a far greater number of males than females, nearly all cases of Rett’s Disorder have been present in females.

  • The most essential feature of Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is a marked regression in multiple areas of functioning following a period of at least 2 years of apparently typical development and before age 10 years.



The most accepted prevalence rate for autism is 10 per 10,000, a rate derived from analysis of 32 separate prevalence surveys conducted between 1966 and 2001. This rate is highly contested however, with some autism advocates and professionals who work with this population, claiming an incidence rate of approximately 1 in 150. Without question, the prevalence rate has been steadily rising in the past decade, but whether this is due to improved diagnostic procedures or an actual increase in incidence is unclear.



The characteristics of autism can vary widely from individual to individual dependent on both developmental age and etiology. However, there are key characteristics that are apparent in some form in this population across all of the spectrum disorders. Individuals with autism will always have developmental differences in communicative function, social interaction skills, and behavioral characteristics that will be present to varying degrees.

Communicative functioning in individuals with autism is often delayed, both in verbal and in nonverbal communication abilities. Language development is slow and atypical, and currently about 50% of individuals never progress to spoken or symbolic communication. When language does develop, the individual may be unable to sustain conversation unless it involves something of personal interest to them, and abstract topics, such as emotions, may be rarely expressed. Nonverbal abilities are also impacted in autism, and social skills, such as maintaining eye contact and appropriate personal space, can be particularly difficult for these individuals. These deficits in communication can negatively impact the ability of these individuals to successfully navigate the social world of friendship, academia and work.


Socially, individuals with ASD can be as diverse as their typical peers - seeking constant attention at one end of the spectrum, all the way to avoiding all contact at the other end of the spectrum. Their inability to express their desire for social contact in socially acceptable ways (i.e. they may not make any eye contact and may look away while standing very close) often gives the impression that a person with ASD wishes to be isolated from their peers. Students with ASD may lack the pragmatic, language, observation and imitation skills to participate in a majority of social situations. Additionally, people with ASD may also have difficulty with personal hygiene, conforming to dress codes, and auditory processing. Students with ASD may experience difficulty responding to new and/or unique situations. They may have restricted interests and self-stimulating behavior which can negatively impact their ability to socialize easily or effectively. If 90% of communication is non-verbal, individuals with ASD are often unaware of this 90% of communication.

Unusual, negative and/or aggressive behavior issues are often present in individuals with autism, some of which can pose a danger to the individual. Some children can display self-injurious behavior such as biting, scratching, pinching, or hitting their own faces or bodies. These extreme behaviors often seem to have an underlying communicative function, such as expressing pain or hunger. Individuals with autism can also be drawn to ingest nonedible items, a condition called pica, which they share with a number of other disability categories. These individuals can often be alternately extremely sensitive or nonreactive to both sounds and touch.


Impact on Learning

There are several key characteristics of autism that must be taken into consideration when planning an instructional program for a student with autism. One primary issue with students with autism is the communication deficit that is inherent to this condition. A student with autism generally may not be able to communicate effectively with either peers or adults and will sometimes give the impression of understanding an instruction when such comprehension is not actually taking place. Verbal instruction should be short, simple and direct and supplemented with a visual cue if it is a new or unique instruction. Visual processing is quite good in most children with autism, and thus, they are highly motivated by visual information. An effective instructional program for a student with autism combines auditory instruction with some type of visual support.


Personnel who work with individuals with autism will need to be careful and pay attention to training about the types of prompts used with this population as the students frequently become prompt dependent. Some children with autism will wait for an adult-directed verbal or physical prompt even when they know what is expected of them. Once this dependency on cues develops, this habit is very difficult to break.


An effective instructional program for individuals on the autism spectrum needs to also address the difficulties with generalization of topics and information learned and experienced by these students. Students with autism will sometimes focus on irrelevant aspects of an activity rather than the important points, making the design of instructional programs very challenging for teachers. Instruction works best when the teacher isolates or highlights key points of what is being taught in order to insure that students are focusing on and learning the intended lesson objectives.


Students with autism also typically respond poorly to changes in routine, sometimes resulting in problem behaviors or self injurious behaviors. These problem behaviors can impact the teacher-student, peer-student, or the parent-child relationship, and that perhaps is the greatest challenge facing an effective instructional program for students with autism. Children with autism can prove very challenging to teach, and they often need far more instruction than other students in order to grasp concepts. In the face of problem behavior and no emotional connection with the student, the teacher may find it particularly challenging to continue working towards social and instructional interactions that may require intensive repetition and practice.


Managing Student Behavior

For decades, behavior management has been guided by two basic tenets. One, behavior can be analyzed and understood, and two, behavior is determined and caused by the environment in which it takes place. Determining the function of a student’s challenging behavior is absolutely essential in developing an appropriate intervention to eliminate or replace inappropriate behaviors. Each behavior serves some specific purpose for the student displaying the behavior. Typically, this type of maladaptive behavior in students with autism is communicative, as the individual has not yet developed a more effective way of communicating to others. It often is the only way the child has learned to ask for preferred objects or activities or alternately escape painful or unwanted tasks or environments. When the student receives the desired result, this maladaptive behavior is, of course, reinforced in the perspective of that student and is likely to be used again. Particular attention must be paid by a third party observer to specific details of the environment in which the challenging behavior takes place. A third party can often better observe the environment and resulting behaviors more objectively than individuals involved in the situation.


The particular behavior may serve different functions in different environments; for example, the same act of aggression may be used either to receive attention from a preferred caregiver or to escape an unwanted task or sensory stimuli. If the specific purpose of the behavior is not determined, any intervention employed will meet with little success and may even compound or escalate the behavior. Once the teacher can determine what the behavior is communicating, a more appropriate method of communication can be introduced and taught to the student. Building on the pre-existing skills of the student, teachers can devise an effective communication strategy that will lead to better outcomes for both the student and those around him. The general education teacher should be able to rely on the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team for assistance in developing strategies for the student with autism. This team should include special education professionals who are familiar with the student and the disorder who can partner with the student’s family members, general education teachers, and other school personnel to develop appropriate communication strategies for the student.


Teaching Strategies

Children with autism pose a challenge because their unique set of strengths and challenges requires individualized interventions that are not typically a part of teacher preparation programs unless teachers are trained in applied behavior analysis or positive behavior supports. Teachers of students with autism must be aware of the characteristics of autism in order to develop an effective instructional program that best serves the needs of this unique population. The classroom setting and all instructional materials must be organized to best reflect the learning styles of these students, and the delivery of instruction must also follow suit. However, making these accommodations in setting and style is not difficult for teachers who follow established best practices for all students. In fact, when teachers adapt instructional organization and delivery for students with autism, the likely result will be a higher degree of learning for the entire class.

First, the teacher must design the classroom and all instructional materials to contain visual supports and cues. Students with autism typically have far better visual processing skills than auditory processing skills and respond well to picture symbols and other visual information. Picture symbols can be used to create a personal visual schedule for the student and can be instrumental in minimizing many problem behaviors. Being able to anticipate transitions and changes in routine ahead of time can be a powerful emotional support for these students. Picture symbol cues may be posted in readable areas. The classroom environment itself should have clearly marked delineations between work and leisure areas.


Second, the teacher should use instructional goals in the daily routines of the student. This allows for multiple opportunities to practice newly acquired skills throughout the day. This is a technique that is often used in general education, especially with reading instruction. Often targeted goals can be infused in a variety of lessons by using thematic teaching, a teaching style that utilizes extended teaching units based on one central idea or theme. Some additional classroom planning may need to take place, but most effective teachers probably are using some form of integrated curriculum in their classroom even before they have a student with autism in their class.


Third, forming strong connections with the parents of children with autism can be a very effective instructional support. Good parent-teacher relations are important for any student’s progress; however, it can be critical for students with autism in order for any meaningful generalization to transfer to the home and community environments. These students typically need a great deal of extra practice to master many academic and social skills, and the parents can be very useful as tutors in the home setting. The teacher should collaborate with the parents at every step, and the parents should be instrumental in choosing the goals and skills they would like to work on with their child. Support systems and activities should be as simple as possible to ensure their ready application.


Assistive Technology

Due to the inherent difficulties with communication experienced by individuals with autism, an alternate communicative support system can be designed to help support productive social interaction. Individuals with autism typically respond best to visual information that is support to written or verbal labels. A communication system is an object and/or technique that can be utilized to supplement and support communication between individuals. A communication system can incorporate items as simple as specific short verbal phrases, written notes, or any number of augmentative communication devices. This visual information can be presented in the form of simple line drawings or in photographs of actual people and objects. Once the student has learned the significance of these pictures (i.e., that a picture of a ball represents a real ball in the classroom), then these symbols can be presented in a sequential format to represent daily routines, steps in a particular activity, or specific requests of the student.


While communication systems can be helpful for many children in general, for children with autism, these augmentative communication techniques are absolutely essential. For many of these children, this is the only way that they are able to communicate their own needs and desires. Communication systems for children with autism can include sign language, picture symbols, electronic communication devices, and even computer programs and video modeling. Using these strategies can enable the child to hold conversations with others, request items, escape from undesirable situations, and make choices for himself. This can increase the child’s sense of self-determination and help eliminate many inappropriate behaviors that result from a failure to communicate effectively.

Assessment to determine the best medium to use must be performed prior to the introduction of the new communication system, and an extensive training period may be necessary before the student learns to use the system appropriately. However, once the system is in place, it should be employed as consistently as possible between settings and can be utilized to bolster communication in every aspect of the child’s daily routines.