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Home » Autism »

Educational Approaches to Autism


There are many different opinions about how best to help children with autism. There are two general approaches to instruction: those based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and those that follow a Developmental Approach.

In general, ABA approaches are more structured in terms of environmental arrangements and skill expectations. In ABA approaches, the adult will systematically encourage certain responses from the child and then respond in planned ways designed to either increase or decrease certain behaviors. Behavioral approaches also carefully measure progress and modify strategies based on the data collected. Developmental approaches are often more spontaneous in the way that adults will respond to the child, and the child’s behavior. For children functioning at early stages of development, emphasis is put on encouraging the child to develop his own ideas and to engage in social interactions in reciprocal ways. In many of these approaches, the focus is on thinking about the ‘whole child’ including the child’s regulatory and sensory challenges.

There are many educational models and strategies available to families and schools today. Families are encouraged to look at all of the approaches and, along with your child’s teacher or other professionals, decide on what strategy, or combination of strategies best fit your child and family. While there are no conclusive studies showing that one approach is better than another, we do know that the most affective approaches are intensive and implemented as early as possible. Models that have been researched include, but are not limited to:

  • Discrete Trial Instruction
  • Developmental Intervention
  • Activity Based (Naturalistic) Instruction
  • Pivotal Response Training
  • TEACCH Method

It is important that families and educators identify specific skills that they would like to work on, and continually monitor instruction to see if progress is being made. If progress is not being made, it is critical that the team seeks to understand why this may be, and how instruction might change to better address the child’s needs.

We now give examples of the first three approaches listed above (discrete trial instruction; activity-based instruction; developmental intervention) to demonstrate that the same skill can be taught in a variety of ways. The skill that is exemplified below is “imitating an adult.”

Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI)

The "Discrete Trial" strategy is a frequently used intervention based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Here, specific skills are taught to a child in a one-on-one structured learning setting. Usually, a child is given a specific instruction by his teacher, and the child responds. The child is either rewarded for a correct response, or provided with a correction for an incorrect response.

Real Life Story: Find out how one teacher uses this approach to teach a child to imitate her actions. "Imitation" is considered an important skill that allows a child to learn many other new skills.

Developmental Intervention

In this approach, instead of directing the child to do something ("Jake, do this"), the teacher or therapist sets up a situation that encourages the child to initiate a desired behavior. Then, the focus of the intervention is to build on this initiation to develop further engagement, thinking, and communication.

Real Life Story: A teacher improves a child's imitation skills by playing a "gotcha game" with the child, focusing on body parts.

Activity-Based (Naturalistic) Instruction

Activity-based instruction combines aspects of Discrete Trial Instruction and Developmental Intervention strategies described above. Here, the child is systematically taught a skill during ordinary activities throughout his school day or at home, making sure that many opportunities are given to repeat and learn the skill.

Real Life Story: How one child learns imitation skills through the naturalistic behavioral approach.

The three examples described above are just a few of the many types of interventions that have been used to successfully teach young children with autism. The important thing to remember is that, whatever approach is used, you should feel comfortable with it.

NEXT: Educational Needs

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