Supporting students with autism

Spectrum disorders: Staying on the PATH


Anyone who has taught a student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) realizes the complex challenges involved. The array of learning challenges that students with ASDs can present can be overwhelming. Considering that we still have no definitive answers for what causes autism or why there has been an explosion of individuals diagnosed with the disorder, being overwhelmed by the challenge of educating our students on the autism spectrum is not unusual.

Consider that it was not until the 1970s that we learned from Ivar Lovaas, and colleagues, that children with autism who did not speak could be taught to communicate through an intensive protocol incorporating the principles of the science of behavior (Applied Behavior Analysis). This is still a young field in search of answers. What we do know is that each student with ASD, while having common deficit areas, is completely unique from the next student, and requires highly individualized instruction.

Designing an effective individualized education program for a student with an ASD requires that teachers know the many evidence-based practices that have evolved over the years. These practices include behavioral strategies such as discrete trial teaching, modeling, task interspersal and contingent reinforcement. A full list of established and emerging treatments can be found in the National Standards Project Report (National Autism Center, 2010) at Equally as important as having knowledge of, and experience with implementing evidence-based practices, is knowing how to develop a comprehensive program plan for an individual student. One of the best ways to begin that process is through person-centered planning activities.

One person-centered planning activity is called Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope (PATH) (Pearpoint, 1945). The PATH is a powerful tool that can help any student move towards a positive and possible future (Pearpoint, Obrien and Forest, 1995).

In my work at the West Virginia Autism Training Center, I have found the PATH to be a critical first step in bringing together a team of people who are supporting the student with ASD, and in the ultimate development and implementation of a comprehensive plan for the student. We know that people with ASDs can learn and achieve a quality of life that they desire. To make that happen, a team of people supporting the student must have an understanding of what that quality of life looks like for that student.

The PATH process is conducted by a trained facilitator. The focus person, family members, educators and anyone who wants to lend support is invited to the PATH meeting. Meetings can last anywhere from one to five hours. The PATH process is very visual. A large roll of butcher paper is placed on a wall and the facilitator or a designated person uses pictures, symbols and words to capture the process on paper. The process begins with the “Dream.”

With the understanding that one may never actually get to realize their full dream, the understanding is that this is the direction in which the person wants to move. For students who are nonverbal, parents may express dreams that they would like to see for their child. All team members can contribute. Typically, the group looks at what the student enjoys doing or spends time doing and uses those activities to consider specific careers in which the student might succeed..

During the dream phase of the PATH, it is not uncommon to see team members shaking their heads in disbelief, assuming none of the dreams could be possible. It is also not unusual for parents to exclaim, “I have never had a dream for my child ... I live moment-to-moment and day-to-day.” As the process progresses, there is usually a dramatic shift for both the naysayers and the families.

The next section is “sensing the goal.” The team is asked to consider positive steps toward the goal that would be possible to accomplish within a specified time period, usually within six to 12 months. These are goals that would move the person closer to his stated dream. For example, a student whose dream is to be a curator at a museum of natural history might have a one-year goal to volunteer at a local museum. Typically, five to eight goals, both positive and possible, are agreed upon by the team.

After the goals are established, it is time to move into the present. Where is the person now in relation to reaching his ultimate goal or dream? Next, the team discusses important players who might be needed to bring on to the team to assist in making the goals happen. The team then decides on ways it will build strength as a team, usually discussing methods to communicate among each other. Moving into the future, the team plans which specific activities should take place within the next three months that will drive the person closer to meeting the positive and possible goals. Then, the team determines what has to happen one month from now, with volunteer commitments from team members to implement each activity or task. Most importantly, the team decides what will happen tomorrow to begin to move the student down his PATH toward his dream.

Nalay, a 14-year-old student with ASD had many dreams, which included becoming an artist, living in a nice neighborhood where he could walk around, losing weight, owning his own pet, playing basketball and having  friends. Among his goals were to find private art instruction, participate in community outings with classmates and walk at least 20 minutes a day four days each week. The team completed a full PATH for Nalay and got to work implementing his goals.

Today, Nalay has won several juried art competitions and has been commissioned to produce art for a local office building. He is still working on losing weight, but his confidence level is much improved. Nalay and his team are proud of his accomplishments. He is taking positive steps in his life that are bringing him closer to his dream. In summary, while we must teach to specific goals and objectives, we must also not forget the bigger picture. What will our students want to be doing upon graduation? How can educators assist and support them to reach those larger goals?

The PATH is a person-centered tool that provides the foundation for us to work together toward an individual’s goals. It truly takes a team effort to fully support our students with autism spectrum disorders. And when we do, the sky’s the limit.

Barbara Becker-Cottrill is Chair of the Autism Society Panel of Professional Advisors. For more information visit
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