Treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

08/21/2012  |  BY ELLIN SIEGEL, Ph.D.
Special Needs

There has been an increase in identifying children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This means that more professionals who work with children in early childhood, elementary, and secondary school settings need access to training and resources to help them use the most effective practices for children with ASD.

In early childhood, children with ASD are in community preschools and daycare settings. Some of these early childhood educators may be unfamiliar with how to identify the children who may be on the autism spectrum.

As more children are identified, general education teachers and special education teachers are expected to provide the most effective practices to enhance the child with autism learning. This article will also focus on some of the primary strategies that these professionals should use with children with ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders is a neuro-developmental disorder that causes significant impairments in the areas of socialization, communication, behavior and play skills. The prevalence of ASD is estimated as one in 88 births (CDC, 2012). Autism is included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, (P.L. 108-446). According to IDEA:

“Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance.” (34 CFR 300.7 (c) (1))

Each school system undertakes its own evaluation process to determine if the child has autism or one of the other qualifying, eligible disabilities that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Educators should be aware of the verification assessment process in their school district.

How can parents and early childhood professionals improve their recognition of possible developmental delays including ASD?

Many national resources are available to help parents and professionals identify and refer young children who may benefit from evaluation and subsequent specialized intervention. Local school districts or educational units will have an early identification team that provides assessment of children to determine if special educational services may be beneficial. The Center for Disease Control has initiated the “The Learn the Signs. Act Early” program to improve early identification of autism and other developmental disabilities so children and their families can get services and support they need. Free tools give parents, child care providers/early educators and health care provider ways to track development, provide information on when to act early, and help guide on what to do if concerns arise.

How does ASD impact the child?

Autism is often referred to as a ‘spectrum disorder’ because of the symptoms that occur are of varying intensities. Individuals with ASD are a heterogeneous group of individuals, who demonstrate a spectrum of skills and abilities and share similarities in the pervasive nature of their delays and deficits in developing critical communication and social interaction skills. Autism typically appears before the child reaches age three, although it may not be identified until the child is older. Most healthcare professionals will use the guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). DSM-IV-TR (2000) is the current version in use today that includes five subtypes of ASD under the umbrella category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders. These are:

  • Autism Disorder
  • Asperger’s Disorder
  • Rett’s Disorder
  • Childhood Disintegrative disorder
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Some states require the medical diagnosis of ASD in order to receive educational services and some states use the educational verification criteria from Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement (IDEA).

Overview of primary focus of educational programs for students with ASD

Scheuermann and Webber (2002) have identified some overall concepts that can be helpful to consider for teaching for students with ASD. An overview of concepts that are pertinent to teaching children with ASD include:

  • Functional outcomes: Focus outcomes and curriculum that are functional for the individual. Considerations should be focused on the student being able to perform essential tasks as independently as possible.
  • Age-appropriate skills: Students with autism should be taught using the similar activities, materials, and in places that same age peers do.
  • Longitudinal skills: Skills and activities taught at one point in time should facilitate the mastery of skills and activities that will be taught later.
  • Horizontally integrated: skills and activities in one curricular area/ domain should also connect to skills taught in another area (e.g., theme based units; using an interest area to teach multiple skills)
  • Community-referenced: Teach the student to function independently as an adult in his or her community. Consider outcomes that are functional for the environments the student lives in now and in the future.
  • Emphasize communication and socialization: A focus on appropriate and meaningful social and communication skills should be interwoven throughout all activities.

Principles of educating students with ASD. It is essential that educators understand the basic principles for educating students with significant disabilities, including those with autism. Some of the primary ideas relayed by Westling and Fox (2004) suggest a philosophy that matches what other children with special education needs should have:

  • Receive an educational program qualitatively equal to that received by students with and without disabilities
  • Receive an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) to meet their unique individual needs
  • Participate with others, including peers without disabilities
  • Receive early intervention services as early as possible
  • Receive education that maximizes their learning and development
  • Receive an education that promotes independence and self-sufficiency

There are specialized interventions for children with ASD. As the number of children identified with ASD increase there are also more treatment options available. Parents and educational team members must access pertinent information among the myriad of options available. It is central that informed choices are made focusing on those interventions that have documented by research as effective. The National Standards Project ( has compiled many resources including a comprehensive analysis about evidence-based interventions for children and youth with ASD.

Ellin Siegel, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the department of Special Education and Communication Disorders. She directs the graduate program in autism and intellectual/severe disabilities.
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