Preparing teachers for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

special needs

The incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has dramatically increased from one in 15,000 to one in 88, accounting for approximately one percent of the U.S. population. Once considered a rare and severe disability (low incidence), these individuals are now educated in every academic environment with 89 percent spending a portion of their day in the general education setting. 

Given the increasing prevalence and the variety of educational settings students with ASD are served; it is highly probable that most teachers and related service professionals will educate students with ASD. Therefore, it is critical that all highly qualified teachers be prepared to provide appropriate education and support for all students, including students with ASD.

Evidence-Based Practices in Autism Spectrum Disorders

The “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” requires that school systems employ scientifically based research as the foundation for general educational programs and classroom instruction. Many scientifically based educational programs and instructional methods also meet the criteria to be “evidence-based practices” (EBP) because they are based on typical child development theories or clinical research rather than classroom research findings (e.g., neuroscience studies). However, many of these instructional practices would not be considered EBP for children and youth with ASD because this population was not included in the original research.

In the last decade there have been several efforts to determine which strategies and interventions should be considered EBP for students with ASD. Two large-scale projects determining which strategies or interventions were considered EBP for ASD included investigations by the National Autism Center ( and the National Professional Development Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders ( Both investigations found similar findings.

Supporting Students with ASD in the General Education Classroom

Despite the unique and sometimes challenging behaviors, students with ASD can achieve academically, have rich social interactions with communicative partners, and attain careers.

The unique learning needs of this population differ greatly from other learners, requiring educators to possess specialized skills to adequately meet their needs. Strengths include visual-spatial abilities and skills, physical development, rote memory, unique perspectives, systemizing abilities and rule/routine based understanding. Areas of need include challenges with executive functioning, theory of mind, and central coherence. These strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves as the unique behaviors of this population. Despite the unique and sometimes challenging behaviors, students with ASD can achieve academically, have rich social interactions with communicative partners, and attain careers.

There are several strategies that can be used to support the success of students with ASD in the general education classroom. The selection and development of these strategies are based upon the individual student’s learning needs and characteristics of ASD. Two of the many strategies that I frequently recommend for the general education classroom include direct instruction and visual supports.

Students with ASD benefit from explicit and direct instruction. Direct instruction is used to introduce new information or review non-mastered concepts. Some also benefit from being introduced to new materials that will be used during group instruction, such as giving the student time to experience using a protractor before required use during geometry class. Direct instruction can occur one-on-one or in a small group and should be provided prior to large group instruction. The frequency and length of direct instruction depends upon the individual student’s need.

In the general education setting, approximately 80 percent of the school day is spent listening to instruction. Students with ASD typically have stronger visual processing skills than auditory processing skills. Visual supports help the student comprehend the expectations and come in many different forms depending upon the individual student’s need. Examples include highlighting, step-by-step instructions and work samples. Highlighting key information on worksheets or in textbook passages is a simple way of helping the student understand which information is the most important. Written step-by-step instructions provided to the student while the teacher is giving verbal instructions helps the student with ASD to better understand what they are required to do to complete an activity or assignment. Additionally, the student can refer back to the instructions as needed while they work on the activity. Lastly, work samples visually show the student what is required for an assignment to earn an A or to earn a B. These examples could be in the form of student work samples or explicit grading rubrics.

A resource that I frequently share with teachers on how to implement EBP with students with ASD is the Autism Internet Modules (www.autisminternet These modules are free and provide instruction on EBP for ASD, how to implement the strategies with fidelity and suggestions for data collection.

Standards for Educators Teaching Students with ASD

In 2009 the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) approved the standards for “Teachers of Individuals with Developmental Disabilities/Autism.” These are divided into two sets, one for beginning teachers, “Initial Special Education Teachers of Individuals with Exceptional Learning Needs with Developmental Disabilities/Autism” and one for advanced teachers, “Advanced Knowledge and Skill Set: Developmental Disabilities/Autism Specialist.” These teaching standards are to be used in conjunction with the “CEC Professional Standards Common Core” in teacher preparation programs.

Personnel Preparation Programs in ASD

The development of personnel preparation programs in ASD will ensure that educators acquire specific knowledge and skills in order to meet the requirements of the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” and meet specific outcomes or standards identified for teaching students with ASD. At this time, most states do not offer a teaching license in ASD, and Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) are left to determine whether a personnel preparation program in ASD is needed and to develop the program objectives on their own. It is recommended that state departments and LEA need to work together with IHE to develop comprehensive personnel preparation programs. This would include collectively identifying personnel preparation needs related to ASD for both general and special educators, developing statewide goals or objectives related to providing special education services to students with ASD, and providing opportunities for general and special educators to work together.

Terri Cooper Swanson is the coordinator of Pittsburg State University’s Autism Certifi cate program. She has worked with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and provided consultation services to their families and teachers for over fifteen years. Terri has presented at national and international conferences and has written several articles and book chapters related to ASD. She is also co-editor of “Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals.” For additional information contact Terri at [email protected] or visit
Council for Exceptional Children. (2009). What every special educator must know: Ethics, standards, and guidelines for special educators (6th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
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