AUTISM FOR LEARNING IN GROUP ENVIRONMENTS

EVALUATING THE ABILITY OF LEARNERS WITH AUTISM TO WORK IN SMALL GROUPS

05/18/2016  |  By Helena Maguire, Jennifer Croner, Samantha Smith, Mary Jane Weiss and Jessica Woods
SPECIAL NEEDS
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An essential goal for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is to reach maximal independence on a variety of tasks that facilitate vocational engagement and community integration. In addition, increased independence reduces the need for intensive staffing. While many learners with autism are provided individual, or one-to-one, instruction throughout much of their day, moving to group instructional formats provides many positive benefits.  Individual instruction is less efficient and more costly, and can lead to overdependence on a small number of instructors. It is beneficial for learners to adapt to a variety of instructors. Furthermore, group instruction is the normative arrangement in most adult placements. One-to-one instructional arrangements do not prepare individuals with autism to function within group contexts, and limit opportunities for positive social interactions with peers.

The use of peer modeling in groups can alleviate the need for teachers, direct care staff, and caregivers to constantly intervene.

Benefits of Group Instruction

Group instruction, which involves an instructor working with at least two individuals, has many benefits for individuals with autism. It allows for increased instructional time, as well as an increased total number of trials, or learning opportunities, provided to the student. Increased instruction is associated with increased reinforcement, which may lead to quicker rates of acquisition. Group instruction also fosters appropriate peer interactions among the group members, greater generalization of skills, and increased time spent in a less restrictive environment. In addition, group instruction is more efficient for the teacher, especially when the instructional targets across the various students are the same. Concurrent group instruction, where one instruction is given to all group members, who respond simultaneously, allows for an instructional arrangement that more closely approximates a mainstream classroom.

Observational Learning
and Incidental Teaching

Another benefit of group instruction is the potential for observational learning, or the acquisition of new information as a result of observing the behavior of other members of the group. Observational learning occurs when student A acquires a skill being taught to student B, even when student A does not receive reinforcement for learning this skill. This increase in skill acquisition has the potential for making group instruction very efficient, as several students can be taught in the same amount of time normally used for one student’s individualized instruction. Incidental learning also makes group instruction more efficient, as members of the group are exposed to information that is not directly taught but is related to a target skill. In other words, group instruction provides opportunities for instruction beyond the individual’s targeted goals, and exposes learners to additional information and to increased social interactions.

Peers as Effective Models

The use of peer modeling in groups can alleviate the need for teachers, direct care staff, and caregivers to constantly intervene. Instead, they may simply monitor the interactions and tasks. Utilizing peers as models is not limited to educational tasks; it has been utilized with teaching community-relevant skills, social interactions and play skills, and even increasing the variety of foods eaten by children with food selectivity challenges. Some suggest that individuals with ASD attend more to their peers and thus become more interactive with them throughout their sessions. Ihring and Wolchik (1988) showed that there were no differences in the children’s ability to gain new skills and retain them over time when using an adult model or a peer model. This finding supports the use of peer modeling when a teacher or caregiver cannot consistently be present for all learning opportunities and yields similar results in skill acquisition.

The training time required to train the peers to implement the specific procedures required is minimal. The peer training can also occur through the teacher modeling the procedures as they teach the individuals in order to simultaneously provide instruction and training. The ability to use peers across a variety of tasks is extremely valuable. Since a lack of social and communication skills are a core deficit of individuals with ASD, utilizing peers for academic tasks can indirectly increase the individual’s social and communication skills by providing many more opportunities to engage with a similar aged peer. This could also inadvertently reduce their restricted interests by exposing them to a typically developing peer’s reinforcing activities.  Overall, the use of peer modeling is beneficial to the instructors, children and peers involved.

Moving to Group Instruction

Although group instruction does have many benefits, individual instruction is most appropriate for students with severe cognitive, imitative or attention deficits. However, this one-to-one arrangement can be used to gain control of student attending and student responding, and the student can then move to group instruction by introducing another student into the instructional arrangement. In general, moving to group instruction requires one to gradually increase the student to teacher ratio, beginning with one teacher and two students, and slowly increasing the number of students, while carefully monitoring student success within the group arrangement. At the same time, the amount of reinforcement provided to the student should be decreased, moving from continuous reinforcement, where every single response receives a snack, favorite toy, or high five, to an intermittent schedule, where some responses, but not all, receive reinforcement. Another suggestion is to begin with sequential group instruction, where an instruction is given to one student while the other student waits, then the first student consumes his reinforcer or engages in a leisure activity while the second student is given an instruction.  The teacher volleys back and forth in this manner for the remainder of the session. As the individuals become more successful, and if they are working on similar targets, the instructor can move to a concurrent arrangement, and provide the instruction to both students at the same time.  In general, the amount and type of group instruction needs to be individualized for each student, but instruction should ideally include some combination of one-to-one and group instruction, as well as time spent with peer models.

Summary

Group instruction is an important goal for individuals with ASD. It is imperative that learners adapt to group instructional arrangements, learn to share teacher attention, and respond to group directions. It is important to individualize the transition to group instruction, and to ensure that the individual is deriving educational benefits from group instruction. A variety of methods can be used to build tolerance for and adjustment to group instruction, including sequential instruction and concurrent instruction. Group instruction experiences prepare learners for next environments and for adult life, and also offer increased exposure to new content and to social interactions.

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