Teaching Methods for Children on the Autism Spectrum

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When you hear the diagnosis that your child has autism, one of the first things you may wonder is, "How am I going to teach this child?" When you are dealing with autism spectrum disorders, teaching means much more than teaching academic skills. A child with autism will most likely need instruction about how to communicate, how to be social with others, and how to deal with their symptoms of autism. Some children will even need to learn how to learn. Many children with autism are not going to learn in the same way as children who are not on the spectrum. Therefore, it is really important to find a teaching method which is uniquely suited for your child. In this two-part series I am going to talk about four popular methods of teaching autistic children.

One of our members has recently asked a question about the difference between ABA and PRT.   I will try to help you to make sense of all these acronyms as well as tell you my personal experience with using each of these teaching methods. One major point I want to make is that any of these methods could also potentially be used for a child who has ADHD as a way to teach a particular skill, improve communication, increase attention span, teach social skills, or increase appropriate behavior. These teaching methods incorporate many important general teaching techniques which can be used in the home or classroom setting.

ABA or Applied Behavioral Analysihat it is: ABA is a method for teaching children with autism which has been around a long time. One of the core principles of ABA is the belief that behavior is controlled by rewards and punishments. ABA folk believe that you can shape a child's behavior and learning through a systematic approach of delivering reinforcement for accurate or appropriate responses.

ABA was developed way back in the 1960's by Dr. Ivar Lovaas. Dr. Lovaas published a book in 1981 called The Me Book, a groundbreaking publication as it was one of the first manuals to give detailed instructions of how to implement behavioral treatment for children on the autism spectrum. ABA therapy is adult-led and can be quite intense for the child. Most ABA proponents recommend a training program of 20-40 hours a week.

Advocates for the use of ABA, report that it is the teaching method with the most scientific evidence of being effective. ABA can be quite expensive due to the special training of the instructors and due to the number of hours of therapy required each week.

What I like about this method: This method is good for teaching complex skills which need to be broken down into more manageable parts. For example, toothbrushing can be broken down into smaller tasks such as turning on the water, wetting the toothbrush, etc. ABA has specific instructions for the teacher or therapist to follow as well as rules as to how to record progress. You can readily see the progress in learning and this provides reinforcement for the instructor and parent.

What I don't like about this method: ABA has come a long way from the days when I worked in a psychiatric hospital and patients with developmental disabilities were routinely given "aversive stimuli" such as pinches, covering their eyes, or sprayed in the face with water because the child was engaging in what was deemed as autistic behaviors. Nowadays the emphasis is upon "positive reinforcement" as in rewarding the child for correct responses and what is considered to be appropriate behavior. Yet those core principles are still maintained, that we always know what is best for the child and that we should control the child's responses. In human terms, this does not sit well with me. And the more I understand about autism, the more I reject the core philosophy of ABA.   Of course this is my personal opinion.   There are a great many people who like this method and say that it has changed their child's life.

To Find Out More about ABA:

Lovaas Institute Web Site and Blog

Pivotal Response Training or PRT:** What it is:** Pivotal Response Training was developed by Drs. Bob and Lynn Koegel at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). Dr. Bob Koegel was actually a student of Dr. Lovaas, the man who developed ABA. Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT) takes many of the techniques of ABA but has dropped much of the philosophy that I didn't like about ABA.

PRT's core philosophy is that children have certain pivotal behaviors which can have a domino effect upon other improvements in social, communication and behavioral skills. Some of these pivotal behaviors include: motivation, initiation of communication, and initiation of social interactions. The goal is to elicit these pivotal behaviors in the child. PRT uses non-aversive strategies, focuses on positive and natural reinforcements, and teaching usually takes place in a natural setting. The therapy or teaching also is child-led, which is a very different instructional methodology than ABA.

What I like about this method: This really is an exciting methodology because I feel that it takes the best techniques from ABA and combines them with some of the best characteristics of one of my other favorite teaching methods, Dr. Stanley Greenspan's Floortime. I will be discussing Floortime in my next post. I like PRT because it is positive, it occurs in the natural setting, and you can do it anytime and anywhere. It gets away from rote responses and targets meaningful, core "pivotal behaviors" which will lead to improvements in most other areas.

What I don't like about this method: It is hard for me to find things I don't like about this method. But one disadvantage is finding local practitioners who are trained using this model of therapy. Another potential disadvantage may be that this teaching method can become more of a lifestyle as opposed to creating a specific time for learning. Without any time or setting boundaries, families may feel pressured to be in "therapy mode" all the time instead of just enjoying regular family life.

To Find Out More About PRT:

The USCB Koegel Autism Center

In Part Two of this series I will be discussing Dr. Stanley Greenspan's Floortime model of intervention for children on the autism spectrum as well as the TEACCH model.

How about you? Have you used any of the methods for teaching described today? Or do you know of other teaching methods that work well for children who have ASD or ADHD? Please let us know about your experiences. We are always eager to hear from you.