Those of us who work closely with students with autism know that they can exhibit unique learning characteristics. And in order to best meet students’ needs in the classroom, teachers rely on strategies that are most effective for learners on the spectrum. Through the work of the National Professional Development Center for Autism (NPDC), National Standards Project, and most recently, the National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice (NCAEP), we have a clearly identified set of practices that are proven to work best for students with autism. In fact, NCAEP’s recently published systematic review has identified 28 practices for teaching students with autism that are supported by research.

Foundational Strategies Are Evidence Based

Many teachers use a variety of these strategies in their day-to-day instruction, perhaps without realizing that they are evidence based. Here we will take a closer look at six practices identified as foundational strategies for working with students with autism. These are considered to be foundational because they are often used as part of the process of implementing other evidence-based practices (EBPs). For example, reinforcement is a foundational strategy that is also used when implementing social narratives and self-management. Prompting, another foundational strategy, is also used in the context of task analysis and discrete trial training.

Each of these strategies can be used to increase a student’s ability to perform a target skill or behavior, help with acquiring new skills, and support generalization of skills. They can be used to improve skills across a variety of domains (academic, social, communication, behavior, etc.) and grade levels. All are cost efficient and require relatively few resources.

1. Prompting

This is a means of providing additional support to a student once an initial instruction or direction has been given. Prompting can take many forms, such as a verbal cue, a visual support, a gestural prompt, a model, or a physical prompt. Prompts can range from minimal assistance (like a brief gestural cue) to a higher level of support (like physical assistance). It is important to establish a hierarchy of prompting when using this method and to implement the prompting in a systematic and consistent way. 

2. Modeling

This is a type of prompting, but it can also be used as a prime, or a cue to initiate a skill or behavior. With modeling, another person performs the target behavior or skills correctly while the learner observes it. A student responds best to modeling when they have established imitation skills and can sustain attention long enough to observe the model. A peer can often serve as a good model, but a teacher or parent can play the role, as well. When using a peer model, be sure to provide any necessary training to ensure the peer is modeling the skill correctly and at the appropriate time.

3. Time Delay

Another method of prompting. This strategy requires systematic timed delays between giving an initial cue and providing the student with a supporting prompt. Each time-delay trial includes an antecedent (the cue for the student to initiate a skill or behavior), the learner response (which can be either correct, incorrect, or no response), and the consequence or feedback from the teacher. The consequence can include reinforcement for a correct response or a correction procedure for an incorrect response.

4. Reinforcement

This is commonly used in classrooms to improve skills or decrease frequency of less-desired behaviors. With positive reinforcement, the student receives something desirable (social praise, food, a sticker, etc.) when the target behavior is displayed. Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unwanted stimulus when the student performs the target skill. For example, a student is allowed to leave their desk only when they appropriately request to do so. The third type of reinforcement is a token economy. The student earns tokens each time a target behavior is displayed. Over time, enough tokens are earned and can be used to get a desired activity or object, such as computer time, extra recess, or a piece of candy.

Reinforcement is used naturally by teachers every day, but it is also a key component to using many other evidence-based practices with fidelity, like social narratives, self-management, and task analysis.

5. Task Analysis

This allows a student to learn a chained skill by breaking it down into simple, discrete steps. When used in combination with reinforcement, this strategy is effective for teaching tasks that have many steps. The skill can then be taught in three ways:

  • With forward chaining, teach and reinforce the first step first. Then add other steps as the student gains independence.
  • With backward chaining, start by teaching and reinforcing the last step. Once the student masters it, teach the second-to-last step, until the student has gained independence with the entire sequence.
  • Total task presentation allows the student to learn and be reinforced for all steps at once.

6. Visual Supports

These are a means of providing visual cues to learners with autism who process visual information more readily than verbal information. By providing clear, concrete information in a visual format, learners are better able to process and have a reference for the information. A visual support can take the form of boundaries (for example, how you arrange furniture in a room to provide physical and visual boundaries), visual cues (picture reminders, checklists, instructions, labels, and choice boards), or visual schedules (classroom, individual, and first/then).

The key to implementing each of these strategies is to have a clear target behavior, monitor your student’s progress, and evaluate and adjust your teaching plan accordingly. Use these six foundational skills as a starting point, and continue to build your use of evidence-based practices. This way you will ensure the needs of your students with autism are being met effectively with proven instructional strategies.

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About the Author
Becky Dees is an Educational Consultant who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has worked as an autism clinician, an educational coach, and a special education trainer. She currently works with the autism group in research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Becky received her degree in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill.