Educating Autistic Children

Of the 165,000 students (ages 6 to 21) with autism receiving special educational services, 89 percent attend regular public schools. And, of those in public schools, nearly one-third spend at least 80 percent of their time in a regular classroom and about one-half spend at least 40 percent of their time in a regular classroom.1 But is inclusion really best for these children? The short answer is, it depends.

The heterogeneity and developmental nature of autism make it unlikely that one specific instructional program or setting will be best for all children, or will work for any one child throughout his or her educational career. For example, some students with autism may be able to keep up with their peers academically, but may have difficulty with complex social skills and language. A child with these characteristics may be best served through inclusion in a typical classroom, but with specific supports such as a schedule (made with pictures) to make the day predictable and assist with transitions, a social skills program that helps the student understand social cues and facilitates social interaction, and tutoring in abstract reasoning and coherent writing. A child who has overall difficulty with academic skills yet excels in music may take a music class with his typical peers, but spend the rest of the day in a special education classroom. In this case, an essential support might be a functional communication card, which allows a child without functional speech to request a break when a task becomes too difficult. Children with more severe cognitive impairment are often best served in a special education environment with peers at a similar developmental level. But even in a special education setting, children with autism may require supports to improve social interaction, attention to group activities, and generalization of skills to new environments.

While it’s true that each autistic child has a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses, there are some commonalities. Regardless of their developmental level, practically all children with autism require systematic instruction in social interaction and language, and assistance with generalizing newly learned skills to multiple environments. With autistic students, “systematic instruction” means instruction based on the behavioral model of learning (such as the discrete trial training and pivotal response training described in the main article). With adequate professional development, special education teachers can learn to effectively deliver such instruction to small groups of students with autism, provided they function at similar levels.

In addition, these students are likely to have some challenging behavioral issues. In some cases, the behaviors are neither severe nor frequent and can be handled in a regular classroom. In other cases, the child’s behavior may be too distracting or too dangerous for a regular classroom to be appropriate. Either way, all teachers with autistic students should receive training in an approach called positive behavior support.* Instead of focusing on eliminating problem behaviors, the teacher shows the child how to replace difficult behaviors with appropriate skills.2 For example, if a child usually has a tantrum when a task becomes too difficult, he can be taught to ask for help, either by raising his hand or using a picture card to request assistance. Another way to reduce behavior problems is to make positive changes such as placing a child near the front of the classroom, putting a daily schedule on the board, providing a set of steps for the child to ask a friend to play during recess, or giving a child a job during transitions.

In summary, due to the heterogeneity of the disorder and the changing needs of children with autism as they develop, it is unlikely that one specific treatment or instructional strategy will emerge as the treatment of choice for all children. Different children will require different types of treatments and different levels of support at different times in their lives. When a student with autism is able to learn from the regular curriculum and behave appropriately, inclusion in a regular classroom will probably be the best placement for him. Nonetheless, failure is not a good experience for any child, and it is imperative that the decisions for each child be made on the basis of sound considerations of individual needs and abilities.

Aubyn Stahmer is a clinical psychologist and an investigator with the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center. Laura Schreibman is distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Autism Research Program at the University of California at San Diego.

*To learn more about positive behavior support, see “Heading Off Disruptive Behavior” in the Winter 2003–2004 issue of American Educator. The article is about intervening with children who have behavior problems—not about autistic children. However, positive behavior support is described in detail and the general strategy is appropriate for helping autistic children improve their behavior. (back to article)


1. IDEA Part B Child Count (2004), Table 1–3 at National Center for Education Statistics (2006). Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 51. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

2. Iovannone, R., Dunpal, G., Huber, H., and Kincaid, D. (2003). “Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum disorders.” Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 150–165.

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American Educator, Summer 2006