Autism Spectrum Disorder

General Information

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name given to a range of neurobiological disorders. They may be referred to as “pervasive developmental disorders” (PDDs) or “autism spectrum disorders” (ASDs). Types of autism spectrum disorders, or PDDs, include

  • autistic disorder
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • childhood disintegrative disorder
  • Rett syndrome
  • pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

While varying widely in severity of impairment, all of these disorders present with deficits in communication and social skills and a pattern of restrictive or repetitive behaviour. Children with ASD will present with unique strengths and needs, and most require individualized program plans to meet their learning needs.

General Characteristics To Look For

The range of the Autism Spectrum is quite broad. There can be a wide variation in the strengths and needs of children with ASD, but they generally struggle with communication, socialization, and behaviour. The following are examples of these difficulties:

  • In an early learner, communication may be non-existent or limited, echolalic, or dependent on an augmentative system. A focus on functional communication should be a priority.
  • An intermediate learner may show a deficit in specific language concepts and difficulty generalizing new learning into practice.

  • The child may seem aloof and avoidant of contact or show a preference for things rather than people and therefore be non-responsive to social reinforcement.
  • The child may show a desire for inclusion but lack the skills to achieve it. Children with ASD can seem like outsiders; even when they wish for inclusion, they often end up alone.
  • Transitions may be difficult, and the child may be quite rigid.
  • Distress and strong reactions to direction are common, particularly where there is a severe communication deficit.

  • Behaviour may be repetitive and patterned.
  • Children with ASD are often either oversensitive or not sensitive enough to touch, taste, and sound, which can lead to inappropriate behaviour.
  • Children with ASD can have behavioural outbursts, especially when they need to manage change and unpredictability.
  • Sometimes the typical school environment—with its noises, lights, and material displays—can leave students with ASD overstimulated and distressed.

Impact On Student Success

Due to the uniqueness of presentation each student needs an individualized program that is based on maximizing their strengths and addressing their needs. Providing education based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis has been identified as mandatory for students with autism. When these ACCOMMODATIONS are not developed, students with autism struggle on the periphery of school life. WHERE TO GO FOR HELP: See Special Education in the Where to Go for Help section at the back of this Guidebook.

  • Honour the child’s unique communication system.
  • Modify instructions to include visual and concrete examples.
  • Break activities into repeated sequential steps to enhance skills acquisition.
  • Use reinforcement/rewards strategies to sustain motivation.
  • Early learners with ASD often need instruction in the basic learning skills—receptive and expressive language, imitation, attending to instructions—before they can begin to learn via group instruction.
  • Help students manage transitions by maintaining a consistent approach and keeping all staff well informed.
  • Design the classroom to provide reduced sensory stress.
  • Use positive supports in class (e.g., a visual schedule, transition cues, first/then task expectations, social stories).
  • Incorporate a well-designed education plan (focused more on critical foundation skills and less on curriculum).
  • Incorporate a class focus on social skills and compassion to cultivate a supportive environment.
  • Assist teachers in finding supportive consultation as needed.
  • Maintain current knowledge of available community resources.
  • Ensure solid transition planning between grades and provide opportunities for teachers, families, and community partners to share knowledge/information about what works for the child.
  • Support training opportunities for teachers and other staff.
  • Use families as an information resource and ensure that there is active and positive communication between family and school.
  • Provide information about the child, including what motivates him/her, what makes him/her special, what helps him/her stay on task, etc.
  • Help with transition planning and building consistency for the child in home and school expectations
  • Be a supportive advocate for the child.
  • Consider use of respite services to help maintain family health and well-being.
  • Consider use of community supports and participating in parent support groups.
  • Provide supportive consultation, resources, and referrals to other services.
  • Make sure that schools and family members are aware of special programs or supports available for children.
  • Work collaboratively with other community services to provide a “big picture” support system.
  • Make services fit the family, not the other way around.
  • Increase communication to clarify roles, responsibilities, and limitations of each service’s mandate and resources.
  • With child/family consent, describe treatment approaches and expected outcomes to other partners in the support team to improve everyone’s understanding of the child’s situation.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.