Need for Predictability and Routine:
Another diagnostic feature of autism is the child's strict adherence to routines and the need for sameness in his environment (1). Early childhood programs which are highly structured, consistent and routine, can best meet the child's needs by taking into account this feature of autism. Just as with visual support strategies, programs that are predictable and routine-centered also minimize a child's stress and anxiety by helping him to better understand his environment.
Functional Approach to Challenging Behaviors:
The most effective approach to addressing challenging behaviors in children with autism is proactive. Preventing the development of challenging behaviors can occur by creating appropriate and meaningful learning environments that do not generate the stress, anxiety and frustration typically experienced by children with autism. Due to the characteristics of autism, stress, anxiety and frustration occur in such areas as language comprehension, expressive language, sensory processing, resistance to change, preference for familiar routines and consistency, organization, attending to salient stimuli and distractibility.
The use of the fundamental features in an early childhood program will assist in proactively addressing the occurrence of challenging behaviors. If and when challenging behaviors persist, they should be addressed through a functional assessment of the behavior. Again, the unique features and characteristics associated with autism should be considered in the functional behavioral assessment, to determine how they might be contributing to the presence of the challenging behavior. Specific training on challenging behaviors is covered in the Statewide Autism Training Project, found at the DPI website.
Transition Planning from Early Childhood Program to
the Elementary School:
Due to difficulties in making transitions, accepting change and generalizing previously acquired skills, the child with autism may experience significant challenges in transitioning from his early childhood program to a primary elementary program (1). Therefore, several critical components have been identified to assist the child in making this transition successfully.
- Develop independent functioning skills: The initial development of independent functioning skills is an important factor in preparing the child for elementary school (1). It is critical to begin teaching children with autism independent functioning skills as soon as they enter their early childhood program (1). These skills will assist them throughout their lives. Independent functioning in all curricular areas should be addressed (e.g., communication, social relations, play, self-help/daily living skills, attending, navigating the school environment, etc.).
- Determine an appropriate placement: The child's early childhood program should take an active role in assisting the parents and school districts in finding an appropriate placement for each child transitioning from an early childhood program to an elementary school (1). Factors to be considered can include: class size, degree of classroom structure, teaching style, and the physical environment.
- Staff training: It is critical for the elementary school staff, who will be directly working with the child, to be trained in the unique features and characteristics common to autism. The training should also include strategies directly applicable to a child with autism.
Visitations to the child's early childhood program by the elementary school staff are also important, so that the early childhood staff can assist in providing direct, individual, child-specific information and training if necessary. In addition, the early childhood staff should visit the elementary school to determine skill areas which may need to be addressed, prior to the child's transition. Early childhood staff can also help assess the physical environment, and determine if there are any adaptations/modifications which which should be considered.
It is also suggested that the entire school professional staff participate in a general inservice or receive information regarding the unique features and characteristics of autism, so that all staff members can more readily understand the child who will be entering their school.
Peer training: Another component of training should involve the peers/classmates of the child who is transitioning into their school. Division TEACCH (3) has developed a successful protocol for training peers at this level and is available at its website: http://www.unc.edu/depts/teacch/ This should only occur after written parent permission is obtained.
- Visitation to elementary school placement: It is suggested that the child's transition to his elementary school placement be accomplished gradually (1). This can occur in a number of ways. As mentioned previously, the child can become adjusted to the new teaching staff in his familiar and comforting early childhood environment when the elementary school staff visits the child's early childhood program. After this is accomplished, the child can begin to visit the elementary school on a gradual basis, accompanied by a familiar adult from his early childhood program. The amount of time that the child spends in the elementary school placement is gradually increased. This procedure tends to work best in that, if any difficulties arise when the child is in their elementary school placement, these difficulties can still be addressed in his familiar and comforting early childhood environment (1).
- Parallel training of Parent/family and staff: The parent/family should be informed by school staff on strategies that are being used successfully at school. In turn, the parents should inform school staff on successful home strategies. This mutual sharing of information/ideas can be accomplished through the following:
Monthly home visits;
Monthly staff/family support meetings;
Daily home-school communication notebook;
- Parents as visitors or volunteers: Many parents may wish to visit or volunteer time to their child's early childhood program. This can be accomplished in many different ways, depending upon the parents' time schedules, the needs of the teacher, as well as the individual needs of the children. Some children can become quite anxious and upset when their own parents are in the classroom environment. The children perceive this as a "change"; that is, their parents are associated with the home environment and not the classroom. In such cases parents can volunteer by making materials, copies, etc. outside the classroom. Also, many schools have policies and procedures regarding visitations and volunteering, which should be consulted.
Other program features that may greatly contribute to the success of a child's early childhood program, are the following:
- Frequent staffings: Frequent staffings for each child by the early childhood teaching staff ensure consistency in programming. It is critical that decisions regarding a child's individualized program are made by the entire teaching staff as a team.
- Team teaching approach: A successful staffing approach to meeting the unique and individualized needs of children with autism is utilization of a team teaching concept. In this approach staff members combine their specialized skill areas to team teach the students in the program. Various professionals and para-professionals can be part of this teaching team (e.g., speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist, early childhood teacher, certified occupational therapy assistant, and classroom aides). Although each member will contribute greatly to the team regarding his specialty area, in an ideal team teaching environment, it should be difficult for visitors to distinguish the various specialty areas of the teachers in the classroom. Utilization of team teaching provides the child with on-going, consistent and individualized focus in all skill areas
- Individualized program: The individualized education plan (IEP) is the blueprint for successfully meeting the needs of the child with autism. Each child's daily program is based on his specific needs (IEP goals and objectives), and will be different from every other child in the classroom.
- Data driven: On-going data collection should take place to support progress towards each child's IEP goals and objectives, to assist in determining daily programming, and to substantiate the overall efficacy of the child's IEP.
- Typically developing peers: It is critical for an early childhood program to have ready access to typically developing peers to provide models and support for the child with autism. Individualized mainstreaming can take place in various ways (e.g. For a particular child with autism, 1-2 peers can come into the early childhood classroom to act as peer models when focusing on structured play skills, such as turn-taking or imitating actions on objects). Also, the child may be participating in daycare or another preschool setting, or even kindergarten. A variety of options are available to accomplish this objective.
This article has addressed some of the fundamental features to be considered for children with autism. Well-planned and implemented early childhood programs are cost effective, in the long term; children with autism who have benefited from such programs will require less intensive services later on. Most importantly, appropriate autism early childhood programs help children acquire the independent functioning skills that will benefit every aspect of their lives.