In the 1980’s, the Texas legislature directed TEA to form a focus group. The group was formed to address parent concerns that schools did not provide adequate services to children with autism. This resulted in the formation of Commissioners Rules on IEP development for students with autism. These seven extra services and supports were referred to as the “Autism Supplement” because school districts had a separate form for documentation.
In the 1990’s, minor changes were made. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Autism Supplement was updated significantly. Stakeholders in the autism community were involved in revising the supplement based on new knowledge. The updated Commissioner’s Rules now include eleven strategies to consider for students with autism.
Most school districts were already providing many of the services outlined in the Autism Supplement before this revision. The Commissioner’s Rules on IEP development for students with autism “raises the bar” by challenging educators to improve programming. It guides ARD committee decisions by ensuring critical needs are addressed. It also emphasizes the need for qualified personnel who have adequate training to carry out the strategies.
The strategies apply to all students with autism who are eligible for services. This includes students diagnosed with PDD-NOS or Asperger Syndrome. This is important because social, behavior and organization skills of higher-functioning students are sometimes overlooked. They might be making good grades, yet coping poorly. However, these skills are critical to success and happiness. Therefore, they are important considerations for the ARD committee.
What Parents Need to Know
The Commissioner’s Rules do not mandate specific programs or services for students with autism. It does require an ARD committee to consider each of the eleven strategies. The need to use a strategy should be determined by the student’s IEP. If an ARD committee decides a strategy is not needed for a student, they must include a statement in the IEP. They must also give a good reason the strategy is not needed. Usually, a student who has many challenges with autism will highly likely need all or most of the strategies. A high-functioning student might need fewer strategies and still make sufficient progress.
The strategies do not mandate a specific degree or credential for personnel who are in contact with students with autism. It does require personnel to be qualified and trained in both general aspects of autism and issues unique to your child.
Again, remember that many of the strategies might already be included in your child’s IEP. The eleven strategies can be used as a checklist to make sure that the ARD committee addresses the most common concerns.
Evaluate, develop/revise goals, implement and assess
When addressing the needs of a student with autism, it is important to consider the steps necessary to make progress:
- First, evaluations must be done. They should contain meaningful data to help identify priorities.
- The evaluation leads to the development of goals. Goals should be revised when needed.
- Implementation refers to the actual work of getting where you want to be.
- Assessment is the stage where it is most common to see a breakdown in the system. Is what you are doing working? Is the child making reasonable progress? Are you working on the right goals for your child? Assessment guides us back to evaluation and back through the cycle again. As you can see, this is an ongoing process likely to occur throughout a student’s school career.
Strategies are careful plans – the eleven strategies of the Autism Supplement:
- Extended Educational Programming – This strategy overlaps with requirements under IDEA (34 CFR Part 300). Extended school year (ESY) services are programs offered during the summer break. They may also be needed during transitions such as holidays. ESY services are needed if the student may be expected to lose skills during school breaks. Extended School Day (ESD) may be needed to meet goals that are not addressed during the scheduled school day. An example of ESD services might be an after-school social skills program. Under IDEA, extended services cannot be unilaterally limited as to the type, amount or duration of service. These factors should instead be guided by individual need. ESY or ESD may address any IEP objectives needed.
- Daily Schedules reflecting minimal unstructured time and active engagement in learning activities – A young child with a short attention span will likely need a schedule with short blocks of time. A high-functioning student may be able to stay on task longer. Lack of structure and engagement can contribute to unwanted behaviors. There may be a need to offer more organized arrangements during unstructured times (ie recess, pep rallies, lunch, etc). Therefore, the daily schedule is highly dependent on the student’s individual functioning. A visitor should be able to answer these questions: What should the child be doing? Where should he be doing it? Who should be with him? Schedules should be student specific, not teacher or classroom specific.
- In-home and Community-Based Training or viable alternatives that assist the student with acquisition of social/behavioral skills – In order to be viable, a method must be practical and workable. An example of community-based training might include goals on how to behave at the grocery store. One way to do this would be for school personnel to meet you and your child in a store. The teaching would occur in the environment where the skills will be needed. A viable alternative might be preparing for the activity with social stories or video modeling. However, if simpler methods are being used and the student is not mastering the skills in the real world, then more support might be needed.
- Positive Behavior Support Strategies (PBS) based on relevant information – It is critical to remember that a child’s behavior is communication. When children don’t behave as we expect, we need to figure out why. Many students with autism have difficulty communicating, even if they are highly verbal. When they get frustrated, they may use behaviors that have worked in the past. PBS involves modifying environments to help students learn new, appropriate behaviors. This will improve the personal and social quality of their lives. A Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), if needed, should outline steps to prevent problem behaviors. It should also have a plan to teach and reinforce desired behavior. A Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) should be used to:
- Correctly identify the antecedent (the reason the child engages in the behavior).
- Describe the behavior (how the child is communicating, even if it is in the form of a tantrum).
- Figure out the consequence (the outcome the child receives as a result of the behavior).
It is important for qualified personnel to conduct the FBA. A proper FBA will help ensure an effective BIP is devised. If a child has the same BIP for too long, chances are it is flawed and should be changed. Lack of student progress should not be blamed on disabilities. New strategies are needed when progress is not sufficient.
- Futures Planning (beginning at any age) for integrated living, work, community, and educational environments that consider skills necessary to function in current and post-secondary environments (Transition Services)—Most parents think of their child’s future from the moment they are born and even before. School districts often think of futures planning as transition from public school into adult life. But, futures planning does not need to wait until a student is in high school. This plan should start with the hopes and dreams of the student and the parents. It is helpful for futures planning to have the end goals in mind. Then, work backwards to the present. For instance, you may start with goals for adult life, then go back to post-secondary, secondary, elementary – whatever age the child is at the time the plan is formed. This helps to make sure that in each grade level they are building skills to reach the long-term goals. Futures planning will be a constant work in progress. It should be updated according to the changing skills and goals of the student.
- Parent/Family Training and Support provided by qualified personnel with experience in autism spectrum disorders - Parent and family training and support can come in many forms. It might include simple supports such as an interactive notebook between the school and the parents, printed materials, and websites. It might also include workshops or conferences. Don’t assume that your district knows what you need for training. Mothers, fathers and other caregivers in the home might have different training needs. A good rule is to be specific about your needs, but flexible about how they might be met.
- Staff-to-Student Ratio (suitable) appropriate to identified activities and as needed to achieve social/behavioral progress based on the child’s developmental and learning level – For any skill, children go through levels of learning. The level of learning refers to how well they know and use a skill. When they are first learning something new, they are in the acquisition level. As the skill improves, they progress to fluency. In the maintenance level, they know a skill well, but might not use it in every environment. When the skill is generalized, they can use it across settings with different people. By looking at the four levels of learning, the ARD committee can plan for the needed ratio of staff-to-student. For instance, your child might need little support at lunch, but might need 1:1 support for Math. Another student might have very different needs.
- Communication Interventions, including language forms and functions that enhance effective communication across settings – Communication interventions do not just refer to the speech services your district might provide. There are many ways to improve communication. Picture-based systems are an example of a simple method. Assistive technology devices that provide voice output might be needed to replace or improve spoken language. Sometimes, more than one method may be needed. For instance, many children with autism who speak may still need picture communication or other methods. This can help when they are frustrated or have difficulty expressing an idea or emotion. Every child should have some form of communication. Inability to communicate can lead to undesired behaviors and isolation.
- Social Skills Supports and strategies based on social skills assessment/curriculum and provided across settings – Social skills are behaviors used to interact and communicate with other people. While manners are important, social skills go beyond simple manners. Social skills delays are a defining feature of autism, so it is highly likely that students with autism will need this strategy. The need for social skills supports can be determined many ways. Observations in natural settings, standardized testing, and observations in structured settings are only a few examples. There is no “right” way to teach social skills. Studies have shown they should eventually be taught in context. Support for the student during recess or other naturally variable situations are an example of teaching in context. We don’t just use social skills in controlled classrooms so these skills need to be taught in the real world. This is an area where peer supports (classmates) can be very valuable in the learning process. Remember, these peers represent the community your child will be with as an adult.
- Professional Educator/Staff Support - As stated before, staff working with your child should have general training about autism and strategies to implement an IEP. They should also know strategies unique to your child. You may ask about training for all adults working with your child. Don’t be afraid to request more training if you think it is needed. Again, the supplement does not mandate a specific degree or credential, but does require qualified personnel and training. One important way parents can help is to provide a student portfolio. If your child needs to learn a new system, such as use of an assistive technology device, make sure you request that staff be trained as well. Many devices or procedures are not successful simply due to lack of training for both students and teachers.
- Teaching Strategies based on peer-reviewed, and/or research based practices for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders - Some examples of teaching strategies which might be considered are discrete trial learning, applied behavior analysis (ABA), visual supports, augmentative communication, or social skills training. Although these methods are expressly mentioned in strategy 11, that does not imply endorsement of the methods or a requirement to provide them. It does mean that these methods are “on the table” for discussion.
For each strategy, the ARD committee must determine whether the strategy is needed or not needed. This decision is based on whether the student needs the strategy in order to make progress, or does not need the strategy because they are making sufficient progress. There may be other reasons for not using a strategy. For instance, a family might decline ESY services if they plan other learning activities over the summer. The decisions should be based on data collected against measurable goals and objectives, not just ARD committee’s overall impressions of the student’s progress.