How Instructional Assistants Can Effectively Support Autism Spectrum Disorder Students

Educating and managing the complex needs of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) challenges the most seasoned teacher. The unique learning, social and behavioral characteristics of students on the Spectrum necessitate a coordinated approach from all professionals. In my experience as a school psychologist, I have found that the role that instructional assistants play though vital in supporting the needs of students with ASDs, is often misunderstood and not utilized to optimal efficacy.

Instructional assistants working with special needs children in a one-to-one capacity or through the provision of classroom support is an important role for ensuring the proper delivery of academic support. Instructional assistants are on the front lines in working with students with ASDs and are often the first responders to emotional outbursts and behavioral challenges.

Children diagnosed with an ASD beginning at an early age and typically continuing throughout their lives, present with the following:

  • Have difficulty relating appropriately with others
  • Present with a wide range of language and communication difficulties
  • Have an obsessive insistence with environmental sameness
  • Present with atypical behavior (repetitive and self-stimulatory responses)
  • Have difficulty following an unmodified school curriculum

All of these difficulties affect their progress and performance in the general education curriculum. With such complex and challenging needs, it takes a village to properly educate them. Instructional assistants play a crucial role in ensuring that the learning, social and behavior needs of ASD children are optimally met. In providing optimal support, it is essential to delineate the role of the instructional assistant.

The role of the instructional assistant is often ambiguous, encompassing everything from supporting the classroom teacher through assistance in the preparation of instructional materials, with grading and providing direct instruction to students. In order to effectively meet the complex needs of ASD students, a clear directive on their role and function is critical.

In supporting students with ASDS, their main role should be to render direct educational support under the supervision of the classroom teacher. Other duties should not be affecting this primary responsibility. In addition to this main responsibility, it is essential for instructional assistants to understand each student’s disability and individual learning style. School districts should provide proper professional development opportunities to support this process.

Let’s advance the discussion to identify actionable methods instructional assistants can implement to support ASD children.

Provide Peripheral Support

Peripheral support pertains to essential duties that have widespread and general applicability to the student. Examples of peripheral support include:

  • Taking notes for students
  • Provide written directions to students for assignments
  • Developing adaptations to instructional material
  • Assuming a proactive role in the monitoring of supports
  • Keeping the teacher, IEP case manager and parent informed
  • Anticipating situations in which supports will be needed

Direct Instruction and Academic Support

Instructional assistants should provide direct instruction and academic support to students with ASDs when deemed appropriate by the IEP Team. Specific examples in supporting ASD children include:

  • Facilitating student attention to task
  • Pre-teaching concepts and lessons on a consistent basis
  • Breaking tasks into smaller units
  • Incorporating student’s interests into assignments
  • Using repetition, demonstration and modeling to facilitate performance
  • Reinforcing student success
  • Facilitating student independence and competence

Behavioral Support

 Providing direct behavioral support to ASD students is a vital role of instructional assistants in managing behavior. This support is implemented in response to specific problem behaviors. Examples of this support includes:

  • Proactively scanning the environment for possible behavior precipitants
  • Reducing and eliminating stressors and distractions in the classroom
  • Reading student’s cues and signals and reacting before inappropriate behavior occurs
  • Increasing structure and predictability in the classroom
  • Keeping case manager classroom teacher and parent notified about changes in behavior
  • Encouraging the student to utilize breaks when appropriate
  • Keeping behavioral data in accordance with a Behavioral Intervention Plan

Academic Modifications

Priming

There are a multitude of academic modifications that may support ASD students. Priming is one of the most effective strategies. Priming involves the introduction of information prior to the use or occurrence. Actual material used in a lesson is shown to student before activity takes place.

The purpose of Priming is to

  • Familiarize the student with use of information
  • Introduce predictability which reduces stress and anxiety
  • Increase student success

An example of Priming involves having a student review index cards that outline what he/she will be doing in her classes the next day. Each index card lists the reading assignment, the number and type of questions that will have to be answered, how the activity will occur (small group or individual), and responsibilities for each class.

It is important to consider that Priming is most effective when built into a student’s routine regularly. Priming should be short and provide a brief overview; it is not teaching.

Modifying assignments

Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the individual student when developing content and format of assignments. Some need extra time. For others, tasks need to be shortened or number of items reduced. This can be accomplished without drawing undo attention.  For example, when reducing the number of questions on a math test assigned to whole class: the teacher can circle the number of items the ASD student is expected to complete.

Summary

Instructional assistants play a vital role in the education of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In order to support ASD students most effectively, their role and function must be clearing delineated. Working in a clearly defined role, instructional assistants are in a unique position to provide the above academic and behavioral supports to optimally support ASD students.

Respectfully submitted,

Joseph Graybill, Ph.D.

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