Tier 1 Interventions for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological disorder that is increasingly prevalent in schools. Many school districts have begun to develop their own self-contained programs to meet the needs of students with ASD. As a result, school social workers are increasingly tasked with providing tier 1, 2, and 3 interventions to students with ASD. In this article I will overview curricula I use for tier 1 programming for students in a 6th-8th grade self-contained ASD classroom.
When selecting a tier 1 curriculum for students it is important to examine student ability, targeted skills, comprehension, behavior, and language levels. General learner characteristics influence the curriculum course I select for tier 1 groups. In my practice, I have created three major learner profiles I encounter in self-contained ASD classrooms. These include early language learners, ASD with emotional concerns, and high functioning autism. Please note that the learner profiles do not encompass all students and some students may not “fit” into any of the profiles completely. This is merely an overview of common learner profiles I work with, and how I program for them.
Learner Profile #1: Early Language Learners
These students struggle to use expressive communication to relay their wants and needs. They may have below average to average cognitive ability. Much of their school-based therapy programming is focused on increasing their speech and language skills. Important skills taught include identifying emotions, practicing basic conversation skills, and/or building their reciprocal play skills, depending on their age group. These students tend to prefer to play alone and seek out interactions to get basic needs met. This group of students can range in all ages.
For early language learners, I use curriculum with short, animated video clips paired with social stories and direct skills practice. Superheroes Social Skills is an effective curriculum I have used with this learner profile. This curriculum is advertised for students grades K through 6; however, I have used this curriculum to work with students who have limited expressive communication skills 6th-8th grade. This curriculum targets basic social skills such as joint attention, greetings, conversational exchanges, and basic emotion identification. It includes animated videos to teach the concept, comic strips to review, and role play scenarios to further reinforce the concept.
Learner Profile #2: ASD with Emotional Concerns
These students present with typical autism characteristics and have a markedly difficult time regulating their emotions. This may result in physically or verbally aggressive behaviors. They typically have basic language skills, some delays in core academics (e.g. reading, writing, math), and/or complex sensory profiles. Typically, these students engage in overt and exaggerated physical or verbal means to show they are upset, angry, or nervous. They may require an individualized behavior intervention plan. Much of their school-based therapy programming is focused on increasing their capacity to problem solve, identify emotions, and use coping strategies. These students tend to require 1:1 teaching and counseling services to acquire and generalize these skills.
When programming for these students, I typically use curriculum specific to the problems they present with. I find it most effective to use a multi-modal curriculum with worksheets, videos, dialogue, and role plays to help students learn and practice different coping strategies. As a Tier 1, whole group intervention, I have had great success using Second Step curriculum. I will assess the group of students I work with and “teach to the middle.” This means I may have a class of students ranging from 6th-8th grade and select the 7th grade curriculum as my tier 1 group. Second Step has lessons laid out for practitioners. Lessons include video models, scripts to teach the lessons, worksheets, and homework to reinforce the concepts.
Learner Profile #3: High Functioning Autism
These students are highly verbal and present with average or above-average cognitive ability. They may participate in general education classes for core academic instruction. Students with this profile typically struggle to read social situations and understand social nuances. When frustrated, they may try to negotiate or engage in verbal arguments to emphasize their point. These students typically present with very literal, black-and-white interpretations in social situations. Much of their school-based therapy programming is focused on higher-level concepts. These include: perspective taking, understanding advanced body language, and interpreting sarcasm or idioms. For students who present with a high functioning autism profile, I typically use social curriculum developed for general education students, but adapt it to fit the unique learning needs of the students. I have used Second Step and Social Thinking curriculum with this learner profile successfully. However, I have always found myself adapting and adding certain lessons to these curriculum sets for Tier 1 programming.
Building my own Program
Over the years, I have worked to create a clinician-made curriculum that is implemented five days a week by myself (social worker), classroom teacher, and the speech/language pathologist. We call the tier 1 group “Sociology.” The curriculum aligns with CASEL social-emotional competencies (Link: https://casel.org/core-competencies/). “Sociology” includes a rotation of core concepts to teach students to interpret social nuances, advanced conversation skills, tone of voice, and reading body language. The core concepts we use include: non-literal language (i.e. idioms), hidden social rules, personal highlights, and perspective pictures.
For non-literal language, we pick a different idiom each day for the students to research. This includes writing notes about the definition and recording when they have heard people use it. We then practice different frames of speech and social situations these idioms may be used in. For hidden social rules, we select a different rule each day. Examples include lunchroom behavior, holiday meals with family, and locker room behavior. We explicitly teach expected vs. unexpected behaviors in those situations. Using short video clips or role plays, students act out and identify the expected course of action for each hidden social rule. For personal highlights, we have students practice identifying something positive in their day. We then have their peers actively listen by generating questions and comments to the student’s highlight. For perspective pictures, we select images with social complex social nuances. Students then animate the pictures with thought bubbles and conversation bubbles to depict what may be occurring. We then discuss different people’s perspectives and how to act in situations where there are multiple perspectives.
Teaching students with ASD can be an enriching experience, especially when you are able to use an effective curriculum. There are many pre-packaged curricula available; however, working with students with ASD may require the practitioner to tailor and adapt the curriculum to meet the unique learner profiles of students with ASD.