A New Model for Teaching Kids with Autism

A new curriculum featuring a virtual classroom component looks to improve social competency and communication skills in children with autism.

Researchers at the University of Missouri are creating a social competence curriculum with a virtual classroom component to help educators meet the demand of children with autism spectrum disorders—a population in which development of social skills and communication can play a vital role in future success.

The program developed by Janine Stichter, a professor of special education at the MU College of Education, and her team, has demonstrated success in an after-school format and is now being tested during daily school activities. The key factors in Stichter’s curriculum focus on specific needs and behavioral traits within the autism spectrum; by zeroing in on this, instructors are able to deliver a more individualized instruction within a small group format and optimize the response to intervention, according to a press release.

“Children with autism have three core deficit areas: difficulty with communication, issues with repetitive behaviors, and social competence,” said Stichter. “Social competency has a big impact on communication and is essential for post-school outcomes. While there are several social curricula available, they haven’t adequately discriminated between and targeted certain parts of the population.”

At MU College of Education, researchers have worked to develop interventions to meet specific needs, she said, adding that high-functioning children on the autism spectrum usually have trouble with determining and managing goals, understanding others’ feelings, and regulating emotions. Stichter’s curriculum focuses the student on recognizing facial expressions, sharing ideas, taking turns, exploring feelings and emotions, and problem-solving.

“For parents, this means a reduction in the need to be shopping constantly for a program that fits their child. There’s a tendency for programs to promote social skill development, but parents have a hard time determining if it fits their children; this program is structured so that parents know they have a good fit,” she noted. “Also, this creates a model for schools so these lessons can be added to the student’s overall educational experience, rather than an add-on to the student’s schedule. To date, the special education teachers involved have been very pleased to have a comprehensive curriculum and with the outcomes for their students. Even general education teachers are saying ‘show us more—we can use this with all of our kids.’”

The ultimate goal of the program—which was developed with help from two three-year grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education—is to tailor the learning process for any student who has social competency issues. Part of that goal includes the continuing development of an Internet-based, virtual learning environment that any school in the country could use. Stichter is currently collaborating on this project with James Laffey, professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, also in the College of Education.

For more information:

  • New Research Collaborative to Focus on Autism, ADHD
  • Communication Therapy Doesn't Improve Autism Symptoms
  • Brief parent training in pivotal response treatment for preschoolers with autism

Do you think that a program like this can be adopted on a wider scale to help improve social and communication skills in children with autism?

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