ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Saturday, July 15, 2006: 12:15 PM-1:30 PM
#2240- Classroom and Communication Skills Program
This program targets communication and table readiness foundation skills needed for students with autism to be successful and independent in the classroom and home environments. Various strategies and methodologies are integrated into the program to promote language learning and encourage functional behaviors. Practical applications to the public school setting will be discussed during this session.

Presenters:Megan Ahlers, MS, MSD Lawrence Township, Assistant Director of Special Education - Megan Ahlers is an assistant director of special education for MSD Lawrence Township in Indianapolis, IN. She is the co-author of the Classroom and Communication Skills Program. She has been an early childhood special education teacher and has served as a behavioral consultant and developmental therapist. She has presented at ASA, IAEYC, EC Administrator's conference and Ball State University EC conference. Megan is a member of Lawrence Twp. Autism Team.

Colleen Zillich (nee Hannigan), MS, CCC-SLP, Hamilton Southeastern Schools-Brooks School Elementary, Speech Language Pathologist - Colleen Zillich (nee Hannigan) is a Speech Language Pathologist in Hamilton Southeastern School's Early Childhood Program in Fishers, IN. Colleen is the co-author of the Classroom and Communication Skills Program. She has presented at ASA, American Speech and Hearing Association national conference and Ball State University's Early Childhood Conference. She is a member of the HBM Special Services Autism Resource Team.

Classroom and Communication Skills Program (CCSP) was developed in the public school setting to help facilitate the learning of young students who are non-verbal or have limited verbal skills. Students who are having difficulties with their communication skills typically have behaviors that affect classroom foundation skills. Targeted classroom foundation skills include sitting during tasks, engaging in adult directed activities, and participating in various classroom activities. We found that the structure, curriculum, and programs of traditional preschool developmental programs were not effectively meeting the needs of these students. In addition, the assessments and screening tools that were used for the developmental program were not providing adequate information to develop an appropriate individual educational program. There was a need for alternative assessments, programming and classroom structure within the natural classroom environment to be developed. The dual focus of the CCSP is to provide a solid communication system, either verbally, through sign language, augmentative communication and/or picture communication exchange as well as, teach the students table readiness skills. The CCSP curriculum follows foundations and basics for early childhood education and thematic classroom units. The classroom is supported by a special education early childhood teacher and an assistant on a daily basis. The speech language pathologist is fully integrated in the classroom every other day. Occupational and physical are integrated into the classroom per students' needs. Typically, if the student in not successful in the developmental classroom, due to limited communication and/or classroom skills, he/she may be a candidate for CCSP. Once identified, the goal of CCSP is to provide students with the skills they need to be successful in the CCSP classroom and eventually transition back into the developmental classroom.

A description of methodologies and daily activities follows:

• The CCSP is not disability specific. However, the children enrolled are typically non-verbal children with autism and children with Down Syndrome. To encourage basic communication skills, incorporated into the program are: sign language, picture communication, prompting verbal productions, and augmentative communication. A total communication approach provides each student with multiple communication systems. Students are encouraged to use all communication systems. Therapists and teachers observe which communication system(s) are most successful and which systems individual students gravitate towards. • Behavior management is an integral component of CCSP. Often children will display adverse behaviors when demands are placed. Positive reinforcement is used throughout daily classroom activities. During the first two weeks a student is in the classroom, the teachers and therapists pair themselves with numerous reinforcers to teach the students to come to them for their favorite items. Relationship building and trust is a key component throughout the program. To keep various reinforcers easily accessible, the teachers and therapists wear aprons with multiple pockets. Each student's reinforcers are used to encourage sitting skills and engagement in various activities. If the student's reinforcers change throughout the day so must the variety of items to promote participation. The overall objective is for the students to enjoy school and learn in a positive natural environment. • A daily classroom schedule is followed to promote student learning. When the students arrive from the bus, they begin their day with “wait” time in the hall prior to entering the classroom. During this “wait time”, independent sitting skills are promoted through the support of reinforcers. Expectations are raised as the student is successful and reinforcers are phased out. • Following the hallway, the students transition into the classroom and hang up their coats and backpacks. Reinforcers are used to encourage the student to perform these self-help skills with as little prompting as needed. Time restrictions are flexible to allow a student adequate time to complete a task. A student may require multiple verbal prompts and models to complete this task. Forward chaining and backward chaining are used to help the student become successful. • Following backpacks, the students choose between a variety of activities that have been purposefully set out for free play. Student observation occurs to determine each child's play interests. While following each child's lead, basic play skills are taught through modeling and prompting. Basic requesting skills are also integrated into play sessions. Appropriate social skills are taught during free play and through out the day. • During circle time, the students are presented with picture choices for different songs. Depending on the student's ability to make choices, he/she is presented with up to 5 song choices. Also used are discrimination choices (i.e. blank picture cared of a different color or size) and non-preferred song choices. This allows for the presenter to know if the child is truly choosing the desired item. Students are encouraged to request a turn to choose a song by signing “my turn” and handing their individual picture to the teacher. While singing songs, the staff signs key words for the students. Imitation skills are encouraged through the use of verbal prompts and reinforcers. Circle time also focuses on matching pictures and objects related to the weekly thematic unit. Fill-ins, requesting various items, and matching skills are also included. • Snack time is typically a highly motivating time for students. Again, a total communication approach is used for the students. The students are seated at a U-shaped table. They are given a “menu” of different food choice pictures. The students who are beginning to discriminate picture choices are given non-preferred snack choices as well as preferred items. The students request using pictures, signs and vocal approximations. Depending on the student's skill level, sign combinations and word combinations are modeled. This activity provides a natural environment for eliciting multiple requests. • Art time focuses on the process rather than the product. Teaching basic concepts such as: on and off; matching skills; and thematic vocabulary are incorporated in the art activities. Use of reinforcers for compliance is faded as the student demonstrates success. In addition, reinforcers are used to increase time on task. For example, a student may first be required to glue a single object onto paper. Later, the student is required to glue multiple objects onto paper. Modeling, verbal prompts, and reinforcers are used to help the student complete the activity as independently as possible. Limited hand over hand assistance is used to avoid prompt dependency. • Sensory activities are incorporated into each student's day. When the student is interested in a specific sensory activity such as water play or shaving cream, additional toys are brought into the activity to promote learning. For example, if the student is working on identifying common objects, then common objects are put into the water and taught through the water play. Conversely, if a student is not interested in a sensory activity, their favorite toy is placed in that particular sensory item. For example, if a student is interested in dinosaurs but not play dough, then dinosaurs are placed into the play dough to encourage the student to play with the play dough. • Weekly cooking activities are utilized to promote matching skills, identifying common objects, turn taking, following directions, and completing fill-ins. Initially, snack items were made during cooking activities; however, various sensory items (i.e. bubbles, goop) are also made due to individual dietary restrictions. • Visual cues are used throughout the classroom to promote comprehension skills and requesting skills. Staff carries pictures on rings that show the children different visual cues to assist with following various directions and transitioning between activities. Pictures of reinforcers are placed on velcro next to favorite items. This promotes requesting skills by having the pictures easily accessible for the students. • Throughout the day, communication skills are a focal point. Teachers use simple sign language, picture communication, and applied verbal behavior. These communication strategies are used in a total communication approach to promote maximum language learning. Positive reinforcement is the main behavior management technique used. One on one intensive instruction occurs with immediate transfer of skills for generalization purposes. In addition, to promote generalization, different adults and different materials are used to teach new concepts. • There have been some pitfalls and barriers in the development of the classroom program. Visually distracting items on the walls diverted the students' attention. Removal of these items and covering the bookshelves with white shower curtains improved the students' attention. Posters and visuals have been added slowly to the walls. These items have not been distracting to the students. There were also difficulties restricting the student's access to various areas of the classroom. To address this problem, the room was structured to provide natural barriers and cabinets that contained food items were locked. Open access to the student's favorite item did not facilitate communication with others. Items, such as, favorite toys were placed visually accessible but out of physical reach to encourage the student to communicate their wants and needs. • Important notes: Promote independence for the students and use limited hand over hand assistance. Encourage the student to do motor movements thorough reinforcers. By decreasing the amount of hand over hand assistance, the student is less likely to become physically prompt dependent. To prevent verbal prompt dependency, avoid saying “what do you want” as this inadvertently becomes a prompt. The goal is to have students spontaneously request. In the natural environment, it is easier to make communication more meaningful. Finally, do not teach “more” to students who are at the one word stage. By teaching “more”, you are setting the student up for failure. “More” does not indicate the true wants of the child. Instead, teach the actual words/signs to request favorite items. This methodology teaches the student to communicate first, rather than waiting for an adult to present item(s) in which they need to request “more”. • Collaboration with parents and other individuals involved with the student's programming is necessary for a continuum of services. Parent training programs have been developed to promote communication skills at home and to assist with behavioral difficulties. Parents are highly encouraged to come into the classroom to see how different strategies are utilized within the classroom. • Children in the CCSP are closely monitored for progress using the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills, ISTAR and the student's IEP goals and objectives. By addressing basic classroom and communication skills early, these students will learn the necessary skills to be successful in various educational programs.

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