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5765 Identifying Priorities for Teaching Children with Autism: Where Do We Begin? [BCBA Session] [ASHA Session]

Friday, July 8, 2011: 3:15 PM-4:30 PM
Sun A (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)
Identifying and prioritizing skills to teach children with autism is a critical first step to providing effective treatment. Skill deficits are present across all areas of adaptive functioning, with communication and social skills being areas of greatest need. It is difficult for clinicians, teachers, and parents to determine which skills to teach first. The Core Skills Assessment developed at the New England Center for Children will be reviewed and assessment results presented for students across ages, programs, and ability levels. Today's educators providing instruction for individuals with autism face a range of treatment decisions. Although there is considerable research on the effectiveness of teaching procedures across a variety of skills (Callahan, Henson, & Cowan, 2007), it can be challenging to determine which skills are important to teach first.  This issue becomes even more complex when you consider the range of ability levels and the individual differences in specific strengths and weaknesses across individuals with autism spectrum disorders.  Although different students require different goals, there are some skills that are useful for all individuals with ASDs.  These are the fundamental skills for participating in a broad range of environments, communities, and activities – the skills that provide a foundation upon which more complex skills can be built.  Educators working with children with autism have much to teach and limited time.  In planning programs of instruction for individuals with ASDs, teachers must consider the extent to which the selected skills will open new possibilities for the individual student.  These skills that open new doors for individuals have been referred to as behavioral cusps, and they are prerequisite to more advanced independent, competent behavior (Rosales-Ruiz & Baer, 1997).  

In this presentation we will discuss important considerations related to identifying and prioritizing instructional goals, and we will describe to attendees a skills assessment that has been developed to assist in selecting critical goals for students with autism.  Additionally, we will discuss the process of developing and validating this assessment.  Finally, we will discuss the benefits of reviewing student progress across successive years using this skills assessment.  This session is appropriate for BCBA continuing education credit because it reviews and extends the area of goal selection in children with autism, and gives practitioners tools for successfully determining appropriate skills to teach.

We will review and describe skills that are foundational for children with ASDs, and talk about how these might be prioritized based on an individual’s specific strengths and weaknesses, age, current and future instructional environment, and parental preference.  We will also consider the issue of generalization and the importance of building a generalized repertoire of relevant, functional skills.  When considering a potential educational target, attendees will be encouraged to ask: Is this behavior a prerequisite for a more advanced or more functional skill?  Will this behavior increase the student’s access to other environments where important skills can be acquired or used?  And, will this behavior lead others to interact with the student in a more appropriate or helpful manner?  Special emphasis will be placed on the skill domains of communication and social functioning.

Next, we will describe a skills assessment developed by a team of research-practitioners at the New England Center for Children (NECC); we’ll discuss the content, the measures taken to assess its social validity, and its use as a tool for prioritizing entry-level skills and evaluating programs of instruction.  This assessment, the Core Skills Assessment® (CSA), is used to assess a student’s performance of skills considered to be foundational for individuals with ASDs.  The social validity of the skills selected for the CSA was tested by surveying stakeholders in the Applied Behavior Analysis and autism communities.  For each student at NECC, results from the CSA aid in the selection of educational targets.  These targets are prioritized based on other factors such as the students’ individual skill profile, age, and parental priorities.  Teachers use a computer program to record assessment results and progress on goals for each individual student.  This tracking method allows educators not only to reflect upon the progress of an individual student, but also to assess the progress of students across the school.  At this level of analysis, educators can see which skills tend to be learned more quickly, and which skills are not associated with such rapid progress.  These skills that are more difficult to teach have become the topic of targeted research into improving instructional practices.

Learning Objectives:

  • Attendees will be able to list and discuss functional skills for children with autism, and will be familiar with the concept of behavioral cusps.
  • Attendees will understand and be able to discuss the importance of the fit between the selected goals, the instructional strategy, and the context in which the student is to be taught.
  • Attendees will be able to state the importance of using valid assessment to select goals and monitor progress.
  • Attendees will be able to discuss the benefits of conducting a program evaluation using assessment data compiled across many students.

Content Area: Education


Chata Dickson, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Curriculum Specialist and Research Associate
The New England Center for Children

Dr. Dickson is a Curriculum Specialist and Research Associate at NECC. She has 16 years of experience working in a variety of settings with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, and has published research investigating effective methods for teaching these individuals.

Nicole C. Gardenier, M.S., BCBA
Assistant Director, Public School Services
The New England Center for Children

For over 14 years, Nicole has been working with individuals with autism in private and public school settings. Currently, Nicole provides consultation and training services to public school administrators and staff in New England. Nicole is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis.

June Kivi, M.S., Ed., BCBA
Senior Consulting Specialist, Public School Services
The New England Center for Children

June has been working with individuals with autism in private and public school settings for 15 years. Currently, she works with schools establishing comprehensive classroom models for preschool and elementary-aged students. June is a certified Special Educator and Board Certified Behavior Analyst with her Master’s degree in Intensive Special Needs.