Navigating Autism's Swirling Waters: Discovering the "Why" Behind Behaviors Can Help Teachers Develop Interventions to Prevent Behaviors before They Happen

By Hart, Juliet E. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Navigating Autism's Swirling Waters: Discovering the "Why" Behind Behaviors Can Help Teachers Develop Interventions to Prevent Behaviors before They Happen


Hart, Juliet E., Phi Delta Kappan


As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders increases, schools must ensure that general and special educators are prepared to teach these students effectively and to respond to their behavioral issues. Although both general and special educators are likely to encounter students with autism in their classrooms, most teacher education programs provide very little training in evidence-based practices for effectively teaching students with autism (Morrier, Hess, & Heflin, 2011; National Research Council, 2001). So, it's not surprising that teachers rarely employ evidence-based instructional strategies with such students (Hess, Morrier, Hefl in, & Ivey, 2008).

The unique challenges presented by children with autism can quickly overwhelm unprepared teachers. Educators need direction on how to understand and address the behavioral problems and social communication needs of children with autism, and they require practical techniques that they can use throughout their school day.

Determine the why of the child's behavior

"Inappropriate" social interaction is often considered the central, defining feature of autism, since these challenges continue despite intellectual or language capacity. The socialization issues that children with autism experience often manifest in problem behaviors. Perceived as "acting out"--physical aggression, defiance, self-injury, tantrums, and disruption--these behaviors often reflect children's responses to challenges in the classroom. Perceived uncertainty and lack of order can be frightening to children with autism. They're frustrated by their inability to successfully interact with peers or successfully make their thoughts and needs known to others (Hart & Whalon, 2011). Students with autism will often communicate their wants and needs through their behavior, which means that many of the "inappropriate" behaviors exhibited by these students serve a specific purpose for them. Equally critical, teachers must understand that such problem behaviors are unlikely to decrease unless the teacher intervenes, especially once the behaviors become an established feature of the child's behavioral repertoire.

Educators must keep in mind that, if they want to change a student's behavior, they must change something that they're doing. Conducting a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) may help determine why a student is misbehaving and also reveal which classroom factors encourage or discourage the behavior (Conroy et al., 2007). The goal is to evaluate the purpose or function of a student's behavior so the teacher can develop proper interventions to address individual student needs.

Typically, a team collaborates on doing an FBA and gathers information about the student's problem behavior, the contexts in which it occurs, and the events that reliably precede and follow the behavior. Although the FBA process is multifaceted, the basic components include:

* Gathering descriptive information about the behavior and environmental events surrounding it, such as when, where, with whom, and with what the child is most likely to exhibit the behavior, defining the behavior in measurable terms;

* Formulating hypotheses or best guesses regarding the function of the child's behavior;

* Designing interventions that teach socially appropriate, alternative skills to replace the problem behavior; and

* Collecting data and analyzing whether behavioral change is occurring.

If the student's behavior improves after a reasonable amount of time following the intervention, then the team can conclude that the hypothesis was likely valid, and the intervention appropriate. But, if the team determines that the behavioral issue has not been effectively resolved in a timely manner, the team can revisit how well the behavior was defined, the accuracy of intervention implementation, and/or consider other possible hypotheses and strategies for intervention. …

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