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Providing Practical Help for Students with Autism

Susan Ducau

In 2006 the Autism Spectrum Disorders Reference Group was set up to provide recommendations to the minister of education and the minister of children and youth services about effective,  evidence-based  educational  practices to meet the strengths and needs of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). One result of the final recommendations was the Ministry of Education’s Policy and Procedure Memorandum 140 (PPM 140) released in May 2007. My heart raced with excitement as I read about the framework to support Ontario school boards with the implementation of “Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) as an effective instructional approach in the  education  of  many  students  with  Autism Spectrum Disorders (p. 1).” For me, this memorandum represented a successful collaboration by researchers, practitioners, parent representatives, and the ministries to ensure that schools address the wide variety of needs of students with ASD.

For most of my teaching career I have worked with  children  who  have  ASD, and  as  both  a classroom and itinerant resource teacher, I have witnessed the success of ABA techniques. While valuable for teaching students with autism, the principles of ABA can also be used with positive results for students with other special needs.

Applied behavioural analysis (as outlined in the PPM 140) is based on scientific principles of learning and behaviour. Its ultimate goal is to change behaviour by increasing desirable skills and decreasing undesirable ones. When applying ABA in  the  classroom, it  is  important  to consider its fundamental principles: creating an individualized program, using positive reinforcement, collecting and analyzing relevant data, and generalizing skills.

Using ABA in the classroom

Emily* was diagnosed with autism when she was two and a half years old. When I met her she was in grade 1 and had been fully integrated into a mainstream class since junior kindergarten, and was receiving some support from an educational assistant.

To address the problems Emily was experiencing in the classroom, we began by meeting as a school team:  an  administrator, special education resource teacher, the classroom teacher (who shared information provided by  the educational assistant), Emily’s mother, the school board speech and language pathologist, a community-based occupational therapist, and myself, a behaviour resource teacher.

The  school  personnel  and  Emily’s  mother  described  the  little  girl’s strengths and needs. Their primary  concern was the difficulty she had following the teacher’s directions, especially when told what work she was expected to complete. The classroom teacher said that after she gave directions, Emily would cause a disruption  by yelling and saying no. She was then usually removed from the classroom to allow her to calm down. The teacher, educational assistant, and parent were frustrated, as these behaviours were resulting in incomplete work and classroom disturbances.

The next step was to collect observational data about Emily’s daily disruptions. The classroom teacher and  EA completed ABC tracking for 10 school days. This tracking outlined what happened immediately before the behaviour occurred (Antecedent), what the behaviour looked like (Behaviour), and what happened immediately  after (Consequence). The school professional support staff observed Emily at different times, in a variety of settings, and completed their assessments within a four-week period.

By sharing documentation and observations, the school team was able to determine that Emily’s behaviours occurred most frequently when she was presented with a writing task that did not have a clear beginning and end  (for example, writing a journal about her weekend). Removing her from the classroom caused her behaviour  to  continue because when she returned either the class had changed tasks or the task expectations had to be reduced due to time constraints (such as approaching recess). In other words, a lose-lose situation.

Once the behaviour patterns and its causes were determined, the occupational therapist suggested that Emily use an AlphaSmart (a small desktop keyboard) because she had observed that her fine motor skills were impaired. The speech pathologist suggested Emily use photographs or notes in her home-to-school communication book to help her remember what had happened on the weekend. I assisted the classroom teacher by providing ideas and modelling how to structure a writing task for Emily: provide her with sentence starters; using a checklist format, outline how many sentences she needed to write; and provide her with an exemplar.

When Emily did complete her journal, it was important that she receive positive reinforcement. Emily’s reward was to walk independently to the learning centre, where she printed her journal from the AlphaSmart and she received a token. After she  had accumulated four tokens she was allowed to choose from a selection of rewards.

The school team implemented the strategies immediately and continued to use ABC tracking to see if there were changes  to Emily’s behaviours. I returned to the class two weeks later and saw Emily completing her journal with minimal disruption.  The tracking reflected a significant decrease (about 70 per cent) in her behaviours during journal time.

The principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (individualization, positive  reinforcement, data collection, and generalization)  are effective for working with a variety of special needs students. As  teachers  we  are  continuously  taking  data on students’ progress with their academic skills (running records, Rubrics, checklists, tests, and so on). When we find students struggling  with a task or subject, we determine what skill needs to be increased (reading comprehension, math computation facts, note-taking skills) and teach that  skill through  whole-class, small-group, or individualized instruction. We then praise students  and/or provide  some  external reinforcement (sticker, point system, positive phone call home) when they show improvement in the area we  are  focusing  on.  Finally, we  help  students generalize this new skill and use it in different contexts by reporting to other teachers and to parents on the improvement and how they can help. When we follow this process, we are using ABA principles.

Did you know?

  • Children are usually diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder between the ages of 18 months and six years. The diagnosis is based on observations by parents and others involved with the child (staff at preschool or early years centre, classroom teacher, etc.).
  • Children with ASD will have impairments in three areas: social interactions, communication, and repetitive or restrictive patterns of behaviour.
  • The diagnosis may be characterized as Asperger’s, autism, or pervasive developmental delay-not otherwise specified.
  • Autism is now recognized as the most common neurological disorder affecting children and one of the most common developmental disabilities. Approximately one in 165 children have an ASD and the number of cases is increasing worldwide. For more information, consult
  • April is Autism Awareness Month. Contact your local chapter of Autism Society Ontario ( to obtain information about their “Together for Autism Program.”


Summary of how the principles of ABA were applied:

Behaviour  to decrease: removal from classroom due to disruptions

Behaviour  to increase: time on task and written output

Documentation  used: ABC tracking

Solutions: collaboration with school team, accommodations for fine motor difficulties, planning and structuring the task

Reinforcement:  independent walk (purposeful movement break) and token economy

Generalization: When Emily was able to complete the journal with an 80 percent reduction in disruptive behaviours, the strategies were applied to other writing tasks.

IEP: accommodations for writing (use of AlphaSmart, written outline, exemplar). No modifications required, as Emily was working on curriculum expectations.


* This example was compiled from different experiences working with children with autism. The name and identifyin informationdo not reflect an individua child.