First, the good news: Research in the late 1980s demonstrated that intensive intervention delivered through a systematic comprehensive curriculum could result in dramatic outcomes for children with autism. This gave parents and educators much-needed optimism. It also gave clinicians a detailed set of strategies that continue to serve as a theoretical and conceptual foundation for autism intervention called applied behavior analysis, or ABA.
ABA is a specialized approach that can be used to teach students with autism important skills in nearly every area: expressive language, receptive language, social skills, academics, and life skills/vocational programming. Through an ABA approach, complex skills are broken down into small, attainable components that are systematically taught and reinforced. A general principle of curriculum development is that programming for each and every skill, no matter how small, moves sequentially from simple to complex.
Now, the bad news: This type of approach requires a great deal of instructional time in order to give students the repetition they need to learn difficult skills. It also requires a high level of clinical expertise. Researchers have noted a correlation between the number of hours of quality ABA-based instruction and positive outcomes for students. This means that educators need to maximize every learning opportunity within the school day and keep students engaged in the learning process at all times. Even with such a commitment, it can be a challenge to provide intensive intervention within most school settings.
Students with autism at the Y.A.L.E. School’s Mullica Township and Audubon campuses receive this intensive ABA-based instruction across the day. Younger students are educated in a 1:1 ratio, making it easy to deliver effective ABA-based intervention. As children grow older, more emphasis is placed on academic skills, and the staff-to-student ratio increases. While there are benefits to having students learn to work in small groups or on more traditional academics, it also limits our ability to target as many goals or to provide as much repetition.
With our unique “school within a school” model, our classrooms are in local public schools, allowing students opportunities for inclusion that are not readily available in most autism-specific settings. Access to typical peers can be a real benefit: It gives our students appropriate social models and a chance to generalize communication and social skills to new classmates—and potential friends. But these opportunities create challenges. Time spent in inclusion is time spent away from intensive instruction in the classroom.
With limited hours in the school day, and so much that a student with autism must learn, it is essential that every effort is made to ensure that a student is ready to take advantage of, and be successful in an inclusion setting. Otherwise, the student is missing out on valuable instructional time. Worse yet, we risk exposing the student to social failure; failure that could affect the confidence of that student for years to come.