Navigating social awkwardness for adolescents is already difficult, but for those with autism spectrum disorders, it’s nearly impossible. A new program at the University of Missouri is helping to bridge that gap.
Statistics show that if students with autism are able to communicate effectively, they can achieve success in the classroom, and in the workplace. MU professor of special education Janine Stichter says social cues that are taught early on change when they become adolescents.
“As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders continues to increase, the one thing that won’t change is the need for those children to develop social skills,” she says. “Statistics show that if these students are able to communicate effectively, they can achieve success in the classroom, and later, in the workplace. In addition to the challenges facing each individual student, educators find themselves facing dwindling resources.”
University of Missouri professors are developing an effective social competence curriculum, with a virtual classroom component, that could help educators meet the demand of this growing population.
Stichter says she and her team have developed a curriculum that has shown success in an after-school format and is now being tested during daily school activities, with help from two three-year grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. The key factors in Stichter’s curriculum focus on specific needs and behavioral traits within the autism spectrum. By doing this, the instructor is able to deliver a more individualized instruction within a small group format and optimize the response to intervention.
“Children with autism have three core deficit areas: difficulty with communication, issues with repetitive behaviors, and social competence,” Stichter says. “Social competency has a big impact on communication and is essential for post-school outcomes. While there are several social curricula available, they haven’t adequately discriminated between and targeted certain parts of the population. At MU, we’ve worked to develop intervention to meet specific needs, similar to a medical model for treating cancer: doctors don’t use one treatment model for all forms of cancer, for example.”
High-functioning children on the autism spectrum usually have trouble with determining and managing goals, understanding others’ feelings, and regulating emotions. Stichter’s curriculum focuses the student on recognizing facial expressions, sharing ideas, taking turns, exploring feelings and emotions, and problem-solving.
“For parents, this means a reduction in the need to be shopping constantly for a program that fits their child. There’s a tendency for programs to promote social skill development, but parents have a hard time determining if it fits their children; this program is structured so that parents know they have a good fit,” Stichter says. “Also, this creates a model for schools so these lessons can be added to the student’s overall educational experience, rather than an add-on to the student’s schedule. To date, the special education teachers involved have been very pleased to have a comprehensive curriculum and with the outcomes for their students. Even general education teachers are saying ‘show us more – we can use this with all of our kids.’”