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Instructional Strategies for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Natalie Gibson

Brandman University

EDUU 677

Dr. Nicholson

June 3, 2018

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a range of conditions characterized by challenges

with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication (“What Is

Autism?”, 2012). “Educating students with autism is usually an intensive undertaking, involving

a team of professionals and many hours each week of different instruction and therapies to

address a student’s behavioral, developmental, social and/or academic needs. Students with

autism often require explicit teaching across a variety of settings to generalize skills”

("Instructional Methods in teaching students with autism", 2012). Several evidence-based

practices (EBPs) have been considered as effective interventions for people with ASD. Three

different instructional strategies that support those with ASD include Discrete Trial Training

(DTT), Pivotal Response Training (PRT), and Functional Routines (FR)/Task Analysis (TA).

These interventions can be implemented to work with students with ASD across settings.

“Discrete trial training (DTT) relies on highly structured, teacher-directed, one-on-one

interactions between the teacher and student. In these interactions, the teacher initiates a specific

stimulus to evoke the child’s response, generally a discrete skill, which is an element of a larger

behavioral repertoire” (Stahmer, et al., 2014). DTT is based on the principles of Applied

Behavior Analysis. DTT can help students with ASD increase their academic skills by breaking

down skills into small, clear steps. The steps are taught through many repetitions, clear

instructions, and reinforcement (Sam, 2016). DTT is often used in a one-to-one setting at a table

with no distractions; however, it can also be used in classroom, community, and home

environments. Using DTT across environments helps to generalize skills.

To implement DTT with fidelity, one must ensure that they are properly trained and

following the steps and procedures of DTT. First the learner must be successfully transitioned to

their learning environment. Next, the learner’s attention must be obtained, and their selected

reinforcer must be ready. The instruction must be delivered with a discriminative stimulus

followed by the learner’s response. Corrective feedback is provided along with prompting as

needed. Multiple trials are provided, fading prompting and providing the reinforcement. The

same instruction is repeated for the targeted number of trials. Maintenance trials must also be

given to review mastered steps. Lastly, generalization must be taught by applying the use of

skills in multiple situations. (Sam, 2016).

“Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is one of the best studied and validated behavioral

treatments for autism. Derived from applied behavioral analysis (ABA), it is play based and child

initiated. Its goals include the development of communication, language and positive social

behaviors and relief from disruptive self-stimulatory behaviors” (Pivotal Response Treatment,

2012). Like Discrete Trial Training, PRT is a method of applying the principles of Applied

Behavior Analysis. PRT builds on the learner’s initiative and interests by enhancing four pivotal

learning behaviors: motivation, responding to multiple cues, self-management, and self-

initiation. These skills are considered pivotal because they help the learner make widespread and

generalized improvements in their skills (Pivotal Response Training, 2010). PRT “is considered

student directed because it occurs in the regular classroom environment where the teaching area

is pre-arranged to include highly preferred activities or toys that the student will be motivated to

acquire. In PRT, students initiate the teaching episode by indicating interest in an item or activity

or selecting among available teaching materials. Materials are varied frequently to enhance

student motivation and generalization of skills” (Stahmer, et al., 2014).


PRT can be implemented across settings like DTT. PRT has been successful in

naturalistic environments, including school, home, and the community. Parents should be

trained as the primary intervention agents; however, family members, teachers, and peers can be

included as intervention agents (Pivotal Response Training, 2010). One aspect of PRT that may

affect fidelity is that PRT programs usually involve 25 or more hours per week for the learner as

well as instruction for parents and other caregivers. Everyone involved in the learner’s life is

encouraged to use PRT methods consistently. Therefore, PRT has been described as a “lifestyle”

adopted by the affected family. (Pivotal Response Treatment, 2012).

“Functional routines are regularly occurring events that require a consistent set of

behaviors to achieve a goal” (Calderwood). These routines provide meaningful contexts for

using, generalizing, and maintaining receptive and expressive language, social interaction skills,

and preacademic concepts (STAR Autism Support, Inc.). In order to complete functional

routines, teachers and parents must use task analysis. Task analysis is the process of breaking a

task into its component steps or chained behaviors. “Chained behaviors are behaviors or skills

which consist of multiple steps such as tying shoes, grocery shopping, writing a paper, or

cooking” (Sam, 2015). As each step is taught and the learner masters each step, they gradually

become more independent in using the target skill(s). TA can be used to increase academic skills

such as completing assignments, reading, or math.

“Task analysis can be used by a variety of professionals, including teachers, special

educators, therapists, paraprofessionals, and early interventionists in educational and community-

based environments. Parents and family members also can use task analysis in the home”

(AFIRM Module). When using TA with learners, it is important that other evidence-based

practices like prompting and reinforcement be used as well. These EBPs will help those with

ASD learn each of the smaller steps in the chain. To make sure that TA is being implemented

with fidelity, a target behavior/skill must first be identified, baseline data must be collected, a

goal or outcome must be established, the prerequisite skills for the task must be identified and

determined if the learner has them, the components of the task must be analyzed and broken

down into pieces, the procedure (forward chaining, backward chaining) must be determined,

materials must be developed, activities must be planned, and progress needs to be monitored

through data collection. Because there are many steps and lots of preparation involved in using

TA, it could affect the fidelity when used by multiple intervention agents (Sam, 2015).

As I reflect on the learning environment of the student from my fieldwork observations, I

can foresee many challenges in implementing any of the above three EBPs. While the student I

have been observing is higher functioning and not in need of most of these strategies, I can see

how trying to implement them in a general education classroom would be challenging. I think

that any of the above three interventions would be easiest to implement in a smaller, self-

contained environment with more trained adults to supervise in the implementation and data

collection. If implementing these strategies for a student who is included in the general

education setting, I think it would be easiest to work with the student in a pull-out setting, and

then generalize into the general education classroom. Paraeducators who work with the student

could be trained to collect data. The one EBP that my student may benefit from would be task

analysis for the purpose of teaching written expression. Because my student struggles with

writing multiple sentences and organizing his thinking to begin writing, TA may be beneficial

for breaking down the planning and organizing piece of writing.



Calderwood, B. (n.d.). Functional Routines & Task Analysis for Students with Autism. Retrieved

June 3, 2018, from


Instructional Methods in teaching students with autism[PDF]. (2012). Autism Speaks, Inc.

Pivotal Response Training[PDF]. (2010, October). National Professional Development Center on

Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). (2012, July 25). Retrieved June 3, 2018, from

Sam, A., & AFIRM Team. (2015). Task analysis. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional

Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University

of North Carolina. Retrieved from

Sam, A., & AFIRM Team. (2016). Discrete Trial Training. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional

Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University

of North Carolina. Retrieved from

Stahmer, A. C., Reed, S., Lee, E., Reisinger, E. M., Connell, J. E., & Mandell, D. S. (2014,

November 28). Training Teachers to use Evidence-Based Practices for Autism: Examining

Procedural Implementation fidelity. Retrieved June 3, 2018, from

STAR Autism Support Inc.[PDF]. (n.d.). Portland: STAR Autism Support Inc.

What Is Autism? (2012, May 31). Retrieved May 19, 2018, from