How can teachers better engage students with intellectual disabilities?

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Finding effective ways to teach children with autism has long been a passion for Julie Thompson, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education & Human Development.

Through her Biometric Literacy and Language Indicators for Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Children (BLINC) Lab, Thompson researches how to improve literacy and language skills of children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Students with autism have individualized needs in the classroom. While many educators feel one-on-one instruction is required, research shows group instruction is also successful. However, Thompson said teachers should focus on ways to enhance the group instruction to meet those individualized needs.

One way is through direct instruction, which includes clear, consistent and precise directions and materials that promote student mastery. It is designed for small-group instruction and relies heavily on unison responding, or having all students respond at the same time.

“I would first do a mini lesson with a student. I taught them that ‘everybody’ is the same as saying their name. If I say ‘Denise’, Denise should respond to me,” said Thompson. “I would go between the word ‘everybody’ and a child’s name so the students learned when it wasn’t their name or the word everybody, they shouldn’t respond.”

She wanted to get more specific and investigate certain strategies and the impact on students with autism, specifically those who previously had trouble participating in small-group instruction because of interfering behaviors.

Thompson took a closer look at task breaks in combination with proximity fading, or changing the distance between the teacher and the student. The study found a significant improvement in student participation when those strategies were used in conjunction with group instruction.

“What you see is the kids learn and problem behaviors are reduced if they’re engaged. If you have good instruction, a lot of the problem behaviors go away. It’s a combination of being a really good teacher and having some behavior supports when needed,” said Thompson.

Another piece of Thompson’s research focused on electronic books.

Using eye-tracking technology, Thompson measured the attention to print and pictures in an e-book from both elementary students with autism and elementary students with typical development.

She found children with minimally verbal autism paid attention to the book half the time it was displayed. The children spent an even shorter amount of time looking at the words or pictures in the e-book.

However, when the text was read aloud and highlighted, more attention was paid to the words. Thompson said this shows simple stimulus enhancements may help get the attention of children with autism. She said it is important to draw attention to text and pictures intentionally.

“We think e-books and technology are this amazing thing, but not without behavioral supports and directed instruction to get children to look,” said Thompson. “For children with autism, we need to move back and teach them how to construct meaning by actually getting them to engage and look at pictures as they’re hearing the words. When they hear the word dog, we want them to know there’s a dog on the page and they have to identify that.”

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