Instructional Approaches

This information is sourced from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Programming for Individual Needs : Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (2003)

Visual approaches

The most strongly recommended approach for teaching students with ASD is to use visual aids. Students often demonstrate relative strengths in concrete thinking, rote memory, and understanding of visual-spatial relationships, but have difficulties in abstract thinking, social cognition, communication, and attention. Pictographic and written cues can often help the student to learn, communicate, and develop self-control. An advantage of visual aids is that students can use them for as long as they need to process the information. In contrast, oral information is transient: once said, the message is no longer available. Oral information may pose problems for students who have difficulty or require extra time to process language. In addition, it may be difficult for the student with ASD to attend to relevant information and to block out background stimulation.

Using visual supports better enables the individual to focus on the message. Visual aids and symbols range in complexity from simple and concrete to abstract. The continuum moves from real object or situation ,to colour photograph, colour picture, black and white picture, line drawing, and finally to graphic symbol and written language. Objects are the most simple, concrete form of visual aid. Graphic symbols, although far along the continuum in terms of complexity and abstraction, have been widely successful with students with ASD.


Software packages that provide quick access to graphic symbols and the ability to create customized symbols are available (eg. Boardmaker). Visual supports can be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. To be successful, they must fit the student’s level of comprehension by being at the appropriate point on the continuum of complexity mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Using a line drawing to support learning when the student needs colour photographs in order to comprehend will only frustrate everyone.

Taking this caution into account, visual supports are useful and can be employed to:

  • organize the student’s activity: daily schedules, mini schedules, activity checklists, calendars, choice boards
  • provide directions or instructions for students: visual display of classroom assignments, file cards with directions for specific tasks and activities, pictographs and written instructions for learning new information
  • assist the student in understanding the organization of the environment: labeling of objects, containers, signs, lists, charts, and messages
  • support appropriate behaviour: posted rules and representations to signal steps of routines
  • teach social skills: pictorial representations of social stories depicting a social situation with the social cues and appropriate responses, developed for a specific situation for the individual student
  • teach self-control: using pictographs, which provide a cue for behaviour expectations
  • teach functional self-help skills: cooking, safety, shopping, community access The key question when planning an activity or giving an instruction is, “How can this information be presented in a simple visual format?” Choose visual aids on the basis of an understanding of the student’s abilities and responses.

Task analysis

Teachers and parents may need to break complex tasks down into sub-tasks and reinforce in small, teachable steps. For each step of a complex task, the student needs to have pre-requisite skills. These sub-skills may need to be taught and reinforced in sequence. For example, when teaching a self-help skill such as brushing teeth, the task may need to be broken down into sub-skills: getting the toothbrush and toothpaste, turning on the water, wetting the toothbrush, unscrewing the lid of the toothpaste, putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, etc. Life skills, social skills, and academic skills can all be analysed and approached as tasks and sub-tasks, with each step taught and then linked to the next in a chain of sub-tasks.

Discrete trial methods

Discrete trial training involves teaching skills in small units called trials. Each trial consists of an instruction, a prompt (if needed), a response from the student, and a consequence or feedback. The instruction is given in simple, clear language that the student can understand. Prompts can range from intrusive to subtle. Feedback is given immediately following the student’s response and is specific to the response. Feedback is meant to be informative for the student. For example, if the student responds correctly with good attention, positive reinforcement is given (“Great paying attention!”) with or without a tangible reinforcer. If the student makes an attempt but is incorrect, specific feedback is given (“Good try, but….”).If there is no response, feedback is still given to let the student know that more attention is necessary (“Uh-oh, you need to pay attention”). Approximately 3-5 seconds are allowed following the instruction to give the student time to process the direction. A few seconds are allowed between trials in order to separate each trial.

Using prompts to help students learn is an important element of instruction for some students with ASD. Prompts may be physical, gestural, positional, or verbal. They should be used only as long as they are needed, since students can become dependent on them. The prompt is given following the direction when the student seems to need a cue to perform correctly or when learning a new skill. The prompt is often designed to model the desired behaviour or assist the student in performing it. The least intrusive level of prompting should be used with the goal to fade all prompting as soon as possible as trials progress. Prompted trials should be followed by an unprompted trial to see if the student has learned from the prompt. The best reinforce mentor consequence is given to the student for a correct unprompted trial.

Precise, positive praise while the student is learning

Give students precise information about what they do right or well, such as, “great colouring,” or “good finishing that math problem.” Generalized praise such as “good job” may result in unintended learning that is hard to reverse. Students with ASD may learn on one trial, so directing the praise to the very specific behaviour is important: “Sal, you are doing very well at multiplying these numbers.” Inappropriate learning can occur if students mistakenly connect something they are doing with the praise. Saying “Sal, you are doing very well” when Sal is also swinging his feet while he does the math assignment might connect the feet swinging with the general praise.

Meaningful reinforcements

Reinforcers can be anything from praise to tangible objects that increases the behaviour the student is to learn. Students with ASD may not be motivated by common reinforcers that work with other students. They may prefer some time spent alone, time to talk to a preferred staff member, a trip to the cafeteria, an exercise routine (such as going for a walk), time to play with a desired object, music, playing in water, getting to perform a favourite routine, items that provide specific sensory stimulation, or sitting at the window. Knowing what works as reinforcement for each student is important. A preference profile identifying the student’s preferred activities or other reinforcers can be helpful. This “likes and dislikes” list can be developed with the help of the family, and can be shared with all service providers.

Tasks at an appropriate level of difficulty

Students with ASD may be particularly vulnerable to anxiety and intolerant of feelings of frustration if they cannot perform the tasks assigned. Increasing the level of difficulty gradually and scaffolding or supporting learning, particularly with visual information rather than solely oral explanations, assists in minimizing the student’s frustration.

Age-appropriate materials

The choice of appropriate instructional materials honours the dignity of students with ASD. Even if the instruction must be modified, the learning materials should be appropriate to the age of the student.

Opportunities for choice

Because students with ASD may be frustrated by their inability to make themselves understood, they need instruction and practice in making good choices for themselves. Their lives may necessarily be highly structured and controlled by adults. Sometimes students continue to choose one activity or object because they do not know how to choose another. Acceptable methods of providing choice for students who have limited ability to communicate are developed on an individual basis. Direct teaching of making choices may be helpful. A choice-board may be beneficial for the student. Choice should be limited to one or two preferred activities until the student grasps the concept of choice. Open-ended choices will not enhance the student’s skill at making choices, and may frustrate him.

Oral instructions into small steps

When providing instruction to students with ASD, teachers should avoid long strings of verbal information and complex or vague instruction. For example, when instructing a student to “get ready for the bus”, numerous short instructions may be necessary (ie: “get your book bag”, “go to your locker”, “get your coat”, etc). As discussed above, supporting oral instruction with visual cues and representations helps students to understand and leads to more independent performance of skills.

Processing and pacing issues

Students with ASD may need more time to respond to directions or questions than other students. This difficulty may be linked to cognitive and/or motor difficulties. Students with ASD may need to process each discrete piece of the message or request, and therefore need extra time to respond. Providing extra time, and allowing for ample time between giving instructions and student response are both important tactics for supporting students with ASD.

Concrete examples and hands-on activities

Teach abstract ideas and conceptual thinking using specific examples. Vary the examples so that the concept is not accidentally learned as applying in only one way. For example, when teaching ‘emotions’, use pictures of a number of different faces for a particular emotion in a number of different scenarios.

Introduce unfamiliar tasks in a familiar environment

New concepts should be introduced in the student’s class, home, or some other environment in which the student is comfortable. When it is not possible to introduce unfamiliar tasks in a familiar environment, prepare the individual for the new task and environment using aids such as pictures, videotapes, and/or social stories.

Highlight what is important

Use organization aids and visual supports to:

  • help the student attend to pertinent information, and
  • teach new tasks.

For example, remove extraneous materials from the desk or table before attempting to teach a skill. Present only the text you want read rather than the whole book. Highlight the key words, such as character names in the text, so they are noticed. Encourage independent effort and incorporate proactive measures to reduce the likelihood of becoming dependent on prompts/adults When students with ASD are constantly supported, they may never develop the capacity to act independently. Since independence is a desired goal for all students, instruction should include strategies to decrease the need for adult prompting.

Strategies include:

  • using visual aids to decrease reliance on physical and verbal prompts (for example, a sheet of paper indicating by word and picture the material necessary for a class, requires the student to circle the needed items
  • planning ways to fade prompts
  • ensuring that the adult is not always positioned close to the student and that the same adults are not always present, as positioning the adult away from the student may help to avoid dependency
  • providing instruction to increase the student’s awareness of environmental cues
  • teaching in the environments containing the cues and reinforcement that prompt and maintain the behaviour


Direct and broaden fixation into useful activities

If the student is fixated on an object or a topic, such as a colour or shape, use it to teach a concept. A whole week’s learning activities in writing and math can be centered on one topic. This approach is creative theme-based learning activities taken to the extreme.

Know the individual, and maintain a list of strengths and interests

Family members can provide valuable information for teachers about what students know and do at home or in the community. These interests and skills can be built upon both for instruction and for reinforcing successful learning and behaviour. A home to school journal can be used to exchange such information.

Talent and interest areas

If the student demonstrates a particular interest and strength in a specific area (e.g., music, drama, art, graphics, computer), provide opportunities to develop further expertise in that area. This may not only provide enjoyment and success, but may also lead to the development of skills for future employment. Dr. T. Grandin writes extensively about the importance of exploiting talents into careers.


This information is sourced from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Programming for Individual Needs : Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (2003)