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Curriculum Access for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities: The Promise of UDL

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What curricula and instructional practices are currently used with students with low-incidence disabilities?



When construed broadly, intended outcomes of the general curriculum for students with low-incidence disabilities do not differ essentially from those expected for all students. Community inclusion, with the opportunity to achieve a high quality of life, is the ultimate goal for all citizens. State curriculum frameworks in core content areas, local content options, and district-level vision and mission statements about stakeholders' aspirations for students all drive the general curriculum. Right down to the level of the community school, the question is, How might that curriculum be accessed by students with disabilities? How can participation be accomplished and effective progress be ensured? While specialized curricula and instructional practices must continue to be employed to address disability-specific needs, today the unique needs of students with disabilities must be understood in a broader context of the general curriculum.

Curriculum and Instructional Practices

Curriculum and instructional practices are not easily separated conceptually one from the other. In the present context, curriculum is treated as content and instruction is meant as those teaching practices that engage students in curriculum. However, in reviewing the literature, disentangling the meaning of curriculum from instruction often proves unwieldy. Thus, for purposes of presentation, we combine both curriculum and instructional practices for each of the low-incidence disabilities discussed. While IDEA continues to classify students with disabilities according to category, in many instances curriculum and instructional practices can be applied more generically. Students with complex healthcare issues, significant developmental delays, and severe multiple disabilities require approaches that offer intensive levels of support. Students who are blind, deaf, deaf-blind, and autistic may in some cases require the same degree of support, but they also require more specialized curriculum and teaching approaches (in, for example, technology and literacy). Additionally, such students may require specialized resources from related service providers (such as orientation and mobility instructors or audiologists).

Below, an overview of the topic of curriculum is provided, it is defined, and issues of the day that surround it are discussed. Specialized curriculum and teaching practices for facilitating access to the general curriculum are discussed for students who are blind, deaf, deaf-blind, and multiple-disabled, followed by more generic curriculum and instructional practices that cut across the needs of students with more intensive special needs.

Planning for students with disabilities begins with curriculum (McLaughlin, 1999; Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000; Pugach, 2001; Wehmeyer, Sand, Knowlton, & Kozleski, 2002). Despite earlier calls for a curriculum focus (Warger & Pugach, 1993), special education developed as a field that concentrated less on curriculum and more on needs arising from disability. Most curriculum development in the early years of special education was done by state and local authorities (Meyen, 1996). Publishers simply were not interested in developing products for what was then a very limited market. In the 1960s, the United States federal government supported a number of projects to develop special curricula for students with disabilities. The Social Learning Curriculum (Goldstein, 1969), Project Math (Cawley & Vitello, 1972), the Pacemaker Primary Curriculum (Ross & Ross, 1972), and Project "I Can" (Wessel, 1975) are examples (Meyen, 1996).

With the advent of the Education for All: The Handicapped Children's Act of 1975, federal emphasis shifted from curriculum development to preparing and implementing individualized educational programs for students with disabilities (Meyen, 1996). Heavily influenced by behaviorism, these individualized programs focused on remedial skills prerequisite for progressive movement into the mainstream. According to Poplin and Stone (1992), task analysis, applied behavior analysis, and diagnostic/prescriptive instructional analyses became the mainstays of special education practice. Meyen observed, "If effective special education is primarily a consequence of curricular/instructional interventions, much of our recent history has been misdirected, and an emphasis on curriculum in the future is dictated" (Meyen, 1996).

Today, curriculum matters—as Pugach (2001) aptly states. But special educators are not accustomed, neither by training nor by inclination, to plan programs following state curricular frameworks of core subject areas (Fisher & Frey, 2001; Hock, 2000).

IEP teams today must begin with the presumption and high expectation that students with low-incidence disabilities can achieve state- and district-level standards (Wehmeyer, et al., 2002). Where special educators lack knowledge of curriculum content, they must seek out colleagues from general education or participate in more structural or systemic approaches for curriculum collaboration (Pugach & Warger, 1996). Collaboration through a shared commitment among general and special education personnel on IEP teams is crucial to develop and implement a plan that will ensure access, participation, and progress with the general education curriculum (Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000).


Toward a Definition of Curriculum

In order to understand and appreciate the meaning of and need for specialized curriculum, it is necessary to examine the notion of curriculum more generally. Scholars agree to disagree over a precise or uniform definition of curriculum. Nolet and McLaughlin (2000) differentiate between formal (curriculum theorists) and practical (public school personnel) definitions of curriculum. They observe that theorists refer inclusively to all experiences that students have under the auspices of schools when defining curriculum, while public school personnel operate under a narrower definition, referring almost exclusively to materials used in the classroom. Thus, school personnel tend to distinguish between curriculum (the "what" or substance of education) and instruction (the "how" of curriculum delivery or transmission).

Curriculum theorist Larry Cuban asserts that, at any given time, four different curriculums are in use in schools:

  1. The official curriculum—what state and district officials set forth in curricular frameworks and courses of study
  2. The taught curriculum—the part of the official curriculum that teachers actually choose to teach
  3. The learned curriculum—the part of the official curriculum that students actually learn
  4. The tested curriculum—the part of the official curriculum that is selected as representative of the entire body of material, and which "measures" absorption of that specific sub-set of curriculum material, as reflected through test scores

Part of Cuban's "learned curriculum" resembles what Philip Jackson (1968) describes as the "hidden curriculum," or what Eliot Eisner (1994) refers to as the "implicit curriculum." Eisner also adds "null curriculum" to his own definitions to make the point that students learn much from what is completely left out of their education. To the familiar "written, taught, and tested" curricula, Glatthorn (1999), in discussing the problem of curricular alignment, adds yet more manifestations of curriculum, such as the "hidden curriculum," (similar to Jackson's of the same name) the "recommended curriculum," the "excluded curriculum," the "supported curriculum," and the "learned curriculum." Clearly, there are many ways to view what schools offer students, whether intended or otherwise.

Howell and Nolet (2000) offer a palpable definition of curriculum that is amenable to operational definition:

"A curriculum is a structured set of learning outcomes, or tasks, that educators usually call goals or objectives. Students are expected to learn the information specified in the curriculum so that they will have the skills needed to transition from childhood into adult life. Curriculum is intended to prepare students to succeed in society. Consequently, the material in the curriculum comes from someone's analysis of what society requires for success."

Reduced to its simplest terms, curriculum provides the answer to the question what should students know and be able to do as they progress through school?


Facing the Challenge of Curriculum Access

Physical facilities, technology, media and materials, and human resources all contribute to the quality of what transpires in schools. Yet there remains great disparity in quality from community to community. And these disparities, in turn, yield uneven results for students from community to community. Such unevenness is particularly troubling when observed in communities with high concentrations of students from poor families, English language learners, or members of racial minorities. Also troubling is the achievement gap observed between disabled and non-disabled student populations (Benz, Lindstrom, & Yovanoff, 2000; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). Standards-based reform and its reliance upon broad-scale assessment represents an attempt to improve overall performance of American students and to narrow the achievement gap observed in diverse student populations, including students with disabilities.

Pugach (2001) calls for a "curriculum-centered dialogue" that will enable general and special educators to confront several crucial and fundamental issues embedded in curriculum. These include the following:

  1. The appropriateness and quality of the general education curriculum for all students
  2. The degree to which the general education curriculum meets the needs of students from various cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds
  3. The relationship of the curriculum to the disproportionate numbers of students of color in special education

All teachers inevitably ask what do my students need to know and be able to do? In order to answer these questions, teachers must identify, locate, or develop curriculum—that which is generally believed to constitute the "what" or substance of education. This substance of education can be taken apart and understood in many different ways. For example, curriculum can be divided into domains or subject areas. Some domains may be considered "core" or vital, while others may be considered "extra" or supplementary (e.g., extra-curricular activities). Curriculum can also be examined in terms of its scope, depth, or sequence.

Today, the aims or purposes of curriculum are stated in the form of "standards." For each domain, that which students need to know is often referred to as content standards, and that which students need to be able to do in order to demonstrate what they know is frequently called performance standards. Standards are generally sequenced so that entry-level or prerequisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions can be specified along paths or strands for each domain. Standards may be broadly stated or narrowly defined. (When broadly stated, standards permit flexibility in the multiple ways in which a standard can be achieved. When narrowly defined, standards may permit more precise benchmarking for indicating within a particular standard the level a student has achieved.)

Unlike other nations, standards for educational attainment in the United States are not uniformly set because education is neither prescribed nor controlled by a central government (Eisner, 2001). Rather, separate states set standards that frame the curriculum for local school districts to follow. States may vary in the precision with which they frame the curriculum. Thus, local communities may have more or less latitude in interpreting state standards.

State and federal legislation during the 1990s established a context for local refinement of curriculum. State improvement plans, school improvement councils, and district coordinating councils made up of stakeholders established a direction and a vision for the kinds of schools, services, and resources considered necessary to improve education at all levels. In the absence of a nationalized education system, communities can vary widely in what they offer students. In some instances, standards may be exhaustive and perhaps unrealistic in their attainability by all students (Marzano, 1999), or standards may be so limited as to constrain the scope and depth of what schools can offer (Kohn, 2000).

In the U.S., high quality education is everybody's concern. Thus, federal, state, and local communities, along with the private sector, share the cost of the operation of the American education enterprise. Concern during the early 1980s over America's capacity to compete in an increasingly global economy set the stage for a wave of reform initiatives in the form of federal legislation. For states and local communities to receive federal assistance for the improvement of education, states had to identify or develop content standards and assessment systems for reporting the outcomes of federal investments in school reform. As stated, IDEA '97 mandated participation by students with disabilities in various reform efforts in order to ensure their opportunity to benefit from all that recent school reform had to offer. Access to, participation in, and progress within the general curriculum is a tall order indeed, further exacerbated by ambiguity in the definition of the general curriculum.


Blending General and Specialized Curriculum

Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, and Jackson (2002) define the general education curriculum as the overall plan for instruction adopted by a school or school system. Nolet and McLaughlin (2000) acknowledge the uniqueness of the general education curriculum for each school system—and each student—when they recommend procedures for "finding" the general education curriculum. Wehmeyer (et al., 2002) acknowledges that the general curriculum is defined broadly because Congress intends for it to be determined locally. How students with disabilities ultimately access the general curriculum depends on the assessment, planning, and evaluation skills of their local IEP team members (consisting of both general and special educators). They need to examine the content of what is taught to non-disabled agemates, select entry points to the curriculum, determine appropriate accommodations for instruction and assessment, and determine curriculum modifications and alternates for assessment. They also need to determine what, if any, specially-designed instruction in expanded areas or domains of the curriculum is necessary to address needs arising from disability that also limit access to the general curriculum. Individual protections that reside at the heart of IDEA remain in place, so while curriculum is of primary importance, individual students will continue to be the focus of a free, appropriate, and public education (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1998).

What curriculum would support, complement, or augment student access to the general curriculum? For students with significant developmental or multiple disabilities, compilations of specialized curriculum have been published by Browder (2001) and by Ryndak and Alper (1996; 2003). These and other sources have been reviewed for inclusion in the low-incidence categories below. In the end, what students with low-incidence disabilities need to know and be able to do will depend on the expectations and standards embraced by their IEP team. A quality education for students with low-incidence disabilities will be a blending of curriculum designed to address disability-specific or unique needs and curriculum designed for optimal functioning in a democratic society.

Blind/Low Vision

Curriculum for blind students was developed largely by residential schools during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Frampton, 1940). Content mirrored the curriculum of the day with significant alteration in teaching practices and communication systems for conveying that curriculum. Most notable is the use of Braille. Today, IDEA presumes that all students with IEPs who have vision impairments shall use Braille as their primary literacy medium unless the team determines that print is more efficient. Braille, however, was not always held in such high esteem. It took over 100 years—a period known as "the war of the dots"—for Braille to become established as the reading medium of preference for the blind.

Curriculum for students with low vision began to appear in the early part of the 20th century when so-called "partially sighted" children were separated from schools for the blind for educational purposes (Jackson, 1983). Due to concern that students with very high myopia (nearsightedness) would lose more vision through eyestrain, curriculum materials were enlarged and supplemented by aural reading (listening). This "sight saving philosophy," (Hathaway, 1959) as it was known, persisted well into the 1960s until Barraga's 1964 discovery that efficiency of vision improved through use. The new resulting "sight utilization philosophy" persisted into the 1980s, when declining Braille literacy rates among blind students were observed to correlate with unemployment. Hand in hand with the sight utilization philosophy was an increase in public day school attendance by blind students. Children who may have learned Braille at residential schools were now using enlarged print or print with optical magnification. In the minds of many advocates, this over-emphasis on the importance of sight utilization deprived many severely visually impaired students of the opportunity to learn Braille. Hence, the 1990s ushered in a new era of curriculum emphasizing Braille literacy (Rex, Koenig, Wormsley, & Baker, 1994).

Just as literacy is the focus of most of the current reform initiatives because of its connection with employment, so Braille literacy has taken center stage with the observation that nearly three-fourth's of blind people today are unemployed (Rabbi & Croft, 1989). In fact, fluent Braille users are among the most successfully employed blind sub-group. Reasons for the decline in Braille literacy among blind and visually impaired individuals are complex, but IDEA now requires that IEP teams undertake a learning media assessment (LMA) (Koenig & Holbrook, 1995) to determine the most efficacious approach to learning and literacy.

During the 1950s and 1960s, public day school programs for blind and visually impaired students expanded rapidly. Resource models, itinerant teaching services, and teacher-consultation models emerged and soon overtook residential school placement as the preferred approach for meeting blind students' educational needs. Prior to IDEA, advocates for public school programming downplayed or, at least, de-emphasized the unique and challenging needs of these students when entering the general educational environment. They argued that blind students needed the same curriculum as every other student and that teachers could supply just a few additional skills and resources (Abel, 1959). These additional skills and knowledge areas became known as the "plus curriculum." Today, the plus curriculum is known as the "expanded core" curriculum, to emphasize that it must go hand-in-hand with the "common core" curriculum (Hatlen, 1996a).

The expanded core curriculum is derived from the unique or disability-specific needs of blind and visually impaired students identified and elaborated by Hatlen and Curry (1987). The table below is adapted from Hatlen (1996b).

Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Children and Youths
Existing Core Curriculum
English Language ArtsOther languages, to the extent possible
HealthPhysical Education
Social StudiesFine Arts
Business EducationEconomics
HistoryVocational Education
Expanded Core Curriculum
Compensatory or functional academic skills, including communication modes*Orientation and mobility
Social interaction skillsIndependent living skills
Recreation and leisure skillsCareer education
Use of assistive technology (AT)Visual efficiency skills

*Note: For this area of the expanded core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, a distinction must be made between compensatory skills and functional skills. Compensatory skills are those needed by blind and visually impaired students in order to access all areas of core curriculum. Mastery of compensatory skills will usually mean that a visually impaired student has access to learning in a manner equal to that of sighted peers. Functional skills refers to skills that students with multiple disabilities learn that provide them with the opportunity to work, play, socialize, and take care of personal needs to the highest level possible.

A short description for each area of expanded core curriculum is available as Appendix D.

Components of the expanded core curriculum present educators with a means of addressing the needs of visually impaired students who also have additional disabilities. The educational requirements of this population are often not met since their lack of vision is often considered "minor," especially when a child is severely impacted by cognitive and physical disabilities. Each area in an expanded core curriculum can be further defined to address educational issues confronting these children and to assist parents and educators to fulfill their needs.

Hatlen's (1996) expanded core curriculum was first brought to national attention by Corn, Hatlen, Ryan, and Siller (1995) in response to the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. Corn (et al., 1995) has argued that states and school districts ought to be held accountable for ensuring that blind and visually impaired students receive adequate and appropriate instruction in these expanded core areas as well as in common core areas. Out of that work, a national agenda for educating blind and visually impaired children has identified a number of goals around which national consensus in the field has emerged (Corn & Heubner, 1998). Insistence on the primacy of Hatlen's expanded core curriculum is a critical component of that agenda.

As early as 1879, Congress recognized the importance of meeting the curricular needs of blind students when it passed the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind (Koestler, 1976). Today, this Act provides a line item for each state for the purchase of educational technology, media, and materials through the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Depending on the number of blind students residing in any particular state, a quota account is established on an annual basis for supplementing the curricular needs of blind students. Under IDEA, the responsibility for meeting educational needs of blind students remains with states and school districts, so APH resources are not intended as comprehensive but rather as a supplement to the material needs of blind students. (Visiting APH's web site reveals directions for accessing an online database of products and links to resources keyed to Hatlen's (1996b) common core and expanded core curriculum areas.)

Over the past thirty years, comprehensive treatment of the challenge of educating students who are blind or visually impaired can be found in the comprehensive works edited by Lowenfeld (1973), Scholl (1986), and, most recently, Koenig and Holbrook (2000). More narrowly focused resources can be found in Chen (1999) for the essential elements of early intervention programming; in Ferrell (1985) for early childhood education; in Wormsley and D'Andrea (1997) for Braille literacy; in Wolffe and Sacks (2000) for social skills curriculum; in Levack (1994) for use of low vision; in Blasch, Wiener, and Welsh (1997) for orientation and mobility; in Corn (2000) for assistive technology; and in Wolffe (1999) for career education.

As a field, education of the blind and visually impaired recognizes the disproportionate numbers of students within its service population who are identified as multiply-disabled and deaf-blind. This is why Corn's (et al., 1995) description of the national agenda for educating visually impaired students includes those with multiple disabilities. While there are curriculum resources specifically identified for blind students with multiple disabilities (Sacks & Silberman, 1998), more generally applicable approaches for this population are described below (see Significant Developmental Delay).


Curriculum for the deaf has also developed within residential schools of the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout this time period, controversy surrounded the development of a curriculum for the deaf. Debate centered around whether to maintain an emphasis on teaching sign language in the curriculum for deaf students or to follow an oral approach focused on lip-reading and listening skills as well as on how to speak. Today, this controversy continues at the language level the core of human communication. On one side is the position that deafness is a difference and not a disability; Deafness is a culture with its own native language—American Sign Language (ASL). On the other side is the position that deafness is a disability, creating in an individual significant limitations in communicative competence; measures must be taken in order to compensate for these limitations. (For example, cochlear implants provide access to the stimulus for hearing speech sounds and establish conditions for learning to speak and to use amplification [hearing aids].)

Crucial curricular content for deaf students include language, reading, and writing; Deaf culture, speech development, and aural habilitation (Turnbull, et al., 2002). A curriculum in language often consists of teaching students English sentence patterns, starting with basic patterns and moving to increasingly complex structures. A curriculum in reading regularly involves using books with relatively simple grammatical structures or basal reading material that is designed so that sentence patterns increase in difficulty from book to book. A typical writing curriculum requires students to learn the rules of different types of discourse and the rules of grammar. Curriculum in language, reading, and writing today can be best described as a balance of analytical and holistic methods (Turnbull, et al., 2002).

Learning about Deaf culture is an important curricular goal for all students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, regardless of educational setting. One goal of instruction about Deaf culture is to help students develop understanding of the culture of the Deaf community so that they can participate to whatever extent they wish. A second goal is to help transmit Deaf culture to the next generation of individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Curriculum regarding speech development is aimed at helping children develop breath control, vocalization, voice patterns, and sound production. This curriculum focuses both on producing spoken language and on improving speech. Aural habilitation curriculum involves helping students use their remaining hearing effectively. Depending on a student's capability, learning goals might include awareness of sound, localization of sound, discrimination of sound differences, or recognition of sound. For some it may be recognition of speech used by others (Turnbull, et al., 2002).

Literature concerning academic/vocational content of curriculum for the deaf contains disappointingly few articles, reflecting an historical lack in the field. Pagliaro (1998a; 1998b) wrote about the impact of mathematics reform on the education of deaf students and documented the poor preparation of math teachers for instructing the deaf. LaSasso (1999) has reviewed the literature on problems with test-taking skills among deaf students and has stated that the teaching of test-taking skills should be part of students' programs. Furlonger (1998) has looked at career awareness of deaf and hearing adolescents in New Zealand and found significant differences in career measures and vocational maturity, in favor of hearing respondents. He proposed more attention to career awareness and vocational preparation.

In order to be effective, curriculum must be instituted early. Magnuson (2000) investigated the cognitive development of two deaf boys in Sweden enrolled in a sign-based preschool. One had been identified, and habilitation started, by four months of age, and the other had not been diagnosed until two years of age. Magnuson reported differences in social and linguistic development of the two boys in favor of the one who had been diagnosed at four months. She concluded that the boy who started at age two lacked early stimulation, resulting in poor language development.


Teaching Approaches

In deaf education, three distinct communication approaches are identified for teaching the deaf and hard-of-hearing. These approaches are the bilingual-bicultural approach, the auditory-oral approach, and the total communication approach.

Bilingual-Bicultural Approach

The position of the bilingual-bicultural approach is that ASL is the natural language of Deaf culture and that ASL should be the primary language choice for deaf students, with English considered a second language (Gargiulo 2003). When using this approach, the objective is to provide a foundation in the use of ASL, with its unique vocabulary and syntax rules, and, at the same time, to provide ESL instruction for English vocabulary and syntax rules. With this approach, ASL is the method of communication in the classroom.

Kemp (1998) has discussed the difficulty of learning ASL and the misperception that it may be learned easily. He argued that, like all complex and subtle languages, mastery beyond a basic level requires extensive exposure and practice, and he concluded that ASL should be approached with respect and with the understanding that mastery will occur only over time. On a similar note, Galvan (1999) has reported that there were differences in sign complexity by three to nine years of age between native signing deaf children of deaf parents and early signing (before five years of age) deaf children of hearing parents.

Mason and Ewoldt (1996) have presented the position that a whole-language approach to literacy and bilingual-bicultural (bi-bi) education complement each other. Additionally, Andrews, Ferguson, Roberts, and Hodges (1997) have reported on a bi-bi program with seven deaf children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in east-central Texas from 1993 to 1996. They found grade-level achievement at first grade, showing that language development was not delayed. Knoors and Renting (2000) have reported on the involvement in different tasks of six deaf children in the Netherlands using spoken Dutch and the Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN). They found there was greater involvement during activities led by a deaf teacher using SLN.

Auditory-Oral Approach

The position of the auditory-oral approach is that students with hearing impairments can develop listening/receptive language and oral language expression skills. It emphasizes the use of residual hearing, amplification, and speech/language training. When using this approach, the objective is to facilitate the development of oral (spoken) English. The method of communication used by a student would be oral (spoken) English (Gargiulo, 2003).

Research on teaching practices related to this method has thus far been inconclusive. It does appear, however, that hearing-impaired infants born to Deaf parents using ASL may exhibit significantly improved language development (Hunt & Marshall, 1999). Research conducted by Moores (1996) suggests that parents who use a total communication approach, including manual signs, fingerspelling, and spoken language with their child and with each other enhance their child's acquisition of language. It has also been shown to be important to switch from a child-centered to a family-centered approach. There is a great need for families to have access to comprehensive information about educational options for their children (Gargiulo, 2003). The debate between manualism or oralism continues to be a heavily charged issue.

Total Communication Approach

The position of the total communication approach is that simultaneous use of multiple communication techniques enhances an individual's ability to communicate, comprehend, and learn (Gargiulo, 2003). When using this approach, the basic objective is to provide a multifaceted approach to communication in order to facilitate whichever method works best for each individual. The method of communication used by a student should be a combination of sign language, fingerspelling, and speech-reading. Grushkin (1998) has argued that fingerspelling has been under-utilized and that educators should take advantage of its high potential for equivalence to English orthography.


Inclusion of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children

There are many strategies for teaching students with hearing impairments. It is important to promote acceptance of these students, and to provide an environment where students feel accepted and where modifications can be made without causing undue attention to be focused on individual students. This can be aided by efforts to welcome a student to their new classroom, by discussing the student's hearing loss with him/her and letting him/her know his/her teacher is willing to help, by having the student or another person—with the student's approval—explain about the student's hearing loss to the entire class if appropriate, by making modifications seem as natural as possible so that the student is not singled out, by accepting the student as an individual and being aware of his/her assets and limitations, and by encouraging the student's special abilities or interests. Adapted from Turnbull (et al., 2002), several factors that appear to contribute to effective placement in general education settings are listed below:

  • Classroom teachers need time to learn about their student and deafness. A student's team, usually including their general education teacher, consultant, interpreter, and speech language pathologist need time to share information and plan instruction.
  • Professional staff and a student's parents must be committed to making placement successful and feel confident about a student's ability to be successful.
  • School and district leadership must provide the kinds of support that promote positive outcomes, such as providing adequate professional staff, paraprofessional staff, computers, and an adequate budget for the purchasing of materials and equipment.
  • Professional staff must provide information about the needs of students who are deaf/hard-of-hearing and must be engaged in activities that enable them to understand program design, clarify their roles and activities, and identify appropriate instructional strategies.
  • Parents need to be involved on a daily basis and not relegated merely to IEP planning.
  • Teachers of the deaf must have occasional opportunities to teach a whole class or to team teach with a general education teacher.
  • A school must offer structured and supportive extracurricular activities.


Environmental Concerns

Another important suggestion for teachers of hearing impaired students is to provide them with preferential seating in their classroom. A hearing-impaired student should have a seat near where the teacher usually teaches. The student should be able to see the face of the teacher without straining. The student should be seated away from noise sources, including hallways, radiators, and pencil sharpeners. The student should sit where light is on the teacher's face and not in their eyes. If the student has a better ear, that ear should be turned toward the teacher. The student should also be allowed to move when necessary for demonstrations or other classroom activities.

Teachers should also increase visual information made available, since the student will use lip-reading and other visual information to supplement what he or she hears. The student will need to see the teacher's face in order to lip-read. The teacher should use visual aids whenever possible and should demonstrate what the student is supposed to understand whenever possible. A chalkboard should be used for assignments, new vocabulary words, and key phrases.

Other suggestions for classroom teachers are to minimize classroom noise, modify teaching procedures, and have realistic expectations of students. Teaching modifications allow a student to benefit from instruction and decreases the need for repetition. Teachers can aid these efforts by being sure a student is watching and listening when others are talking to him/her, by being sure a student understands what is being said and having him/her repeat information or answer questions, by rephrasing (rather than repeating) questions, by repeating or rephrasing things said by other students when appropriate, and by introducing new vocabulary to a student in advance prior to a lesson.

Adapted Educational Methods

Instructional interventions for students with hearing impairments include adapted methods of communication as well as the use of audiologists and interpreters (Gargiulo, 2003). Different instructional interventions may be required depending on the severity of hearing loss. These include hearing aids, personal FM systems, favorable seating, medical management, auditory skill-building, help with self-esteem, sound-field FM systems in the classroom, and/or special educational support.

There are four basic types of hearing aids available: 1) in-the-ear aids, 2) behind-the-ear aids, 3) body aids, and 4) bone-conduction aids. Assistive listening devices (ALDs) can also be used to enhance participation and responsiveness of people with hearing loss. In addition, students sometimes use auditory trainers—specifically, FM systems—in their educational settings. These amplification systems are easy to use, enhance signal-to-noise ratio, and are often more effective than hearing aids in managing acoustical problems inherent in many classrooms. (With sound-field systems, the teacher wears a small microphone, and his or her voice is transmitted to various speakers placed around the room or on a desktop).

It is also important that teachers ensure that hearing aids and other amplification devices are used when recommended. Teachers should understand that most hearing aids make sounds louder but not necessarily clearer. Students'hearing devices should be checked daily to ensure that they are always in proper working order. Students should be encouraged to and trained to care for their own hearing device.

Everyday alerting devices can be adapted to meet the needs of hard-of-hearing students. These include wristwatches, doorbells, flashing-light clocks, flashing lamps, pillow vibrators, and specially-designed smoke detectors. Captioning is available on many television programs to make entertainment more accessible to people with hearing impairments. In addition, a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD) can be used by individuals with severe hearing impairments to help them communicate by telephone. (A TDD is a small keyboard with an electronic display screen and a modem attached.) Amplified telephones are also available in a wide range of models and capabilities.

Easterbrooks and Mordica have examined teachers' ratings of functional communication skills of deaf children with cochlear implants and concluded that a teacher's role in implant use warrants more attention and that all factors should be considered before advocating or choosing this "financially, emotionally, and therapeutically challenging option" (Easterbrooks & Mordica, 2000).

Using Technology

Computers have many possible applications for students with hearing impairments. Special programs offer the opportunity for students to learn at their own comfort level and pace, and special programs are available for speech drill, auditory training, speech-reading, sign language instruction, and supplemental reading and language instruction. Web sites related to hearing impairment include: the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (, The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center (, The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (, and Self-Help for Hard of Hearing people (

There is a need to encourage reflection upon teacher practice and to promote increased application of computer technology in educational curricula. To achieve this goal, a greater understanding of the relationship between teacher variables and teacher adoption of computer use is needed (Marcinkiewicz, 1994). This information may be used to help teachers become familiar with how computers work in the classroom and how they can be used for instruction (Budoff, et al., 1984; Min, 1992).

For technology to work in schools, it is critical that teachers support the concept of instruction with computers and use them constructively with students. Stubbs (1990) found that in enhancing teacher technology training programs, the three primary means of support are equipment budget, access to equipment, and support personnel. Congress has suggested that teachers need more than just access to resources of hardware and software. They also need "opportunities to discover what the technologies can do, [to] learn how to operate them, and [to] experiment with ways to best apply them in the classrooms" (Rivard, 1995).


Students who are deaf-blind present a unique challenge to families, schools, and communities. Despite their designation, they represent an extremely heterogeneous population. Given their relatively small size in number, as well as their diversity, curriculum and instructional arrangements must remain flexible. Varying amounts of remaining vision, residual hearing, cognitive capacity, psychosocial status, and motor integrity all contribute to a complex set of needs.

In an overview of deaf-blindness, Miles (2000) makes several important recommendations, which we discuss below.



The most important challenge for parents, caregivers, and teachers of students who are deaf-blind is meaningful communication, which can be thought of as a conversation; it uses body language, gestures, and both signed and spoken words. The conversation begins with taking notice of what the deaf-blind child is paying attention to and communicating a shared interest. Unlike sighted or hearing children, who might respond to gestures, facial expressions, or sounds, children who are deaf-blind will often need touch to communicate shared interest. Pausing after each interaction allows time for the deaf-blind student to respond. Successful interaction depends on respecting the child's timing, which may be slow. These back and forth interactions with their pauses are the conversations which become the basis for language learning. Symbolic communication is the next step. Simple gestures or objects can accompany the introduction of words. These gestures or objects serve as symbols or representations for activities, teaching the child that one thing can stand for another, and also helping the child to learn to anticipate events.

An additional challenge is providing an environment rich in language that is meaningful and accessible. Such an environment can be created through the use of whichever symbol system is most accessible to the child.

Principal communication systems for persons who are deaf-blind are these: ASL, Braille writing and reading, fingerspelling, gestures, large-print writing and reading, lip-reading of speech, object symbols, picture symbols, Pidgin signed English, sign language, signed English, Tadoma method of speech-reading, touch cues. A reliable and meaningful routine that can be communicated to a deaf-blind student is also important. Touch cues, gestures, and use of object symbols are some typical ways in which to let a child who is deaf-blind know what is about to happen to him or her. An anticipated routine can help to decrease the anxiety associated with a deficit of sensory information.


Orientation and Mobility

A deaf-blind child will need help learning to move about in his or her environment. Attention must be paid to the immediate physical space surrounding a child so that the physical space rewards movement with stimulation to encourage further movement. Orientation and mobility specialists, as well as physical and occupational therapists, teachers of the visually impaired, and health professionals, can be helpful.


Individualized Education

Education for a deaf-blind student must be highly individualized. Assessment is critical both for estimating underlying intellectual capacity and for creating appropriate educational programs. To discourage isolation, it is important to involve people who are familiar with both blindness and deafness. These services should be obtained as early as possible to ensure maximum opportunities for learning and meaningful contact.



Near the end of a school-based education of a deaf-blind student, transition and rehabilitation services will be necessary to find appropriate work and living arrangements. Teamwork will be required "among specialists and agencies concerned with such things as housing, vocational and rehabilitation needs, deafness, blindness, orientation and mobility, medical needs, and mental health" (Miles, 2000). Central to such a transition process, of course, is the deaf-blind person and his or her interests and needs.


Inclusion in Family

A major challenge is the inclusion of a deaf-blind child in the flow of family and community life. Parents must learn to identify subtle rewards, such as hand or body movements, instead of typical responses to care such as smiles. Parental perceptions and expectations of developmental milestones and successes may also need to be altered.


Teaching Strategies and Content Modifications

People who are deaf-blind who have high-quality lives have several things in common: they accept themselves as individuals with unique experiences and gifts, their educational experiences have maximized their ability to communicate and function in a typical environment, and they live and work in accepting families and communities.

Recommended teaching strategies and content modifications for a student with deaf-blindness are offered by Moss and Hagood (1995). The authors begin by asserting that students with deaf-blindness have unique educational needs. Without sight or hearing, he or she relies on doing in order to learn. Small-group or individual instruction becomes critical, as large-group instruction might only be useful during activities in which a student is consistently active (such as playground activities). New experiences may be difficult for a deaf-blind student. As trust is essential, bonding between student and instructor is critical. It is important to create balanced interaction by taking turns, to encourage a student to be responsive; directive instruction is therefore less valuable. Safety is also of high importance, both in the environment and in creating a feeling of safety in which to move around independently. An orientation and mobility specialist can help develop safe routes for travel and to identify obstacles in an environment.

A student with deaf-blindness should have a curriculum focused on bonding and developing interactions and routines for expanding the frequency and functions of communication. This student needs instruction to piece together inputs, and he or she must be taught both to accept and use such instruction. An additional priority should be to develop a communication foundation for learning. A student might first have to be taken step-by-step through new activities to learn what will be expected of him or her. After he or she understands what is expected, this support should be removed to allow the development of independence. Learning should be functional, and clear goals and objectives must be developed for a deaf-blind student. Objectives should be limited in number, as it will take much practice before a student can generalize what he or she has learned to other situations. Vocabulary concepts should be broad, and consideration of the extent to which they can be generalized is important. A deaf-blind student needs a great deal of support. This support can at first be provided by teaching staff, but can later be modeled for other students in class for use during play or other learning situations. Specialized training and support may be needed for teachers without knowledge or experience in the specific area of deaf-blindness.

Significant Developmental Delay

Students with significant developmental delay represent a special population for whom expectations are generally low. However, like all people, these students have many unique strengths and specific talents in certain areas. It is important to see beyond disability and come to know and appreciate each individual. It is a daunting challenge for educators to ensure these students have access to the general curriculum.

The field of educating students with severe disabilities has undergone change in some key curricular trends. In the 1970s, as programs were first created for individuals with severe disabilities, educators sometimes borrowed ideas from early childhood curriculum. By the late 1970s, Brown (et al., 1976) had challenged the field to focus instead on functional, age-appropriate skills. In the 1980s, many educators began to rely on emerging behavioral methods to teach students the skills believed to be prerequisites to community placements. Skills including food preparation, housekeeping and laundry, home safety and first aid, telephone use, dining out and buying snacks, shopping, community mobility, and community leisure were all taught by a variety of systematic instructional procedures. As more opportunities for school inclusion emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s, professionals often focused on social inclusion. Inclusive education provided a means for students to cultivate a circle of friends (Ryndak & Alper, 2003). Today, focus has shifted to instructional inclusion. As Ford, Davern, and Schnorr (2001) note, the current mandate for assessment and accountability for students with significant cognitive disabilities will influence curriculum decisions for years to come. Most states' standards focus on what Vanderwood, Ysseldyke, and Thurlow (1993) have described as academic and functional literacy outcomes. In contrast, many IEPs for students with severe disabilities focus on functional and social skills reflective of the more recent curriculum trends for this population. When states first began working on alternate assessments, many focused on functional outcomes with no link to actual state standards (Thompson & Thurlow, 2001). Almost every state alternate assessments examine the same standards as general assessments either by expanding state standards, linking standards to a set of functional skills, or assessing standards plus an additional set of functional skills (Thompson & Thurlow, 2001). Thative language—American Sign Language (ASL). On the other side is the position that deafness is a disability, creating in an individual significant limitations in communicative competence; measures must be taken in order to compensate for these limitations. (For example, cochlear implants provide access


Planning curriculum starts with the individual needs of a student rather than a disability label or the availability of a separate program that typically serves a particular type of student. After a student has been identified as having a disability, it is then possible to link student-specific goals and outcomes to general education curriculum standards. Planning should focus on an individual's capacities and assets. Family members and friends should be involved in planning. A collaborative team should analyze the general education curriculum and routines to identify when and how the learning needs of a student, expressed in terms of foundational skills, can be addressed within the context of the general education classroom.

The following assumptions, based on Choosing Options and Accommodations for Children (COACH) (Giangreco, et al., 1998), are inspiring in developing curriculum for students who are significantly developmentally delayed:

  • Design of curriculum should be related to life outcomes that are valued
  • Families should be considered consumers and partners in the design of curriculum
  • Collaboration is essential in the design and delivery of quality education
  • Curriculum objectives should be developed based on priorities and outcomes valued by a student and his or her family rather than professionals representing different disciplines
  • Problem-solving strategies are instrumental in the design of effective curriculum and should be appropriately included

At each grade level, all students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in core curriculum areas as measured by each state's assessment system. It may be appropriate and feasible for a student with severe cognitive disabilities to demonstrate competence on all, part, or none of the core curriculum content for a given grade level (or unit addressed for a given grade level). When the needs of students are expressed in terms of critical or foundational skills, well-established strategies are available to identify opportunities for these skills to be addressed within the context of the general education curriculum. The five areas described below represent domains of a functional curriculum from which instructional targets can be selected and blended with the general curriculum. Browder (2001) and Ryndak and Alper (2003) provide extensive treatments of these curriculum areas.

  1. Functional reading
    Functional reading involves being able to recognize specific sight words and to use them in the performance of daily routines. Most reading instruction targets the outcome of literacy; that is, students are expected to be able to read whatever printed material they may encounter.
  2. Functional math
    Functional math refers to basic math skills needed to perform skills of daily living. It includes money management, time management, measurement, counting, and simple computation. In a typical general education curriculum, students learn number and computation skills needed to perform these tasks by the end of second grade. Individuals with significant cognitive disabilities often have not mastered basic math skills needed in daily living activities by this age, and will need to learn these concurrently with their applications to time and money management.
  3. Community and leisure skills
    With the appropriate support, all students can participate actively in their communities. The purpose of teaching community and leisure skills is not to "ready" students to be part of their communities but to help them benefit from these experiences more fully. Community and leisure skills are included in nearly all life-skills curricula. An important way that schools can prepare students for both current and future community and leisure opportunities is to directly involve them in these activities through community-based instruction.
  4. Home and personal living skills
    Nearly all published curricula for students with severe disabilities include home and personal living skills. A large body of research now exists regarding how to teach skills such as eating, dressing, using the toilet, brushing the teeth, housekeeping, food preparation, and laundry skills (Konarski & Diorio, 1985; Westling & Fox, 1995).
  5. Communication and social skills
    Communication skills are often among the top priorities for students with significant cognitive disabilities. To be able to communicate with peers facilitates social interactions in inclusive settings. Many instructional interactions rely on communicative responses. Self-determination is also promoted through self-expression.

Three major components of communication are form, content, and function. When the form of communication is speech, teachers focus on syntax, including such skills as sentence structure, grammar, and inflection. When the form is an augmentative or alternative communication system (a non-speech system), teachers focus on teaching students to use that system effectively. Content of communication includes vocabulary and topics discussed. Function of communication relates to the purpose of communication.

Instructional Adaptations

Special educators must be focused on developing programs of high-quality instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities that are anchored to the general education curriculum. These students continue to exceed our expectations if they have access to appropriate curricula and are taught using effective instructional practices.

Curriculum and instructional practices include basic skills and functional life-skills content designed to help students learn the work, domestic, or leisure skills needed for independent living: self-care skills, social interaction, recreation and leisure skills, job training, and community-based instruction (Drew, Logan, & Hardman, 1992; Morgan, Moore, McSweyn, & Salzberg, 1992; Patton, Beirne-Smith, & Payne, 1990). School adjustment skills such as interaction with peers, working in groups, participating, communicating, complying with schedules and requests, improving general work habits (following directions, working with others, accepting supervision, meeting demands for quality work, demonstrating occupational safety skills, recognizing the importance of attendance and punctuality, working at a satisfactory rate) are also critical (Lewis & Doorlag, 1999). Additionally, attention skills, memory skills, functional academics (using money, carrying on conversations, learning survival words), choice making, learning strategies, time management, organizational skills, generalization skills, self advocacy, community-based instruction, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, should also be included in the curriculum (Sands, et al., 2000; Turnbull, et al., 2002).

Fisher and Frey (2001) have described ways in which students with significant cognitive disabilities have accessed the core curriculum in the past and have identified the services and supports necessary for participation in general education classrooms. In their work they describe the experiences of three students with significant disabilities (one elementary student, one middle school student, and one high school student) who had been members of general education classrooms in urban schools for at least three years. In their observations of these students, four themes emerged: (a) individualized, content-specific accommodations and modifications; (b) collaboration among members of a student's teaching team; (c) involvement of peers; and (d) disconnection between the students' IEPs and curriculum and instruction. Practical implications of Fisher and Frey's research are that students with significant cognitive disabilities should receive their special education services within general education classrooms. Thus, one implication of Fisher and Frey's work is that students must be included in general education classrooms in order to access these types of curricula and curriculum supports.

To succeed in general education classrooms, students with significant cognitive disabilities must also have access to personal supports and technology supports (Fisher, Frey, & Sax, 1999). Schools that want to implement inclusive schooling practices would be well advised to ensure that general and special education teachers have access to planning time if they expect innovations in curriculum to take hold.

Researchers investigating instructional adaptation have identified a variety of strategies for facilitating the inclusive education of students with severe disabilities. For example, incorporating choice, by allowing students to choose a Language Arts assignment, revealed dramatically decreased levels in undesirable behavior (disruptive and off-task) (Powell & Nelson, 1997). Furthermore, allowing students to choose the order in which they complete academic tasks has been shown to result in increased levels of desirable classroom behavior (Dunlap, et al., 1994). Priming, or pre-practice, has also been documented as an effective classroom intervention for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Priming consists of previewing information or activities that a student is likely to have difficulties with before they actually engage in that activity (Wilde, Koegel, & Koegel, 1992). Priming has been shown to be effective in reducing disruptive behavior in students with autism and in increasing on-task behavior during class storybook reading activities (Wilde, et al., 1992) and in increasing initiations of social interaction with typical peers (Zanolli, Daggett, & Adams, 1996). Partial participation (Baumgart, et al., 1982) is another strategy for adjusting curriculum to facilitate the educational inclusion of students with severe disabilities . Partial participation, also known as multi-level instruction (Falvey, Givner, & Kimm, 1996), consists of allowing a student with a disability to participate in the same projects and instructional activities as the rest of their class, with specific modifications to the activity so that it suits a student's specific abilities and needs (Baumgart, et al., 1982; Falvey, et al., 1996).

Teachers have been taught to successfully implement instructional adaptations found to be effective for students with disabilities, including giving clear directions; appropriate, immediate feedback; and mnemonic recall strategies (Bulgren, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1997; Rademacher, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1996). General educators have been taught to effectively implement instructional adaptations in mathematics (Woodward & Baxter, 1997) and reading and writing (Vaughn, Hughes, Schumm, & Klingner, 1998).


Teaching a student self-management in the classroom allows that student to function independently without relying on a teacher or a one-on-one aid (Koegel, Harrower, & Koegel, 1999). Self-management allows individuals with disabilities to become actively involved in the intervention process as well as more involved in their classroom environments. This increased involvement has the potential to improve autonomy by reducing dependence on adult intervention, which in turn provides a student with more opportunities to interact with classmates without the stigma of a one-on-one aid. Self-management has been suggested as an ideal intervention for students with significant cognitive disabilities to enable them to participate in full inclusion classroom settings (Reid, 1996).

Cooperative learning

A number of studies have demonstrated that teaching social skills to students with severe disabilities and their non-disabled peers in cooperative groups in integrated settings results in increased frequency, duration, and quality of social interactions (Kamps, et al., 1992; Kohler, et al., 1995).

Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring consists of any instructional strategy where two students work together on an academic activity, with one student providing assistance, instruction, and feedback to the other (DuPaul & Eckert, 1998). Peer tutoring strategies and their variants have been demonstrated to be effective in producing improvements in on-task behavior and math performance (DuPaul & Henningson, 1993) and in on-task behavior and social interactions (Locke & Fuchs, 1995).


Inclusive classrooms are an excellent setting in which to evaluate and design interventions to promote friendships for students with disabilities; at the least, they provide these students with the opportunity to interact socially (Hurley-Geffner, 1995; Meyer, et al., 1998).

Educational Strategies

Horner, Flannery, and Snell's work (1996) on intellectual disabilities addresses the broad structure for educational strategies that meets the needs of students with severe intellectual disabilities. They recognize that special education is in a critical period for assessing educational strategies used with students with severe disabilities. For several years, these students have been at the door of the regular school and regular classroom. They are now part of the school reform movement. Horner and his colleagues have foreshadowed the real challenge of educational reform as defining systems that produce valued instructional gains while supporting the social inclusion that had become a key value in the education of these students. How to educate students with severe disabilities in the general education classroom without overburdening the general educator, or disrupting the education of students without disabilities, remains the question of the day. To achieve that goal (a) new strategies are needed for general educators, and (b) the strategies for educating students with severe disabilities must be expanded and integrated with those available to regular educators.

Teachers of students with severe disabilities come to this task with a strong foundation in instructional systems and curriculum options grounded in direct instruction, systematic instructional delivery and data-based outcome measures. Good strategies exist for designing functional curricula that are sequenced to promote rapid, generalized acquisition. What continues to be less available are clear strategies and strategies for organizing broader variables related to quality education. The strategies we need today are strategies for how students should be grouped, how school-wide systems should be set up, and how funding should be used to achieve broader educational goals of all students (including those with the most severe disabilities) (Horner, Flannery, & Snell, 1996).


Significant Physical and Multiple Disabilities

Curricula most important to students with significant physical disabilities include skills that increase their personal independence, mobility within classroom, school, home, workplace, and community environments, and self-care skills. Self-advocacy varies according to a student's individual strengths and needs. "Goals ultimately include enhancing functional mobility, increasing communication, and enhancing capabilities in attending to daily living skills" (Geyer, et al., 1998), and enhancing self-determination in achieving quality of life. Essentially, special instruction in mobility skills, daily living skills, occupational skills, and, in severe cases, functionality in the everyday environment, are the critical needs of this population (Hanson, 1996; Heller, Alberto, Forney, & Schwartzman, 1996).

With high absence rates, modifications need to be made so that students can keep up with their peers (i.e., with the use of videotapes, telephone communications, schoolmates as tutors) (Culatta & Tompkins, 1999). Service from an interdisciplinary team of professionals that collaborate is ideal (Heward, 1996) although Hunt and Goetz (1997) argue for a transdisciplinary model—the same one or two professionals delivering all services to ensure continuity (Orelove & Sobsey, 1991: as cited in Hunt & Goetz, 1997). Collaboration efforts of professionals, families, and students working together as a community to deliver services, the use of assistive technology (AT) to enhance a student's capabilities, and adapting the general curriculum are all highly recommended (Bryant & Seay, 1998; Smith, 1998: as cited in Turnbull, et al., 2002).

Other considerations for students with physical disabilities include applying principles of proper and customized positioning and seating; making classroom materials and work areas accessible, modifying the height, slant, or angle of work areas to meet individual students' needs; stabilizing work materials as needed, and using technology and adaptive equipment (mobility aids, hand controls, arm/wrist supports, page-turning devices, modified keyboards, scanners, voice-recognition programs, mouth-operated devices, etc.) (Sands, et al., 2000).

Education of classmates to help them understand their peers' disabilities and encouraging students with health impairments to discuss their needs and the characteristics of their condition with peers to lessen anxiety for all are also important practices (Wood & Lazzari, 1997).

Autistic Spectrum

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition) (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) defines autism as a disability "characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development: reciprocal social interaction skills, communication skills, or the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities." Individuals with this disability have considerable difficulty in interacting with others socially and in communicating verbally. They also often engage in self-stimulating behavior and can have a very limited number of routines and interests.

"Effective intervention in autism appears to require early and intensive educational support that addresses the behavioral, social, and communication deficits associated with that disorder" (Rapin, 1997). Curriculum created for the autistic population includes a behavioral component, which focuses on decreasing self-injurious and or/self-stimulatory behavior (Simeonnson, Olley, & Rosenthal, 1987) as well as a functional element with language skills (Biklen, 1990). Other tasks recommended to be introduced include attention skills, memory skills, functional academics (using money, carrying on conversations, learning survival words), communication skills, social interaction skills, learning strategies, time management, organizational skills, generalization skills, and self advocacy (Horner & Carr, 1997; Horner, et al., 2000; Sugai, et al., 2000: as cited in Sands, Kozleski, & French, 2000). Some programs also have curricula that include teaching an autistic person skills to help them cope with and appropriately control external environmental stimuli.

Some common practices of teachers of autistic children include having clearly defined behavioral expectations, frequently acknowledging appropriate behaviors, evaluating programs and making adaptations on an ongoing basis through a team approach, and targeting support to address students who need intense skill development and practice (Turnbull, et al., 2002). These teaching practices can be applied to all areas of an autistic person's skill development: behavioral, communicational, and functional. However, there are certain teaching practices that specifically relate to each type of skill listed above.

A teacher may help improve an autistic individual's behavior by formally assessing conditions that bring about inappropriate behaviors. Understanding the origin of problematic behaviors enables a teacher to then help an autistic individual learn new skills that will help him/her to achieve a desired result (e.g., receiving attention or obtaining a break). Teachers should also give positive consequences for using a new skill and occasionally use negative consequences for inappropriate behavior (Wood & Lazarri, 1997). Teachers can provide a variety of structured opportunities in which their students may practice skills so they can transfer their knowledge to different settings (Sigafoos, Kerr, Roberts, & Couzens, 1994). Some popular teaching practices for conveying functional skills include the following: "embedding opportunities to practice functional life skills in daily activities in the natural setting where they would occur; using concrete, age-appropriate, real-life teaching materials; demonstrating new routines in a sequential manner, checking for understanding at each step; and using a variety of modes for expressive and receptive communication skills" (Sands, Kolzeski, & French 2000).

Sands, Kolzeski, and French (2000) have identified various curricula and teaching practices that are currently in use for children with autism. Their educational interventions include sensory-motor therapy, communication therapy, social skills training, applied behavior analysis, and multi-treatment programs.


Sensory-Motor Therapy

Sensory-motor therapy curriculum is based on the idea that an autistic person has difficulty discerning and reacting to environmental stimuli because damaged sensory and motor pathways causes him/her to be either over-aroused or under-aroused. This over- or under-stimulation can cause an autistic individual to feel pain or discomfort. The need to engage in repetitive/ritualistic behavior is believed to be caused by an autistic person's need to control the amount of stimulation entering his or her nervous system. The purpose of sensory-motor therapy curriculum is to teach autistic students how to perceive environmental stimuli through alternative pathways in order to help them become desensitized to environmental stimulation. Ultimately, this should foster the maturation of his/her nervous system and result in an increased ability to learn social and communication skills. According to Dempsey and Foreman (2001), sensory-motor therapy includes the following components:

  • Sensory Integration Training In this type of therapy, an occupational therapist performs activities to stimulate a child's skin to reduce sensitivity to outside stimulation. These activities can include massage, brushing or stroking the body of an autistic person in specific areas such as the joints, and having the autistic person walk on a balance beam or jump on a trampoline. Sensory integration training is believed to help "improve the sensory processing capabilities of the brain" resulting in increased vocalization, "eye contact, learning, and motor skills."
  • Auditory Integration Training This type of therapy is based on the belief that autistic people have hypersensitive hearing, and that this is what causes a great deal of their learning and behavioral problems (Berard, 1993). In auditory integration training, an "audiogram is completed to determine the frequencies at which the individual's hearing appears to be too sensitive. Training then occurs for approximately 10 hours over a two-week period, in which a person listens, through headphones, to music in which the identified frequencies are altered out."
  • Music Therapy Music therapy uses music to help an autistic individual either through listening or playing an instrument him- or herself to work through his/her linguistic, emotional, learning, and motor skills difficulties.


Communication Therapy

According to language therapists, an autistic child may share the same interest and capability as non-autistic children to learn how to communicate with others and express him- or herself. Therefore, the curriculum of communication therapies focuses on learning language skills. Using a systematized approach emphasizing positive reinforcement, teachers using applied behavior analysis have succeeded in teaching autistic individuals how to speak or to use sign language or pictures to communicate (Carr, Pridal, & Dores, 1984).


Social Skills Training

Sometimes the world can appear to be a cruel place to a person who has autism. Because of their lack of social skills, an autistic individual may frequently take offense at innocent remarks and often appears awkward in social gatherings. Thus, the curriculum of social skills training focuses on teaching students how to act appropriately and how to function in society. Skills included in this curriculum are understanding social cues, reading body language, participating in conversations, looking at situations from other people's points of view, and communicating emotions. Social skills training may include role playing activities and the use of social stories (Sands, et al., 2000):

  • Role Playing In role playing, an autistic student is presented with a social situation that he/she might encounter in daily life. (For example, greeting another person.) The student then acts out what he or she should do in the scenario. Sometimes a student might be videotaped during role play. After acting out the scene and possibly viewing it on video, the student's teacher provides feedback about the student's performance and may engage the student in conversation about what was done correctly or what could be done better next time.
  • Social Stories The social stories methodology was created to teach people how to read social cues. In order to do this, a teacher will show an autistic individual a picture of a social situation that might take place in daily life. Easy-to-read captions accompany each of the pictures. These captions explain how each of the illustrated individuals might be feeling according to their body language, and how to act appropriately when they see the same body language in others.


Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis is based on the notion that the neurological system of people with autism has not formed connections that allow learning and socialization to take place as it does for most people. It can be considered more of a teaching technique than a curriculum. It focuses on teaching cognitive, communication, and social skills in a highly structured fashion. Skills are broken down into small steps and taught using "a specific cue or instruction, and by using prompts" (Dempsey & Foreman, 2001). Appropriate responses are rewarded, and inappropriate actions are ignored (not reinforced). This specific teaching practice is based on applied behavior analysis. Learning goals for a student are determined by an individual analysis of the student's needs in terms of academic skills, life skills, and social skills. These are taught within a highly structured environment that is made consistent and predictable for a student.


Multi-Treatment Programs

Multi-treatment programs utilize an assortment of curriculums and teaching techniques to serve the needs of autistic students (Sands, et al., 2000). For example, Project TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children) uses a variety of behavioral teaching practices to help students learn how to care for themselves and conduct themselves suitably. Much of their curriculum is taught in a highly structured learning environment. Another program, called Giant Steps, integrates techniques used in sensory-motor training and applied behavior analysis. In addition to providing an education in a self-contained classroom, Giant Steps allows opportunities for autistic students to be mainstreamed in public schools. Treatment of an autistic individual is a daunting task. His/her neurological condition does not allow him/her to process information in ways that most people do. In addition, each child with autism does not respond the same way to any given treatment. What might be successful for some might not produce the same results for others. Thus, although the skills spelled out in the curricula explained above should be acquired by those with autism, teaching practices used will have to cater to individuals.


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Last Updated: 11/05/2010

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