In some countries, including the United States, children with autism are eligible for free special education services. These services are tailored to a specific child in an individualized education program (IEP). Special education for autism includes applied behavioral analysis (ABA) and Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Related Handicapped Children (TEACCH), and may be provided in combination with regular classroom teaching or in a separate classroom.
In the United States, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), public schools must provide those children who need it with appropriate special education for autism. The basis for this support is an IEP, which outlines the child's specific needs, educational goals for the school year, how those goals will be met and how progress will be evaluated. The IEP is usually mapped out in a meeting between the parents of the autistic child, school staff, and a representative from the local education agency. By law, the IEP meeting must be held within 30 days of a child becoming eligible for special education services.
The dominant trend in public schools, especially in the U.S., is toward mainstreaming and inclusion, in which autistic children stay in a regular classroom and are sometimes supported one-on-one by aides or a specialized curriculum. Schools may also use specific special education for autism. That is where ABA and TEACCH come in.
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ABA is usually either administered or supervised by someone with a master's degree in ABA or psychology, and it can be done in school or at home. Traditional ABA involves intensive one-on-one interaction between the teacher and the student in which the teacher asks the child to do a specific task — such as picking something up, sorting colors, or reciting the alphabet — and gives the child a small reward if he complies. If the child does not complete the task, the teacher will wait and make another attempt. These separate attempts are called "discrete trials."
ABA shows more obvious initial results than the TEACCH method, especially in the first six to 12 weeks. It may be most useful for severely autistic children or for those who need more training in following teachers' instructions before entering a mainstream or TEACCH classroom. While ABA has supporters, it's also not without its critics. Some parents complain that ABA encourages the robotic fulfillment of tasks more than actual learning.
TEACCH is a hybrid approach that uses some ABA principles. A TEACCH classroom is a highly structured environment in which children follow a daily schedule and engage in different activities at specific "stations" — or corners — of the classroom. TEACCH emphasizes visual learning, which is often a strength of autistic children, and sometimes allows the children to communicate using cards with symbols and words on them. Some complain that this approach accommodates autistic behaviors rather than trying to counteract them.
Special education for autism doesn't stop and start in a public school system. Parents of autistic children may choose to homeschool and receive in-person or online training in ABA, TEACCH and other methods. The advantage of homeschooling is that lessons can be tailored to the specific interests of the child. It is a significant time investment, though, and does not automatically provide the social interaction autistic children need. The special education needs of an autistic child also can change over time, so a special education method that works well one year may require modification the next.