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Class act: Evidence-based practices help students with autism 

Model program wins national grant and a CSBA Golden Bell Award

Winter 2013

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the rate of reported autism is growing rapidly—up about 300 percent between 2002 and 2012. The need for a specialized educational environment for these students is becoming more urgent than ever. In Butte County, the Chico Unified School District’s Marsh Model Autism Program is providing just such a program. A self-contained classroom focusing on autism, it serves 12 students with moderate to severe disabilities.

Students work on goals that address individual needs, participate in independent living skills activities, receive vocational training and are integrated into some regular education classes.

Marsh was recently selected as one of three model autism sites in California by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder; it received a grant to refine implementation of its specialized approach using evidence-based practices—EBPs for short.

Staff selected five high-impact EBPs for the program’s focus:

  • Visual supports—pictures, schedules, or other visual prompts
  • Self-management—interventions to help independently regulate behaviors
  • Social narratives describing target behavior
  • Social skills groups with an adult facilitator and groups of four to six students
  • Video modeling of targeted behavior or skills

Additional program components include parent training and the use of peer mentors who work with students on social skills, conversation bridging, respect and boundaries, information seeking, and greetings.

Since they began using EBPs, the school has seen a tremendous difference in students’ social, behavioral and communication skills—the three major deficits within the autism spectrum.

Data collected for the national grant confirm that interaction has increased when students are in the regular education setting. A student with severe sensory issues who was integrated into a regular PE class would initially stand 30 feet away from his peers during warm-ups, for example. Through the use of visual supports, he is now doing warm-ups with his class in roll-call lines.

Self-management has also improved. A student who began the year able to complete just three of 36 food preparation steps on his own can now follow a visual support to make an English muffin pizza independently. Another student has learned increased self-awareness with voice volume through a visual support that helped him keep his voice at an appropriate level. A third student has learned to answer the classroom phone and take a message with the caller’s name, number and date and time called.

The peer mentoring component has also increased understanding between all students. Mentors have gained knowledge, skills and confidence in working with students with autism, and regular education students on campus have come to better understand that all students want to communicate, but may do so in different ways.

The program has broken down the barriers that have traditionally separated children with autism from their peers. Students in the program receive focused support in the special day classroom through the use of EBPs that are also reinforced through peer mentors, regular education teachers and parents. As a result, students with autism engage more with their peers and are better accepted. As regular education teachers use EBPs in their classroom, the school has documented positive educational outcomes for all students, regardless of whether or not they have autism.

The class at Marsh has served students for seven years, with a focus on students with autism for the last two years. Its impressive record earned it a CSBA Golden Bell Award in the Special Education category in 2012. The vision going forward is to train other special and general education teachers in implementing EBPs into their own classrooms. Trained staff will continue to support teachers throughout the district as they master these best practices. 

—Trinette Marquis-Hobbs