Those who work or care for children with Autism/Asperger’s must have experience in special education and training. This article will be helpful for parents of gifted children, paraprofessionals, educational psychologists, counseling psychologists, school psychologists, teachers of a particular school, and others. You will be able to learn about the required skills and intervention techniques for children with autism or Asperger’s. I will use only the term paraprofessional in this article, indicating all professionals who serve children with autism or Asperger’s.
I am starting by showing three questions that I frequently face:
Q: I am a new aide, and the classroom teacher does not give me many directions. I’m not sure what I’m doing is best for the child with autism I work with. Help!
Q: The school has agreed to hire an aide for my son, who has autism. However, I get the impression they don’t know what this person should be doing. What should the aide be doing?
Q: What exactly is the role of the paraprofessional? The aide in my classroom seems to think that her role is to replace me in my job. What do I do?
So you’ve got an aide, now what do you do? There has been a steady growth in the number of paraprofessionals in our schools, especially those assigned to work with children with Autism, Asperger’s, and similar challenges.
Each of the three questions above highlights common themes and concerns that arise when employing a paraprofessional for a student with Autism/Asperger’s:
- What is the role of the paraprofessional?
- What knowledge and skills does this person need to be effective?
- How do we make good use of this resource?
A paraprofessional can provide tremendous benefits but also pose significant risks.
On the plus side, the paraprofessional can support the student’s learning, help to develop social skills, support other students, allow the teacher to focus on teaching strategies, and promote the functional application of curriculum knowledge.
On the downside, the paraprofessional can increase dependency, slow the development of communication, sabotage the school/home relationship, and interfere with integration and interaction with peers.
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The Role of the Paraprofessional
There are some pretty straightforward Dos and Don’ts for a paraprofessional working within the school system.
I can suggest you a widely used paraprofessional guidebook. As a professional work, I always keep it with me: You can also check it on Amazon.
The primary role is to assist the teacher in helping the child have a successful educational experience. In addition, their job is to support learning and social skills and help the child expand their communication.
They can be of great benefit with behavioral issues by coaching the child in working with other students, modeling appropriate behaviors, and offering suggestions for alternative behaviors.
The paraprofessional will often be the person that deals with issues as they come up in the “real” world. They are the ones who might have to deal with the meltdown in the lavatory, navigate the hallways, or interact appropriately on the playground.
They also have the opportunity to support academic skills learned in the classroom. “Count the spoons at your table, John.” “Before you go up the slide, you need to use your words.” “That is a beetle. What did we learn about beetles?”
It is not the paraprofessional’s job to be the student’s servant, to overrule the teacher or sabotage her plans, or be a private information source for parents on what the school is doing wrong. Unfortunately, disaster is usually not far behind once this behavior starts.
Required Skills and Knowledge
In working with various school systems, classroom teachers, and paraprofessionals, we have identified a cluster of skills that all paraprofessionals need to have to succeed with their students. These skill areas are:
Basic knowledge of the disability: How does the disability impact the child’s learning? Do you know what visual learning is? What will we do when the child follows a direction literally when that is not what the teacher meant? Will we talk more or less when the child has a Tula tantrum tamer? When the schedule is disrupted, how will we handle it? All of these situations and more will happen daily.
Without some basis for understanding the disability, the child often pays for our mistakes. Every child is a unique individual, and a few mistakes here and there will happen.
However, the lack of a sound understanding of autism/AS and the outward manifestations of the disability will result in harm to the child through lost time and inappropriate or ineffective teaching methods.
At the barest minimum, the paraprofessional should have taken an introductory course in Autism or Asperger’s that includes a discussion of effective teaching techniques about behavior, communication, and sensory issues. There are a number of these available.
The use of reinforcement: The use of support and motivators is critical for learning. With students who may not respond well to social support, knowledge of reinforcers and the skillful use of support becomes essential.
We must know when to reinforce, how often to reinforce, how to fade, and how to increase expectations. Furthermore, paraprofessionals need to be keen observers of children with autism/AS to ascertain what types of reinforcers will be significant to a particular child.
No two children with autism are alike; having an assortment of meaningful reinforcers is a must. Observation is another skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It does not come naturally.
Supporting and promoting communication: The paraprofessional must know the student’s communication system and how to use it to promote initiation and independence. They will often have real-life opportunities to help the child communicate with peers and others in the school and the community.
Knowledge of behavioral intervention techniques: Mistakes can be costly in dealing with students who have behavioral challenges.
The para must know how to reinforce acceptable behavior and avoid strengthening negative behavior. They need to know how to avoid “blackmail” situations and that just because; “It worked with my kids at home.” may not be appropriate for these students.
Also, with the last revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), paras need to be well-versed in Positive Behavior Interventions, Strategies, and Support or, at a minimum, know what they are and how to implement best the plan forth in the student’s IEP.
Promoting independence: (Arguably the most critical of all) One of the most frustrating, complex, and debilitating problems for children with Autism/ Asperger’s is the risk of becoming prompt dependent.
Closely related to this is the phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” Both can cause constant problems in life, and reduce independence, access to the community, and acceptance by others. However, there are specific strategies that can help to prevent this. The para needs to learn these and practice them regularly.
Fundamental Task Analysis: The paraprofessional often handles routine tasks that make up a child’s day. The ability to break these routines into steps and teach/support through these steps is an ongoing challenge that must be met.
Using fundamental task analysis, the paraprofessional can provide a great deal of help for the student in organizing their school life. Examples might include organizing the locker, navigating the hallways, setting up homework assignments, etc.
Presentation and Correction techniques: Most parents and good teachers know that the way material, especially something new, is presented can either make or break its successful acceptance by a child.
We also know that there are effective ways to correct a student’s mistakes that promote learning rather than embarrassment. A paraprofessional who understands and uses these strategies can tremendously help the student.
Ethical/professional behavior: The paraprofessional may face some unique ethical challenges. They are often from the community where they work, which can interfere with confidentiality issues. They may come from another program and have training in a very narrow skill area, creating a challenge in working in a team setting.
We often see this with paraprofessionals who previously worked with the child in a so-called ABA program. They usually know a little about discrete trials, almost nothing about ABA, and often don’t know how to use ABA in the real world when their child faces abstract content in a public school setting.
Sometimes we see a Para who has worked with the family before the child attends school and is hired as the child’s aide. On the surface, this looks great. It can set the stage for problems, though.
The child can become too dependent on one person. The involvement with family, child, and school can become over-involvement and lead to difficulties in confidentiality and, in rare cases, deliberate harmful interference in the child’s learning program.
Without the basic knowledge of these areas and the paraprofessional’s ability to use these skills, we have found that untrained paras risk undoing progress for a student rather than providing the encouragement and support that we expect of these individuals. Remember, the skills don’t appear just because we read about them. They require practice and review.
How Do We Successfully Utilize the Paraprofessional?
The paraprofessional must be viewed as an integral part of the educational team. This must extend beyond lip service to actual involvement, including having the para participate in meetings with parents or a child’s IEP meetings.
It is the teacher’s job to act as an educational leader. Sometimes this can be difficult, as most teachers have little or no training to supervise an aide or make the best of their time.
Sometimes the specific role of the para will be included in the child’s IEP; other times, it will be the responsibility of the teacher to collaborate with the para to achieve success in the goals and objectives outlined in the IEP.
Furthermore, it should be clear whether the para’s primary goal is to support only one child in the class or to assist the teacher with several students. Either way, the teacher must provide ongoing coaching, frequent feedback, clear expectations, and listen to the paraprofessional’s concerns.
Helping a child succeed in academics and social life is the ultimate goal of our educational system if any educational team member is not carrying their weight, that success.
As with teachers, paraprofessionals must receive training to be effective. This training needs to be more than the occasional workshop on the conference day.
Training should be ongoing and include other paraprofessionals and other child team members. If we can provide this training and support to teachers and paraprofessionals, we can generally expect to see great results where it counts – in the child’s growth.
Last update on 2023-10-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API