Wednesday / May 29

The Importance of Effective Interventions for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Teachers of K-12 students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face a variety of challenges every day in their classrooms. Students with ASD can be some of the most rewarding and fun students to teach, but they also require a specialized set of skills for teachers to best meet their needs. The primary characteristics associated with ASD are challenges with social and communication skills across multiple contexts and displays of repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Students with ASD commonly participate in some type of social skills instruction during their educational experiences. They can also have highly specialized and unique interests and skills.

Selecting and designing effective interventions is an important job requirement of teachers who work with students with ASD. There are many reputable organizations and people in the field of special education who have conducted research to identify effective interventions (e.g., Steinbrenner et al., 2020). Unfortunately, there are also many fad and pseudoscientific interventions to which teachers may be exposed. Therefore, educators must be able to discern between research-based interventions that are more likely to be effective and fads or treatments that may potentially harm their students.

Examples of interventions with a strong research base for teaching students with ASD include antecedent-based interventions, modeling, prompting, self-monitoring, social skills training, task analysis, visual supports, and video modeling. These interventions can be used to teach a variety of desired skills such as academic, adaptive, communication, and play skills. They can also be useful in reducing undesired or maladaptive behaviors. Teachers can use interventions in an individualized manner to best meet the needs of their students. For instance, an elementary student with ASD may use a visual schedule to navigate their school day and cope with transitions, a middle school student may use a task analysis to prepare a food item of their choice in the classroom kitchen, or a high school student may watch a brief video demonstrating a job task and then complete the task independently. The skills taught to students with ASD should be relevant and meaningful to their lives and also reflect the goals of the family.

Other interventions have research indicating they are not recommended for teachers to use because there are no benefits associated with them. Examples of such interventions include facilitated communication, rapid prompting method, and holding therapy. It is the responsibility of teachers who work with students with ASD to read current research articles and obtain information from reputable sources to avoid using harmful interventions. All students with disabilities, including those with ASD, are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004) in the United States. IDEIA mandates that teachers use “research-based interventions, curriculum, and practices” (20 U.S.C. § 1465). Therefore, it would not be acceptable for a teacher to use an intervention with no research supporting its use, nor would it be acceptable for a teacher to say they are unfamiliar with research-based interventions for the population of students they teach.

Because of the large number of fad treatments targeted for students with ASD, educators should be particularly skeptical. Here are some questions that teachers can ask themselves when considering whether to use an intervention or not:

  • What is the current research base for this intervention?
  • Is the source of information from a reliable or unreliable source (see table below)?
  • Do I have the skills, training, and materials necessary to implement the intervention?
  • Are there any risks or potential for harm associated with the intervention?


Examples of Reliable Sources Unreliable Sources
·       Professional organizations within the fields of ASD and special education (e.g., Council for Exceptional Children, Applied Behavior Analysis International)

·       Textbooks

·       Academic journals that are well-respected

·       Teacher assistance centers (e.g., National Technical Assistance Center on Transition: the Collaborative)

·       Government agencies (e.g., State Department of Education)

·       Social media

·       Personal anecdotes

·       Bogus/ fake journals

·       Magazines, newsletters, or other non-academic publications

·       Personal websites


Source. Bross & Travers, 2019

In short, by implementing effective interventions with research supporting their use, teachers will be much more likely to enhance the outcomes and skills taught to students with ASD.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.

Bross, L. A. & Travers, J. C. (2019, February 21-23). Published and true are not synonyms:           Standards of evidence in special education. [Conference session]. Midwest     Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders, Kansas City, MO.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § et. Seq. 1401 (2004). (reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990).

Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.

Written by

Dr. Leslie Bross, PhD, BCBA-D, is an Assistant Professor of Special Education in the Department of Special Education and Child Development at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She serves as the director of the Graduate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder program and teaches classes in the undergraduate and graduate programs. Leslie’s research focuses on examining ways to support individuals with autism during their transition to adulthood in the areas of postsecondary education, competitive employment, and community integration. She frequently utilizes technology-based interventions in applied, community-based settings. Prior to her experiences in higher education, Leslie was a special education teacher for secondary students with autism in Lee’s Summit, Missouri and taught English as a second language in Nagasaki, Japan and Barcelona, Spain. Follow Leslie on Twitter @leslie_bross.

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