Effective Programming for Young Children with Autism (Ages 3-5)

by Susan Stokes Autism Consultant

If you reprint or use this article, or parts of it, please include the following citation:"Written by Susan Stokes under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "



The positive outcome of early intervention programming for any child with developmental delays/disabilities has been documented in numerous research articles and publications. However, unlike many other developmental disabilities, children with autism are typically not diagnosed until between the ages of two and three, as there are no medical tests to make a definitive diagnosis of autism at an earlier age. Many medical professionals prefer to take a "wait and see" approach, due to the wide range of "normalcy" in early developing children. Thus early intervention programming can often be delayed for these children, resulting in the "loss" of several critical years of intensive intervention during which significant developments in the brain are occurring. Due to this time factor, once a diagnosis is given, early intervention programming becomes crucial to appropriately address the child's needs in all developmental areas and, most importantly, to develop the child's ability to function independently in all aspects of his life.

Effective interventions for young children with autism are based upon the presence of certain fundamental features. Therefore, a "best practice" approach for providing early childhood services for children with autism should incorporate the fundamental features discussed in this article. Much of this information is also covered in more detail through the statewide training. This link will access information on Autism and the Early Childhood Training: http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/een/auttrain01.html

Fundamental Features
The fundamental features necessary for a successful early childhood program for children with autism are:


Each of these components will be discussed in detail.


Curriculum Content:

The curricular areas to be focused on in an early childhood program should address the core features and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder. The goals and objectives to address each curricular area should be highly individualized for each child's developmental level, as well as his learning strengths and weaknesses (5). Knowledge of typical child development is also crucial in providing a guideline for intervention in the curricular areas. The following curricular areas have been identified as essential to meeting the needs of young children with autism spectrum disorder:

Appropriate play skills with toys and play with peers will need to be specifically and directly taught to children with autism.

Typically developing peer models are essential to facilitate developmentally appropriate social behavior for children with autism.


Highly Supportive Teaching Environments and Generalization Strategies:

The previously noted curricular areas must be taught in an environment which takes into consideration the unique features and characteristics associated with autism spectrum disorder. The specific skills per curricular area should be taught in a highly supportive and structured teaching environment, and then systematically generalized to more functional, natural environments (1). Features of the environments which should be addressed include the following:

Furniture arrangement: Environmental organization includes clear physical and visual boundaries, which (a) help the child to understand where each area begins and ends, and (b) minimize visual and auditory distractions (2). Each area of the classroom (or other environment) should be clearly, visually defined through the arrangement of furniture (e.g., bookcases, room dividers, office panels, shelving units, file cabinets, tables, rugs, etc.).

Children with autism generally do not automatically segment their environments like typically developing children. Large, wide-open areas can be extremely challenging for children with autism. They do not understand what is to occur in each area, where each area begins and ends, and how to get to a specific area by the most direct route. Strategically placing furniture to clearly, visually-define specific areas will decrease the child's tendency to randomly wander/run from area to area.

Visual distractions can be minimized by painting the entire environment (walls, ceilings, bulletin boards, etc.) a muted color (e.g., off-white) as well as markedly limiting the amount of visual "clutter" which is typically present in most classrooms in the form of art projects, seasonal decorations and classroom materials. Reduction of Visual Clutter can be accompanied by using sheets/curtains to cover classroom materials (including equipment such as a computer or TV/VCR), or by removing unnecessary equipment/materials from the classroom or to an area not in the student's view. Certain fluorescent lighting can be visually distracting to some children with autism. Natural lighting via windows can provide an easy solution to this visual distraction. Through the use of blinds, curtains, or shades, the amount of light coming into the environment can easily be controlled, thus creating a warm and calm environment.

Auditory distractions: The lowering of auditory distractions in a physically structured environment can be achieved through the use of carpeting, lowered ceilings, acoustical tiles, P.A. system turned off or covered with foam to mute the sound, and headphones for appropriate equipment, such as the computer or tape players.

A physically structured environment will create an easily understood, predictable and thus calming environment for the child with autism. As a result the child's attention to the most relevant information for learning will be maximized.

(See the article "Structured Teaching: Strategies for Supporting Students with Autism" for more information on a physically structured environment.)

Object Schedule
"Obect Schedule"
(e.g., self help skills - tooth brushing; hygiene;
washing hands)
independent work activities
teaching rules/alternative behaviors
increasing language comprehension skills
expressive communication skills
making choices
academic/readiness areas

"Activity Schedules"

(See the other articles "Structured Teaching: Strategies for Supporting Students with Autism" and "Assistive Technology for Students with Autism" for more information on visual support strategies.)

Additional training in specific strategies is also suggested (e.g., Structured Teaching Practices, Picture Exchange Communication System - PECS, Sensory Integration Strategies, Music/rhythm integration strategies, discrete trial, Greenspan's Floortime web site: http://www.stanleygreenspan.com , etc.).