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Top 10 Tips for Working With and Evaluating Students with ASD

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Dr. Ruth Aspy and Dr. Barry Grossman are the authors of the Ziggurat Model, a comprehensive model of intervention. They present nationally and internationally on designing interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. In this webcast, they will discuss their Top 10 tips for working with and evaluating students with autism spectrum disorders.

I'm Dr. Barry Grossman. I'm Dr. Ruth Aspy and we're members of the Ziggurat Group and authors of the Ziggurat Model. We've been asked by OCALI to train and prepare interdisciplinary autism assessment teams throughout the state of Ohio. Today we are going to talk to you about our Top 10 List of tips for working with students and evaluating students with ASD.

Tip 1: Plan and Prepare. The first tip for assessing a student for autism spectrum disorder is to plan and prepare for the evaluation. Be sure that team members know the referral questions, the concerns of parents and staff. It will guide them in selecting tasks and targeting observations and recommendations. Members of the team should speak with the parents and teachers prior to the evaluation in order to gather information that is vital to the process. It is important to know factors such as:

Schedule: What time is the student available to the team? For example, when is lunch? Are there events that would be distressing or significantly disappointing to the student if they were missed? It is also important to know about the student's transition needs. Does the student require a familiar adult to accompany him or her to the testing room? Is a change in the routine going to be challenging for the student? If so, the student may need to be prepared well in advance of the testing day. Additional reinforcers may need to be established for transitioning and participating in the evaluation. Are there specific objects that they need to have with them such as a block or toy? The team also needs to learn about the level of cognitive functioning. This helps them to select instruments and know how to approach the assessment.
The team also needs to inquire about communication skills and modes. Does the student have spoken language? If so, how well developed are his or her skills? Does the student use sign language, pictures or devices to communicate? This information is especially critical when selecting appropriate assessment tools. For example, examiners select different modules on the ADOS depending on the student's language functioning.
Attention span: Can the student work for an extended period of time? What tips do parents and teachers have to increase time on task? The team needs to know if there are behavioral concerns. Is the student prone to running out of the room or building? Does the student engage in self-injurious behaviors? Is the student prone to harming others?
Sensory needs: Are there adjustments to the environment that would help the student to be more comfortable or successful? For example, lighting and noise level. Are there certain sensations that the student seeks out such as lights and sound? If so, examiners may want to bring special toys or materials to provide these experiences for the student. Based on the answers to these questions, the team is able to schedule the evaluation, select instruments and prepare materials.

Tip 2: Communicate and Inform. It is important to provide information to parents and professionals prior to evaluating the student. All parties need to understand the assessments so that they can facilitate and play an active role in the evaluation. Because the testing environment is critical, it's important to communicate your needs to the building administrator and staff. When a classroom teacher is required to participate on the team, it's important to communicate with the building administrator so that arrangements can be made in advance of the evaluation. Share with parents the purpose of the evaluation, describe activities, provide a timeline and answer all questions. Sometimes parents are misinformed or uninformed about the assessment. This should be resolved prior to initiating the evaluation. This process ensures informed consent.

Tip 3: Work as a team. There is a difference between multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. On a multi-disciplinary team, members work apart from one another and merge or assemble their work. When professionals work as an interdisciplinary team, members work collaboratively throughout the process. The interdisciplinary approach results in the strongest diagnostic and programming decisions. All members do not have to be present during each step of the evaluation, such as the parent interview, teacher interview and classroom observation. However, having more than one member present during the evaluation process is the rule rather than the exception. Participation of additional members provides for a richer evaluation and results in better recommendations for the student.

Tip 4: Keep an open mind. When conducting an evaluation, do not enter the room with a preconceived notion about whether or not the student has an autism spectrum disorder. It's an error to take the perspective that a student does not have autism until he or she proves otherwise. It's just as erroneous to begin with the assumption that a student has autism until he or she proves otherwise. Instead, start with an open mind. The goal is to learn about the student and his or her functioning.

Tip 5: Schedule time to process. There's no way to do interdisciplinary team evaluations without setting aside time to meet as a team. This time is what makes the interdisciplinary process work. Members share and compare their observations and score and interpret the test results. If members were to work apart, they would create a compilation of results, not a collaborative integrative report.

Tip 6: Think recommendations. Evaluation is a means to more than one end. It's not only for eligibility decision-making. The most important outcome is strong recommendations. Working on recommendations is not something that should be left until the end of the process. Rather, it should be incorporated throughout the assessment. The best recommendations are meaningful, practical, specific and build on the student's strengths. Be sure to address concerns in the home and school setting. Avoid a boilerplate approach.

Tip 7: Allow for fun and flexibility. Create an atmosphere that puts the student at ease, one that creates an opportunity for students to display their best communication and social skills. Be flexible. This may mean increasing structure for students who require routine. In contrast, it may mean relaxing structure for students who are able to remain organized during playful interaction.

Tip 8: Reinforce. It is important to provide salient reinforcement during the assessment. When gathering information from parents and teachers, find out what is reinforcing to the student. Plan ahead and when possible bring these reinforcers to the evaluation. We once evaluated a student who loved swordplay. One evaluator brought two empty wrapping paper rolls to use as swords. The team allowed the student to select a swordfight partner during each break. For this student, taking breaks to play swords was an essential element to completing the testing.

Tip 9: Observe across settings. Autism spectrum disorders are behaviorally based. Diagnosis and eligibility is based on observation of symptoms. In order to attain the best picture of the student, it's best to observe in multiple settings. Be sure to observe in different environments and during various activities. Consider the following: Level of structure, time of day, number of people, sensory environment and task demands.

Tip 10: Be responsive. There's no formula for the perfect evaluation. Team members should communicate with one another during these sessions and adjust. Team members must be responsive to the student. For example, while evaluating a young student, we noted that he made rhythmic noises. We joined him in creating rhythmic sounds and observed his responses. Evaluators also should be responsive to the student's needs. Pace the evaluation, take breaks, use more reinforcement, and allow for flexibility in seating arrangements. While it may seem supportive to clap or cheer when a student performs well, there are times when students are overwhelmed by such responses. In such cases, a responsive team will adjust and reinforce in a different way.