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Dec. 2, 2010 Volume 32, No. 14

Social competency is key for children with autism


New curriculum targets communication skills

The startling growth in autism cases has challenged teachers school systems around the country. Research suggests that if children with autism can communicate more effectively, they can succeed in the classroom and, later, in the workplace.

Researchers at the University of Missouri are developing a social competence curriculum that could help educators meet the demand of this growing population of students.

A team led by Janine Stichter, a professor of special education at the College of Education, has developed a curriculum that has shown success in after-school programs. With help from two three-year grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, the curriculum is being tested during daily school activities.

Stichter said children with autism have three core deficit areas: difficulty with communication, repetitive behaviors and social competence. The new curriculum focuses on these behavioral traits to deliver individualized instruction within a small-group format.

“Social competency has a big impact on communication and is essential for post-school outcomes,” Stichter said. “While there are several social curricula available, they haven’t adequately discriminated between and targeted certain parts of the population. At MU, we’ve worked to develop intervention to meet specific needs, similar to a medical model for treating cancer: doctors don’t use one treatment model for all forms of cancer, for example.”

High-functioning children on the autism spectrum usually have trouble managing goals, understanding others’ feelings and regulating emotions. Stichter’s curriculum focuses the student on recognizing facial expressions, sharing ideas, taking turns, exploring feelings and emotions, and problem solving.

She said the new curriculum will help parents looking for programs that will benefit their child. Other programs promote social skill development, but parents have a hard time knowing which programs fit their child’s needs.

“This program is structured so that parents know they have a good fit,” Stichter said. “Also, this creates a model for schools so these lessons can be added to the student’s overall educational experience, rather than an add-on to the student’s schedule.”

Stichter said special education teachers have so far been pleased with the curriculum and student outcomes. The ultimate goal is to develop an Internet-based, virtual learning environment that can be tailored for any student who has social competency issues.

“Even general education teachers are saying ‘show us more – we can use this with all of our kids,’” said Stichter, who is collaborating on the project with James Laffey, professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies.