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Presumed Competence: Reaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Presumed Competence: Reaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Deirdre Hickey Sturm, BCBA, CCC-SLP  | October 13, 2015
Program Director, Including Special Kids & Clinical Director, Special Kids Crusade

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re back in middle or high school. Your class is about to explore a topic that really interests you. You can hardly wait for your teacher to get started.

And now imagine that you aren’t able to mention to anyone that this is a favorite topic. You cannot pick up your pencil to show that you’re ready to take notes and learn. You aren’t quite able to bring your eyes up to meet your teacher’s gaze. Instead, you look at a spot on the floor, ears wide open and eager. Suddenly your hands are flapping in excitement.

And then, one of these scenarios unfolds.

1: Relying on Appearances

Your teacher does not speak directly to you at any point in the class. You’re not included in the discussion. You have a question but she doesn’t give you a chance to ask it. You’re frustrated and begin to make some noise to express that. She asks the attendant who sits with you to take you out of the classroom so the other students aren’t distracted.

2: Presuming Competence

Your teacher makes an assumption about you. She presumes that you are interested and able to learn. She speaks to you the same way she speaks to other students. During the discussion, she asks if you have a question. The attendant who sits with you works one-on-one with you so you are able to ask it. When the teacher answers, you are excited and begin to make some noise to express that. Your classmates smile, enjoying your enthusiasm about this lesson.

Presumed Competence, in a Nutshell

These scenarios demonstrate the principles and outcomes of presumed competence, an educational practice that can be very effective for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It also works with other students identified as having intellectual, cognitive or behavioral disabilities.

It means that even if educators aren’t sure a given student can fully understand a classroom lesson, we’ll presume the student can. And even if that student cannot participate in learning activities in the same way as other students, it is valuable—even essential—that we create some way for the student to play a role in the classroom.

Presumed competence is also considered “the least dangerous assumption” in the educational environment. We presume that children can learn once we find the way to reach them, rather than assuming they cannot learn because they do not learn as others do (or they do not learn through the teaching strategies we most often use).

The Worst Thing That Can Happen

We can ask ourselves, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I presume students can learn this lesson?” The answer is, “My presumption may be incorrect. A student may not be able to learn the lesson.” A disappointing outcome, but not a disaster.

On the other hand, if we make a different assumption—if we presume certain students cannot learn the lesson, or can only learn it in an individualized or special education setting—the likely outcomes are much more serious and severe. For example:

  • These students have no chance to learn the material, or they will learn it less thoroughly.
  • They don’t have an opportunity to participate with classmates in learning activities.
  • They are taken out of their community of peers and lose opportunities to experience the “shared cultural literacy” of the general classroom environment—the common stories, attitudes, values and opinions of other children or teens their age.
  • Other students—those who learn more typically—lose opportunities to get to know people who are different, learn from them, offer them support and, through these various interactions, reinforce prosocial behaviors for the entire school.

The school also may be out of compliance with federal, state or local laws. For example, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts place students in the least restrictive appropriate environment. This means students should be included in the regular classroom along with non-disabled peers when possible. A recent probe by the U.S. Justice Department into one state’s unnecessary segregation of special education students cites violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

There is an emotional cost for students as well. We are now hearing from adults on the autism spectrum who can describe their school experiences. They often say they wanted access to general classrooms, they wanted to learn with their peers, and they suffered by being excluded. Watch this wonderful video to see young adults with ASD express how important education is to them.

Common Features of Autism

Every individual with autism spectrum disorder is unique. These are some common (but not universal) features.

  • Social challenges. Missing social cues, difficulty seeing others’ perspectives, difficulty regulating emotions, emotional outbursts.
  • Communication difficulties. Delayed verbal skills and spoken language, unusual speech patterns and styles of expression, difficulty reading others’ body language and tone of voice, difficulty understanding jokes or perceiving sarcasm.
  • Repetitive behaviors. Unusual repetitive behaviors (rocking, hand-flapping, arranging objects), interest in limited range of topics and activities.
  • Sensory differences. Highly sensitive to certain types of touch, smell, sound, taste. Insensitive to pain.
  • Motor challenges. Difficulty with fine or gross motor skills (grasping small objects, running, riding a bicycle).

What About Neurotypical Students?

Research shows that inclusive education practices benefit all students. For example, in inclusive settings, progress in reading and math is higher for non-disabled students. Students who provide peer support for classmates with disabilities also show a range of positive outcomes, including completing more assignments, participating more in class and demonstrating increased academic achievement.

Perception Vs. Reality

Most of us tend to believe that perception is reality. A red chair is a red chair. But if we change the lighting in the room, other possibilities emerge. Perhaps the chair is white, or blue.

When it comes to students on the autism spectrum, what we perceive is often off the mark. When we change our understanding of what’s going on, other possibilities emerge.

If a student doesn’t look at us, is he avoiding eye contact? Or does it just take him longer to be able to make that contact?

If a student doesn’t respond to our question, is she unable to understand it? Or is she communicating her response in a way we can’t understand?

If a student pushes a classmate or shrieks loudly, is he aggressive and inappropriate for the general classroom? Or does he need help learning social skills and self-regulation?

The principle of presumed competence encourages us to look at a range of possibilities that have as much to do with our ability to understand and teach as they do with our students’ abilities to learn.

Tipping Point: Cognitive Skills, Behavior, Policy

When I talk to teachers about students on the spectrum, I often ask them, “What do you think is the most important factor influencing whether a student with ASD is included in the general education setting. Is it cognitive skills? Behavioral profile? Policy?”

Most teachers identify behavior as the pivotal issue that determines whether a student can participate in general classes. Some say it’s reading or language skills. But the research shows that a district’s policy is the most influential factor. Any student, regardless of cognitive ability or behavioral profile, is more likely to be included in general education when his or her district has established presumed competence practices and inclusive policies.

Punctuation Lesson: Commas, Not Periods

Does this mean that absolutely every student on the spectrum belongs in general education settings 100% of the time? No. Anyone with experience in special education understands that some students cannot participate in general education.

But we need to end that statement with a comma, not a period: Some students cannot participate in general education, yet. While a small percentage of students will not be able to participate in general education, most can—especially if we figure out how to help them learn essential skills in socializing and communication.

Our broadest goal in education is to help students develop into adults who can function independently and contribute to their communities. When we create an educational environment that is stable, flexible and inclusive, we can bring in a lot more students with a diverse set of thinking styles and abilities.

In all honesty, I don’t really care whether students know colors or shapes or American History. But I do care if they haven’t learned how to stand in line without biting the kid in front of them because they feel impatient. I do care that they have opportunities to learn from their peers. I do care that they have a chance to participate in that thrilling experience we call “learning.”

It's Routine

If we look at the ways teachers teach, we see that most teachers have a stable of approaches they use repeatedly. They might routinely use lectures, question and answer, quizzes, small-group discussions, roleplays, worksheets and a range of other activities.

In each of these activities, there is a proscribed role for the teacher, and there are proscribed roles for students. One of the ways we build better inclusion for students of different abilities and learning styles is to figure out how to include different students in these routinized roles.

For example, when a teacher’s role is to lecture, a student’s role is to listen and take notes. If a student can’t write, what role can he be given? Well, he might be able to record the lecture so he can listen to it later. He might have a series of icons that he can place on a board that allow him to note important concepts.

A range of low-cost solutions that have minimal impact on the classroom allow students of many abilities to participate.

Taking a Look: A Roleplay In Health Class

The other day, an educator said to me, “OK. I like these principles. But I don’t see how it works in my situation. I’m teaching a health class. Students break into small groups to practice skills. So let’s say they’re doing some roleplays practicing how to say NO clearly. They say NO. They repeat NO many times. They say it with a firm, loud voice. They say it with strong body language—crossed arms or holding their hands out in a refusal gesture. How does my student on the autism spectrum, who can’t talk and can’t read the roleplay, participate in that group?”

Each student is different of course, but here’s a possibility. The student with ASD joins a small group for the activity. She holds up signs that help coach the other students on their tasks. One sign says, “NO!” The next says, “NO, NO, NO!” The next has a stick figure with arms crossed saying, “NO.” The next has a stick figure with hands out in a refusal gesture saying, “NO!”

This does more than help the student feel included. It helps her learn vital skills. She needs to be able to communicate a clear, firm NO. Students on the spectrum miss important social cues. They sometimes stand too close to someone. They may engage in touching that isn’t socially appropriate. These behaviors increase their risk of being sexually victimized, or simply misunderstood. Knowing how to say NO when a situation gets uncomfortable is essential.

This group practice also helps her classmates understand that they can say NO to her if she engages in behavior they find inappropriate. One of my students recently lay down with his head in a girl’s lap. The girl froze. She didn’t like it and wasn’t comfortable, but she didn’t want to hurt her classmate’s feelings. She would have told any other boy to cut it out, but wasn’t sure what to do about this young man’s behaviors.

What Do I Do Next?

If you’re interested in putting some of these principles into practice, start by presuming competence in your own interactions with students. For example, speak to the student, not the aide. (“How are you doing today, John?”, not “How is John doing?”)

Use age-appropriate language with your students. Don’t “dumb down” the lecture or conversation. Listen to what students say—in whatever way they might be able to say it.

And consider implementing strategies for inclusion in the classroom. Here are some examples:

  • Demonstrate and model expected skills. Example: Show the student where you want him to store his extra books.
  • Provide a visual schedule of the day and post it where students can see it easily.
  • Modify activities when necessary to give all students roles to fulfill.

You can find other examples here.

So Much to Discover

The past few decades of experience and research with children and adults with ASD leave us with one inescapable truth: we still have much to discover. All people have a range of abilities, talents and perspectives. This is as true for our friends, students and family members with ASD as it is for anyone else.

In my work, my daily objectives are to listen, learn and discover. When we are able to give our students the means to communicate, they have a lot to say.

Please join me in this effort. You can learn more about presumed competence, policies and practices for inclusion and strategies for success on the Resource Page for the Special Kids Crusade.

Deirdre Hickey Sturm, BCA, CCC-SLP, is Program Director with Including Special Kids and Clinical Director with the Special Kids Crusade. She can be reached at

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