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OARacle Newsletter

Students with autism make up one-fifth of students receiving special education services in the United States, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of these students receive special education services in the general education classroom for part or all of the school day. These findings are promising, given the benefit of inclusion for students with autism and their non-autistic peers.  

Despite these gains, however, students with autism are less likely than students in other disability categories to be placed in the least restrictive environment or inclusive settings. The tendency for autistic students to be placed in restricted settings reflects educators’ lack of training to effectively support autistic students and systems’ lack of resources and infrastructure to effectively support inclusive programming.  

Inclusion highlights a collaborative model of educating all children (including those with autism), and creates new responsibilities for general educators as the primary educator during a significant portion of the school day.  

Many general education teachers have and are unsure about how to best support autistic students. Consequently, they may feel overwhelmed with new responsibilities and may rely on paraeducators to provide academic support. To be effective, general education teachers need to know how to identify and implement evidence-based practices that improve outcomes for autistic students. Targeted training for pre-service and veteran teachers is needed to improve inclusive experiences for autistic students.  


While educating autistic students alongside their non-autistic peers has been shown to improve academic achievement and social and behavioral outcomes, simply placing a student in a general education classroom generally does not result in effective inclusive education. Compared to non-autistic peers, teachers report that autistic students have greater behavioral challenges and more difficulties socializing and making and keeping friends. Without intervention, behavioral and social challenges persist, and often become more apparent over time. Teachers are more likely to have negative attitudes towards autistic students who present with challenging behaviors, because they feel ill-prepared to support these students 

In contrast, teachers may overlook or fail to recognize the needs of the many autistic students who try to camouflage or mask their behaviors in an effort to fit in. This phenomenon is especially apparent in female populations that have a history of late or misdiagnosis due to gender-related differences. Autistic students without appropriate supports in place at school are at risk for additional mental health concerns in adolescence, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Teachers with a limited understanding of autism and evidence-based interventions are ill-equipped to facilitate an accessible inclusive environment for autistic students. Teacher training should remedy these gaps in knowledge, providing teachers with information about autism and training so they can identify and implement evidence-based practices for autism.  


Research has identified evidence-based practices that can improve outcomes for students with autism. There are great free resources for educators and other service providers who would like to build skills to better support autistic students. These resources can be incorporated into professional pre-service practicum and accessed by teachers and other service providers for ongoing professional development. 

  • The National Autism Center provides comprehensive and reliable resources for families, practitioners, and communities. 
Quick Tips for Teachers

Building an inclusive classroom can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know how to get started. For example, it can be challenging to identify the correct intervention strategies necessary for each situation. A great first step is to learn more about autism and to consider intervention approaches that tend to work for most students. The following resources provide some background information about autism and evidence-based practices as well as the most commonly used evidence-based practices among general education teachers.  

  • Introduction to Autism describes the characteristics of social communication and restrictive and repetitive behaviors. 
  • Selecting An Evidence-Based Practice describes the process for selecting evidence-based practices for autistic students. 
  •  Visual supports are images, symbols, or words that help a student with autism understand spoken communication. Examples include visual schedules, calendars,  and choice boards. 
  • Reinforcement is a positive consequence that occurs after a behavior to encourage the behavior. Examples include praise, access to high interest toys/objects, and free time. 
  • Naturalistic intervention is a collection of strategies, including environmental, social, and behavioral, designed to encourage autistic students’ use of a target behavior within a natural environment. Examples include adding new high-interest toys to the play area and providing choices.  
Systemic Change

Teacher knowledge, competence, and confidence in using evidence-based practices is a key component of effective inclusive education, but effective programs operate within a larger system that presents other potential supports and barriers. Meaningful collaboration between educational professionals and caregivers is essential for the development of inclusive schools. For example, educational teams (including general education and special education teachers, school site administrators, speech language pathologists, psychologists, and other providers) need relevant pre-service or in-service professional development to adopt and implement evidence-based and inclusive practices.   

The California Autism Professional Training and Information Network (CAPTAIN) is a statewide inter-agency collaborative with the goal of scaling up the use of evidence-based practices for autism. CAPTAIN engages agency and district leadership, families, and school-based professionals with autism expertise to provide professional development and implementation support for use of evidence-based practices. This collaborative model has resulted in significant statewide impact, with over 14,000 people receiving training last year, including parents, paraprofessionals, administrators, teachers, and other providers.   

In summary, we would like to encourage readers to seek out opportunities to foster effective professional development in how to implement evidence-based practices to support inclusion.  Researchers, practicing professionals, administrators, and caregivers all play a critical role in engaging, encouraging, and training educational professionals.   

Michelle Dean, Ph.D., is an associate professor, special education, and President’s Faculty Fellow at California State University, Channel Islands. Dr. Dean’s research focuses on the inclusion and social development of students with autism. 




Jessica Suhrheinrich, Ph.D., is an associate professor, special education, at San Diego State University and an investigator with the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center. Broadly, her research aims to improve community-based services for children with autism.  




Drs. Dean and Suhrheinrich are on the leadership team for the California Autism Professional Training and Information Network.