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Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive Settings: Rethinking Instruction and Design

Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education

Volume 3

Number 1 Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education

Vol. 3, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 2013)

Article 6


Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum

Disorders in Inclusive Settings: Rethinking

Instruction and Design

Christopher B. Denning


Amelia K. Moody


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Repository Citation

Denning, C. B., & Moody, A. K. (2013). Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive Settings: Rethinking

Instruction and Design, Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, 3 (1).


Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

In Inclusive Settings: Rethinking Instruction and Design

Christopher B. Denning, Ph.D.

University of Massachusetts-Boston

Amelia K. Moody, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina-Wilmington


Denning and Moody: Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive S

Published by CORE Scholar, 2013



The prevalence rate of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has grown more than tenfold

in the past two decades and is now estimated at about 1 in 88 children. These prevalence

rates place increased demands on teachers to address core features and highlight the need for

targeted supports. In addition, children with ASD are increasingly served in general education

classrooms and teachers may not be prepared to meet their needs. Research-based supports can

be used with an entire classroom within a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework in

order to the needs of students with ASD in inclusive settings. This paper aims to provide

suggestions for practical UDL support recommendations to enhance the utilization of researchbased

practices to promote academic achievement through multiple forms of engagement,

representation, and expression for children with ASD.


Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, Vol. 3, No. 1 [2013], Art. 6



Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

In Inclusive Settings: Rethinking Instruction and Design

The prevalence rate of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has grown more

than ten-fold in the past two decades and is now estimated at about 1 in 88 children (CDC,

2012). In addition, a recent estimate suggests that the percentage of students with ASD

participating in the general education setting for at least 80% of the school day increased from

9% in 1992-93 to 31% in 2005-06 (USDOE, 2010). This represents an overall increase of 244%.

To meet this demand educators need additional information about how to address the unique

instructional needs of students with ASD in inclusive settings (USDOE, 2010).

Unique Needs of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

The specific needs of students with ASD may affect their success in inclusive settings in

multiple ways. First, they can have challenges engaging in the classroom (Keen, 2009). This may

include understanding and effectively working within the classroom environment due to

challenges related to filtering unnecessary information (Wainwright-Sharp & Bryson, 1996),

selective attention or shifts in focus (Ochs, Kremer-Sadlik, Solomon, & Sirota, 2001), and

difficulty attending to meaningful aspects of the learning environment, especially when it’s not

explicitly stated (Klin, 2000). Another concern, lack of motivation, may be seen in task

avoidance and disruptive behavior (e.g., crying, running away). Evidence suggests that the

ability to gain and maintain attention for effective classroom participation predicts achievement

in preschool and elementary students (Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1993). Second, students

with ASD may have challenges learning new material in the classroom. This may be apparent

when tasks place demands on cognitive flexibility or processing speed (Goldstein, Johnson, &


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Mineshew, 2001). Third, students with ASD may have difficulty successfully completing work

in the classroom (Koegel, Singh, & Koegel, 2010). This may include completing, submitting,

and understanding expectations for assignments. One challenge with assignment completion may

be related to executive functioning deficits in children with ASD (Ozonoff & Strayer, 2001).

Executive functioning relates to the ability for individuals to coordinate goal-directed behavior

and includes: (a) inhibition, (b) set shifting (e.g., ability to shift one’s attention and action), (c)

planning, (d) working memory, and (e) self-monitoring (Ozonoff & Strayer, 2001). Specifically,

individuals with ASD may have difficulty learning rules and strategies, and breaking down

information (Goldstein et al., 2001). One way to provide support for these needs is to adapt

evidence-based practices using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Universal Design for Learning

The intention of UDL “is to create products and/or environments that are designed, from

the outset, to accommodate individuals with a wider range of abilities and disabilities than can be

accommodated by traditional applications” (Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, & Zabala, 2005, p. 508).

Research-based instructional practices and materials that promote the use of classroom-wide

instructional methods can be used within a UDL framework and still allow for individualization.

The three core features of UDL include multiple means of engagement, representation,

and expression (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003). Multiple means of engagement are the hooks

that draw students into class activities. For example, teachers can adapt materials or the structure

of the class to help increase interest and an understanding of the classroom routine (e.g., Mancil

& Pearl, 2008). Multiple means of representation involves ways to present information to more

efficiently and effectively support student learning. For example, learning may be enhanced


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when content is made more concrete through visual or hands-on materials (e.g., Roberts &

Joiner, 2007). Finally, multiple means of expression involves ways that students can effectively

demonstrate their knowledge. For example, students can show what they know in different ways

(e.g., photo essays, poetry, and movies; Ishag, 2011). See Table 1 for definitions and examples of

UDL supports.

Educators and policy makers have demonstrated interest in the philosophy behind UDL

to meet the needs of diverse learners (Higher Education Opportunity Act, 2007; Department of

Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2010). Since it is mostly theoretical in nature,

however, researchers have been concerned about the evidence base for UDL (Edyburn, 2010).

While UDL can serve as a guideline for educators, the instructional interventions and

environmental supports that it promotes are evidence based (Edyburn, 2010). General educators

may currently offer recommended instructional strategies to children diagnosed with ASD in the

classroom, however, using them for all students at the classroom level is a relatively new

concept. The development of instructional materials and the use of effective instructional

practices that can support students with ASD, across the classroom, are necessary (Edyburn,

2010). Therefore, it is important to consider how educators can gain additional knowledge about

effective practices that can be used effectively in inclusive environments within a UDL


Characteristics of Effective Inclusive Environments

There are three key ideas that promote effective inclusion and fit into a UDL framework.

First, according to McLeskey and Waldron (2007) the goal of successful inclusion should be

supporting all students in the classroom in ways that are a “natural and unobtrusive” part of the


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school day (p. 163). Second, research suggests that teachers will continue to use supports that fit

into their daily classroom routine, are perceived by teachers as effective for all students, and

enhance the teacher’s repertoire of instructional methods (e.g., Gersten, Chard, & Baker, 2000).

Third, changing what happens in the classroom is a crucial component to creating a successful

inclusive environment so students with ASD can receive instruction within a supportive

environment (McLeskey & Waldron, 2007). A major concern is that classroom practices are

currently set to support the “norm” and teachers are reluctant to modify instruction in ways that

extend to students who differ from that norm (Tomlinson, 2004). Today’s classrooms are

increasingly diverse and teachers need to proactively set-up the environment and instructional

methods in ways that support all learners.

The purpose of this article is to highlight effective instructional strategies that can be

implemented in inclusive settings within a UDL framework to support students with ASD. These

include strategies that enhance engagement, representation, and expression (see Table 2 for a

summary of strategies).

Applications for the Classroom

Multiple Means of Engagement

Schedules. Schedules help students plan for the day’s events, provide a visual warning

prior to transitions (Banda, Grimmett, & Hart, 2009), and improve student’s understanding of the

expectations (Mesibov, Shea, & Shopler, 2005). This advanced notice may help reduce anxiety,

allow students time to prepare for an activity, and may help students attend more to the material

(Massey & Wheeler, 2000). Teachers can use schedules in the classroom in multiple ways in

efforts to provide UDL friendly instruction by enhancing representation. First, consider the


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format. Teachers can develop schedules using objects that represent each activity, photographs or

symbols of activities paired with words, or with words on their own (Quill, 1997). Then, list the

order of activities to be completed during the school day (e.g., math, reading) and post the

schedule at the front of the classroom or in a visible place (Quill, 1997). Organize the schedule

sequentially and refer to it after each activity is completed (Cohen & Sloan, 2007; Mesibov et al.,

2005). Teachers should also use schedules to highlight changes to the routine. For example, let

students know in advance if the class has a substitute for a special class (e.g., art, music) or if a

change is occurring during the day for a preferred activity. This will allow time for the student

with ASD to prepare and will help reduce stress during the activity (Massey & Wheeler, 2000).

Surprises may create challenges for students with ASD. Another idea is to create mini-schedules

by writing down each activity within a lesson or class in the correct order (e.g., circle time,

math). It can be as simple as deciding upon main activities for the lesson, and then writing them

on a piece of paper placed on the student’s desk or listing them on the board for the whole class.

The teacher then refers to the activities and checks off each as it is completed.

Routines and procedures. Procedures are how teachers want things done in the

classroom and routines are what students do without prompting or supervision (Wong & Wong,

2009). UDL supports for routines and procedures can increase both representation and

expression during the school day. Routines and procedures can improve task completion and

behavior for students with ASD by providing consistency and clarity for classroom expectations

(McIntosh, Herman, Sanford, McGraw, & Florence, 2004). Teachers need to make procedures

explicit by teaching the behavioral expectations to students (McIntosh et al., 2004). Procedures

should be developed and taught similarly to academic content or behavioral expectations (Wong


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& Wong, 2009). First, provide a rationale for the procedure. Next, clearly explain the procedure

using a written example of the steps and demonstrate how each step is completed. Then, practice

the procedure with the class multiple times. The goal is mastery. Finally, monitor the procedure

through feedback, reinforcement of attempts, and reteaching when needed. Example procedures

could include: (a) beginning a class, (b) handing in homework, or (c) lining up to leave the room.

Priming. Priming is providing access to material and letting students know what will

happen during an activity in advance (Koegel, Koegel, Frea, & Green-Hopkins, 2003). This can

help students with ASD in multiple ways. First, it can help activate prior knowledge and help

students create connections with new class content (Gately, 2008). Priming may also increase the

comfort level and familiarity with materials for students with ASD, and thereby increase their

likelihood of attention, work completion, and appropriate responses (O’Connor & Klein, 2004).

During priming, teachers provide access to materials, such as textbooks or handouts in either

traditional hard copy or digital formats, prior to classroom instruction to increase representation

and support later expression and engagement. Materials can be sent home or made easily

accessible in the classroom. Teachers can also show selected supplemental materials, such as

pre-reading questions or an advanced organizer, that highlight relevant information prior to

instruction (Gately, 2008). Since students with ASD may actually focus on irrelevant or

inaccurate information, strategies such as an advanced organizer that highlights key points may

help clarify relevant details (O’Connor & Klein, 2004). Finally, when the day starts teachers can

discuss the plan for the day or for selected classes to help kids get organized.

Special interests. Recent research has demonstrated ways to take advantage of the

inherent ability of special interests to increase motivation and create change in academic,


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behavioral, and social needs for students with ASD (Koegel et al., 2010; Mancil & Pearl, 2008;

Winter-Messiers, Herr, Wood, Brooks-Gates, Houston, & Tingstad, 2007). Benefits for students

include increased engagement, increased interest, starting assignments more quickly, and

increased writing or math work completion (e.g., Koegel et al., 2010). There are multiple ways

teachers can imbed student’s special interests into the classroom. First, teachers should talk to

students to find out more about their special interest to provide possible ideas for applying it in

the classroom (Winter-Messier et al., 2012). Once teachers have an understanding of the interests

in their room, and it’s likely that many will overlap, they can incorporate the special interests

into classroom readings or activities. Teachers can also build assignments so that students choose

their special interests or a closely related area as the main topic. Teachers should decide the goal

for each assignment and then be flexible enough to consider alternative ways to reach that goal

(Winter-Messier et al., 2012). For some students this may involve helping them see how their

interest would fit into the assignment. Older students could be supported to integrate special

interests into class essays or projects (Mancil & Pearl, 2008). Lastly, teachers could allow

students to have access to readings or materials related to the special interest after the student

completes classwork. These could be checked out from the school library or accessed from the


Multiple Means of Representation

Visuals and organization tools. Visuals are educational tools used to assist individuals

with ASD to organize information for processing and recall (Roberts & Joiner, 2007), understand

how concepts relate (Ganz, 2007), and are often infused into classroom instruction. They can

enhance representation and expression within the UDL framework. Types of visuals can include


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graphic organizers, semantic maps, and web-based tools. Graphic organizers are effective tools

for making facts more concrete (Rao & Gagie, 2006), and can easily be used across multiple

settings. For example, students can create visual representations of how concepts work (e.g., the

five senses). Then when asked to recall information they can refer to the visual. Semantic maps

are another form of visual that allow students to expand and elaborate on their ideas for enhanced

recall and comprehension (Mastropieri & Scuggs, 2007). For example, when discussing

transportation, a semantic map can be created for each type of transportation (e.g., land, water,

air). Supporting students understanding of how concepts interrelate will increase their ability to

recall information and discuss or write about important concepts (Mastropieri & Scuggs, 2007).

Lastly, web-based tools offer digital features that can enhance organization, scaffolding, and

comprehension of context (Englet, Zhao, Dunsmore, Collings, & Wolberg, 2007). Students can

use pictures or words to develop visuals using web-based tools and then use them in multiple

settings for the following purposes: (a) completing homework at home, (b) understanding

content in the general classroom, and (c) promoting independence when completing assignments.

Strategy instruction. Teachers can implement instructional interventions, such as selfregulated

strategy development (SRSD) in their classrooms (Harris & Graham, 1996). This

strategy can be incorporated into any existing curriculum and has been used across grade levels

with students with ASD (e.g., Hagaman & Reid, 2008; Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010).

Teachers first need to explicitly teach the steps of SRSD to the class. These include: (a)

developing background knowledge on the strategy, (b) describing the strategy, (c) modeling the

strategy, (d) memorizing the steps and any accompanying mnemonic, (e) supporting the strategy,

and (f) promoting independent use by the students (Harris & Graham, 1996). There are many


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ways teachers can infuse strategy instruction into the inclusive classroom on a consistent basis.

One idea is to use SRSD to support reading comprehension through explicit instruction of a

mnemonic device, such as RAP (Hagaman & Reid, 2008). There are three parts to the RAP

strategy. First, students read the paragraph. Then they ask themselves about the main idea and

two details. Finally, students paraphrase the paragraph by putting it into their own words. As

students acquire proficiency with one paragraph, longer paragraphs can be used. Students with

ASD could benefit from strategy instruction due to the structured nature of the intervention that

provides a clear direction to accomplish the task. Teachers could also explore using other

strategies with embedded mnemonics (Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010).

Multiple Means of Expression

Structured assignments and task analyses. Explicit directions and procedures provide

students with the tools, guidelines, and supports for completing tasks and assignments (Franzone,

2009). Large assignments (e.g., essays, projects) should be broken down into smaller parts in a

task-analysis in efforts to promote comprehension and work completion (Parker & Kamps,

2011). These parts are then taught explicitly through modeling and guided practice, and teachers

can povide reminders to support completion (Hall et al., 2003). Teachers can present explicit

instructions in multiple formats (e.g., written, auditory) to ensure comprehension. Another way

to integrate structure into an assignment is through the use of clear performance rubrics (Flash,

2009). Teachers should explain the expectations based upon the rubric, teach students how their

work can conform to those expectations, and provide high quality examples of assignments.

Choice. Choice in general, and especially choice using a high-interest topic or on how to

present learned information to the class (e.g., photo essay, visual map, written test), can be


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highly motivating and increase the likelihood of task completion (Koegel et al., 2010). Choices

can also be used to offer multiple formats for assessment including written tests, presentations,

journals, and portfolios. By allowing students opportunities to be assessed using multiple formats

of expression, teachers can capitalize on individual student strengths, special interests, and

increase motivation (Greenspan, Wieder, & Simons, 1998). Tic-Tac-Toe lessons are one way to

enhance expression and engagement for students with ASD. This form of lesson offers choices

for students using differentiated instruction and assessment that can connect with their special

interests. In this case, students choose the activity they complete for the assessment from a

teacher created array (Ishag, 2011).


There are multiple ways to increase forms of engagement, representation, and expression

to better support students with ASD using UDL principles. These include supports for routines

and procedures, priming, and special interests to enhance engagement; the use of visual

organizers and strategy tools for increasing representation; and finally, the use of structured

assignments, task analyses, and choice to improve expression. When these strategies are used in

inclusive settings and included in everyday lesson plans, teachers may gain better results within

the classroom, require less “on the fly” adaptations, and continue to supports students on the

autism spectrum. Including the suggested supports in the inclusive classroom may also increase

engagement, learning, and work completion, and decrease the extent to which educators need to

specifically modify instruction for a student with ASD. In summary, it is important that teachers

consider UDL supports for students with ASD if they aim to promote understanding,

independence, and academic achievement.


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Table 1

UDL Supports for Inclusive Classrooms

Type of Supports Descriptions Examples

Engagement The “why” of learning. Focus on

increasing interest, maintaining effort

and persistence, and developing selfregulation


Interest based lesson

Representation The “how” of learning”. Guide

information processing and

manipulation to enhance

comprehension; support differences in

perception; Customize displays to

include visual and auditory supports


Main idea webs

Vocabulary charts

Expression The “what” of learning. Allow various

methods of communication and

responses; provide multiple tools and

supports for expression of content

knowledge; support deficits in

executive functioning

Oral report