Autism in the Classroom

Helping Teachers Help Students

Karen Dahle
Karen Bowen Dahle

For many children with minor forms of autism spectrum disorders—especially high-functioning children whose symptoms are often mistaken for behavior issues—diagnosis may be delayed until they start going to school. “By that time, years of possible intervention are lost,” says Karen Bowen Dahle, Ed.D., an associate professor in the School of Education’s Department of Leadership, Special Education, and Foundations. Dahle teaches both regular and special education teachers how to recognize children likely to have ASDs and how to help them learn.

The National Autism Center offers a set of evidence-based recommendations for teaching students with ASDs. “These are sets of tools the teacher, who knows the child, can choose from and adapt,” Dahle says. “This is where the teacher’s judgment is important. They talk with the family, take cultural issues and the child’s unique requirements into consideration, and develop a teaching plan.”

The most appropriate teaching methods vary, Dahle explains. Reinforcement and behavior-modification skills may work best for some students, while for others “habit reversal and behavior-chain interruption techniques can be helpful.”

Dahle has set up teacher support groups in Birmingham and Shelby County for general and special-education teachers, parents, health professionals, and others interested in ASDs. She also recently received approval from the Alabama State Department of Education for an educational specialist (Ed.S.) degree program at UAB that will focus on collaborative special education with a concentration in the autism spectrum. “It will address the need for specialized, evidence-based research training for students within the spectrum,” Dahle says. The program, which is expected to begin in 2011, would be the first of its kind in the state.