Learning Portal Banner Background

Building a Program for Lower Cognitive Development Students


It can sometimes be challenging to program for students with ASD who have significant cognitive and language deficits. It is important to create an environment that allows the student to be as active a participant as possible in the classroom and school community, but in addition there is also a need to build a program that addresses the student’s functional skill development. School based teams and parents use a variety of tools to help determine the educational needs of the significantly challenged student, but often regular education teachers have had little exposure to functional skill assessments or curriculum and can be at a loss as to how to incorporate functional skills instruction into the educational program for their student when his/her needs are so different than those of the typical student. We’ve gleaned a number of useful tips from talented teachers and authors:

  1. Talk with parents to ascertain the student’s level of independence in skills such as eating, dressing, toileting and domestic skills (e.g. putting away toys). These skills will be important to address in the school setting in a manner that is consistent with parent practices, and focuses on developing independence. Ask questions that are specific regarding the student’s ability to function at school (e.g. can he open containers in his lunch kit on his own; find his desk on his own, etc.)
  2. Obtain information on the student’s ability to transition. How independent is he at opening doors, coming in to the class on his own, hanging up his coat/backpack, waiting in line with peers, walking in the hallway with peers, etc. Building the student’s ability to transition as independently as possible allows him to be seen by peers as a member of the class and helps develop his sense of autonomy.
    3. What are his strengths and interests? Finding out what motivates and engages the student can be key to developing a program that meets his needs. If he is “into” trains for instance, use the topic to teach basic concepts (big train, little train; red train, blue train, etc.).
  3. Use visual supports that allow the student to more easily understand the routines and expected behaviours for the classroom. Labels and schedules (using pictures and text) can be great supports for building independence.
  4. Create tasks that he can do independently to avoid the need to have one to one adult instruction for every moment of the day. If the student can sort, create an independent sorting activity (again use his interests!). Teach him to show the teacher when the activity is done by putting an icon representing the teacher on his visual schedule.
  5. Create opportunities for peers to work with the student during the school day. If the student with ASD participates in a recycling program, have a student who needs a break or can afford to miss a particular lesson accompany him. We know that teaching something is often a way to consolidate learning, so have one of the typical students get extra practice by teaching the student with ASD a functional academic skill such as number or word identification.
  6. Adapt or modify group activities to allow the student with ASD to participate. In a calendar routine the student could press a switch to play a recorded message that states the weather. In a Social Studies lesson the student could touch the correct icon on a Smart Board to play a video on the topic being studied.


For more great ideas on including and teaching the challenged student with ASD, check out the following great resources:

Basic Skills Checklists: Teacher-Friendly Assessment for Students with Autism or Special Needs Spi Edition

“You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition 2nd Edition

Just Give Him the Whale!: 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism First Edition

From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms 1st Edition