Thinking Inside the Box (part 1): The TEACCH Method
Interventions for children with autism typically emphasize the interaction between the teacher and student. However, the learning environment-its structure, stimuli, and teaching materials-may also contribute to the effectiveness of interventions. Students with autism usually learn best in highly structured and predictable environments. University of North Carolina’s TEACCH program created a methodology for developing learning environments that reduce behavior problems and increase learning.
Structure. The visual elements of the learning environment telegraph relevant information to the student. Without words, the classroom should inform children of expectations, notify them of what is next, and provide clear visual prompts if the student gets lost in the process. Whether it’s transition between activities, completion of tasks, or becoming more fluent in typical life skills, students become more independent in an environment that is intentionally designed for that purpose.
Predictability. The anxiety of children with autism increases when they do not understand expectations, when they are faced with novel demands and when instructions are presented through complex verbal directions. Often this anxiety translates into behaviors that interfere with teaching and learning. In the face of ambiguous instruction, children with autism may withdraw, act out aggressively, or engage in other behaviors to escape from or avoid tasks. By increasing the predictability of the learning environment, anxiety and related behaviors are decreased. Preparing students in advance for changes in routines, presenting instructions using consistent language, and introducing tasks using a standard format are all methods teachers may use to increase the predictability of the learning environment.
Independence. One of the key skills learned using the TEACCH Method is the completion of mult-step tasks and sequences of activities without assistance. The use of visual cues, schedules, and “mini-schedules” embedded within activities allow students with autism to gain increased independence and decreases the need for adult prompting.
Components of the TEACCH Method. The unique contribution of the TEACCH approach is the detailed attention to environmental structure. The four main components of this structure are: the classroom, the individual schedule, the work system, and the learning tasks. In each case, the student is taught a consistent process in which to approach varying stimuli. So, although the schedule may change from day-to-day and the activities the child completes will vary, the format and presentation remain the same. This consistency focuses the child on the elements relevant for learning.
Although there is still controversy regarding the “best intervention” for children with autism, it is clear to no single approach corners the market. Behavior Analysts acknowledge that “antedent control” requires careful attention to the enviroment of the learner. However, ABA has not systematically detailed the means for doing this: TEACCH has. And while the developers of TEACCH acknowledge the need for well developed programs to teach social and communication skills, they emphasize the “space” in which it happens, not the methodology for teaching these skills: ABA has. Educators of children with autism would benefit most by recognizing the unique contributions provided by each intervention methodology.