What's the Purpose of a 1:1 Aide for an Autistic Student?

In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that children with autism and other developmental disorder should be placed in the "least restrictive" setting possible. In school, the least restrictive setting is, of course, an ordinary classroom.

Often, very young children with autism can handle an ordinary classroom because preschool groups are typically small, there are usually multiple adults available, and preschool teachers expect very young children to develop at different speeds and exhibit very different levels of emotional control.

An autistic two year old having a "meltdown" isn't terribly different from a typical two year old having a "temper tantrum." If an autistic preschooler becomes aggressive, even a small, untrained adult can carry that child into another room until he or she calms down.

In a public school, however, things are different.

Starting at a very young age (often by grade 1), students are challenged to sit still for long periods, listen to and respond to a great deal of spoken instruction, interact with and collaborate with classmates, negotiate complex schedules, respond positively to loud bells and crowded hallways, and -- most difficult of all -- learn, through imitation how to be a "typical" kid in unstructured social settings such as lunch and recess.

In short, school is just about the most challenging setting possible for a person who has compromised verbal skills, does not learn through imitation, and is easily upset by transitions, loud noises, and unstructured situations in which expectations are neither defined nor explained.

In theory, based on the IDEA law, all children with disabilities really should be included in typical classrooms. In practice, this isn't always possible, practical, or even desirable. A person who can't learn to speak, read, or write is unlikely to get much out of a classroom in which speaking, reading, and writing are the only means of communication or expression of learning for all other students.

But what about the child who can read, write, and speak -- but who is also autistic? Should that person be in a "special" or "general" classroom setting?

Since the law decrees that the general classroom is preferred (and many families prefer the idea of inclusion anyway), children with moderate to high functioning autism are often placed in a typical classroom with a 1:1 aide -- an individual whose entire focus is supposed to be on helping one child to "access the general curriculum."

Depending upon the state you live in, 1:1 aides may or may not be required to have any college training or autism-specific training for their job (though all require some sort of basic training). In no case are aides expected to actually teach the students for whom they are responsible.

So what do 1:1 aides do? The answer varies for every situation, but here are some of the ways in which an aide might help a child with autism to be a part of a general education setting:

  • An aide may guide your child to stay focused on academics by helping him find the right book or page, follow instructions, raise his hand, etc.
  • An aide may help your child to manage her behavior by implementing a behavior plan created by a behavior specialist.
  • An aide may help your child negotiate his schedule by traveling with him to different classes and/or therapists.
  • An aide may support your child's social learning by encouraging group play or conversation in unstructured settings like playgrounds or lunch rooms.
  • An aide may help your child's therapists by collecting data about behaviors throughout the school day.
  • An aide may support you by providing really well-informed information about your child's day to day experience in the school setting.

While she really "shouldn't" tell you about difficult teachers or classmates, in many cases the aide becomes a parent's best source of info about what's really going on in school.

She may also be a great support system for your child. Be aware, however, that 1:1 aides are by no means created equal: this year's amazing support person may be replaced by next year's social butterfly who sees herself as a teacher's aid for the entire class.