How 1:1 Aides Support Autistic Students

Pros and cons of 1:1 aides

1:1 Aide
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In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that children with autism and other developmental disorders should be placed in the "least restrictive" setting possible. In school, the least restrictive setting is, of course, an ordinary classroom.

Many school districts worry that an autistic child in a general education classroom will be disruptive or have difficulty following the teacher's instructions, and so they provide a 1:1 aide to support the child and help him or her access the general curriculum. Sometimes a 1:1 aide is tremendously helpful; in other cases, however, the aide is actually a hindrance. As the parent, it may be up to you to determine whether your child can benefit from an aide in the general education classroom or whether he might be better off in a specialized classroom or private setting.

Why the General Education Classroom Is Challenging for Autistic Students

Often, very young children with autism can handle an ordinary classroom. 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.

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.

Which Students Are Likely to Receive 1:1 Support in a General Education Classroom

In theory, based on the IDEA law, all children with disabilities 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. Children with severely compromised speech, learning, cognitive, or behavioral skills are therefore often placed in specialized classrooms with small learning groups, specially trained teachers, and adapted teaching tools.

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. But even if an autistic child is bright and verbal, he or she is likely to experience difficulties with sensory challenges, executive functioning, and the "hidden curriculum" which includes all the unwritten rules of behavior that most children learn through observation and imitation. To support such a student in a typical setting, many schools provide 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.

How 1:1 Aides Support Autistic Students

What, exactly, do 1:1 aides do to support children with autism? 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.

Why Might You Choose to Say "No" to a 1:1 Aide?

It's always worth saying "yes" to a 1:1 aide for a trial period of a few months. Sometimes, however, the aide creates as many problems as she solves. That's because no two school districts, classrooms, aides, or autistic students are the same—and even an aide who worked well with your child last year may have great difficulty meeting her needs this year. Here are some issues that may arise when your child works with a 1:1 aide:

  • The aide may take the place of your child's teacher. If your child's teacher moves very quickly and does not provide differentiated instruction properly, your child may be lost academically. When that happens, the aide may have to provide instruction in lieu of the teacher. This is obviously not the purpose of inclusion.
  • The aide may have difficulty managing your child's behavior in the classroom setting. Some aides, teachers, and classmates are easily upset by autistic stimming or other behaviors. Many aides see their role as helping the teacher rather than including your child; as a result, she might simply take your child out of the room every time he acts differently. His learning, of course, will suffer as a result.
  • Your child and her aide may not hit it off. Not every aide is a good match for every child. If your child and her aide don't like one another, the school year is likely to disintegrate quickly. You can ask for a substitute, but it may be tough to make the switch once the school year is underway.
  • You and your child's aide may have different philosophies. Most aides have at least some basic training in behavioral approaches to working with autistic children. In other words, they are taught to offer rewards of some sort for a job well done (cookies, extra time doing favored activities, etc.). You, however, may not want to see your child earning a prize for sitting still, responding appropriately, or not hitting a classmate. It can be very difficult to retrain your child's aide during the school year, especially if the district supports their philosophy.
  • Your child may need a different setting. General education classrooms are large, loud, and fast-moving. They often stress collaboration, communication, and socialization. When that's the case, it may simply be the wrong environment for your child.