The SCERTS Model for Children with Autism

A framework for educating children with autism

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SCERTS is an overarching approach to autism education created by a multidisciplinary team of experts. The letters in the name stand for Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support—the critical elements of the SCERTS program.

SCERTS is not a therapeutic technique; rather, it is a model for engaging autistic children which, when properly applied, "provides specific guidelines for helping a child become a competent and confident social communicator while preventing problem behaviors that interfere with learning and the development of relationships."

goals of SCERTS for children with autism
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Why SCERTS Was Developed

Imagine Jimmy, a 7-year-old with moderately severe (Level II) autism in a typical school setting. Here are just a few of the therapeutic experiences he might have in the course of a day:

  • Academic programs in a general classroom with 1:1 support 
  • Academic programs in a support or "autism" classroom with a special education teacher and aides
  • Speech therapy from the school therapist
  • Occupational therapy from the school therapist
  • ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy from a school therapist or consultant
  • Social skills therapy inside or outside of the school, offered by any of a range of therapists
  • Physical therapy, possibly in school, usually from an outside therapist
  • Additional therapies (Floortime, RDI, etc.) provided privately, usually outside of school
  • Social and/or recreational activities in the general community or provided through a special needs program such as Challenger Club, with or without additional supports

Every one of Jimmy's parents, teachers, and therapists is focused on teaching or expanding a different set of skills. Each has a different set of tools, a different set of goals, and a different set of benchmarks for measuring success.

For example, Jimmy's general education teacher may be focused on phonics while his in-class aide may be most concerned with keeping disruptive behaviors in check. His speech therapist is working with Jimmy on spoken language and non-verbal communication skills. The occupational therapist at school is worried about Jimmy's handwriting skills, while his ABA therapist wants to be sure he has learned how to complete specific tasks such as putting his coat away and lining up for the bus. At his Floortime and social skills sessions, Jimmy may be working on asking and answering questions, engaging in interactive play, or building abstract reasoning skills. 

Outside of school and therapy, Jimmy's parents may have very different goals. They may, for example, want to help him learn to sit still during a haircut or eat at a restaurant. They may want to support him as he participates in sports activities or learns to swim.

While all of these individuals may turn up at IEP meetings, it's nearly impossible to integrate all of the activities, benchmarks, goals, and outcomes into a single, seamless program that's appropriate for Jimmy. As a result, most students wind up with a collection of discrete therapies with unconnected goals, all of which are implemented separately over the course of any given day or week.

SCERTS was developed to address this issue, by providing "a systematic method that ensures that specific skills and appropriate supports, stated as educational objectives, are selected and applied in a consistent manner across a child’s day" in order to achieve "authentic progress," defined as the ability to learn and spontaneously apply functional and relevant skills in a variety of settings and with a variety of partners.

How SCERTS Works

SCERTS is a tool for aligning approaches from many different therapies including (for example) TEACCH, RDI, Hanen, and Floortime, with the goal of achieving:

  • Functional, spontaneous communication (pre-verbal or verbal)
  • Social and play skills (use of toys, interaction with peers)
  • Generalized skills (many children with autism learn skills in one context at a time, and SCERTS helps children to understand, for example, that hitting is wrong not only in school but in any other context).
  • Positive approaches to address problem behaviors  
  • Functional academic skills when appropriate.

SCERTS is child-centered and builds on developmental rather than behavioral theories. As a result, while it incorporates "naturalistic" forms of ABA, it specifically rejects classic ABA, also called "discrete trials," because it is adult-directed and adult-initiated.

SCERTS goals are somewhat different from typical IEP goals because they integrate multiple aspects of a child's development and life experience. Thus, for example, a speech therapy goal for a child with autism might be to "establish the general use of vocalizations," while a SCERTS goal for communication might be "establish the general use of vocalizations directed to others to express intentions and emotional states."

Another major difference between SCERTS and IEP goals is the requirement that SCERTS be implemented not only in a school or therapeutic setting but also at home and in the community. In other words, children work toward SCERTS goals all day, every day, no matter where they are or what they're doing.

In addition, SCERTS goals are transactional and emotional rather than academic. Thus, while meeting SCERTS goals will help a child to learn, communicate, and behave appropriately in school, they are not specific to any particular academic discipline.

The individuals involved with created SCERTS are all researchers; as a result, there have been quite a few formal evaluations of SCERTS outcomes. In general, outcomes show positive changes in social communication and emotional behaviors, the two primary focuses of SCERTS.

Implementing SCERTS

SCERTS consultants are hard to come by, especially outside of Rhode Island where it was developed. The SCERTS group does, however, offer a clinical manual as well as training events which are intended for SCERTS teams (including school, community, and family members).

The decision to implement SCERTS often starts with the family. When that is the case, it requires ongoing dedication, advocacy, and management to be sure that the program is implemented across all parts of a child's life and that training is provided to therapists and teachers as the child moves from grade to grade and school to school.

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Article Sources
  • Molteni, Paola, et al. Autism and multidisciplinary teamwork through the SCERTS Model. British Journal of Special Education, 2013. Volume 40, Issue 3, Pages 137-145. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8578.12030.

  • Prizant, Barry M. et al. The SCERTS Model and Evidence‐Based Practice. 2010. The SCERTS Model.

  • Prizant, Barry, et al. The SCERTS Model.

  • Yu, L. et al. Effectiveness of a SCERTS model-based intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Hong Kong: a pilot study. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018 Jun 15. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-018-3649-z.