Autism Education: The ABCs of IEPs

From a BCBA’s Perspective

Merrill Winston, Ph.D., BCBA, joined us for a frank discussion of the most common problems he finds when evaluating IEPs and autism education programs. As part of his self-acknowledged mission, he challenges the audience to re-examine whether some students’ traditional academic IEP goals are helping or hurting them. Following the mantra “I is for Individualized, not Incomprehensible” Merrill implores the audience to focus on thorough assessment, proper (and functional) goal selection, effective teaching strategies and advocacy in the child’s best interest.


Continuous, Data Driven Assessments in an Autism Education Program

Merrill spends a good portion of his presentation on assessments – not any assessment tool in particular – but on the bigger picture of spending time to know a student’s strengths, weaknesses, skill base, etc. He explains, “Many of the problems occur because we don’t know the person well enough, we don’t know what all their skill sets are.”

IEPs and skill goals should be written around data points on which we can observe and collect data. Merrill questions, if you can’t collect data on improvements relatively quickly (within a few weeks in most cases), is it likely that you’ve chosen the right goal?

Bottom line: You need to have a baseline assessment first. If you know the person’s skills well, you are more likely to choose the best short-term goals that are attainable and measurable. If it takes a long time to make improvement, you’ve probably chosen the wrong skill (except in the most severe cases.)


Choosing Meaningful Skills and IEP Goals – “Must-Know Skills”

As educators, we know that behavior problems impede the learning of academic skills. However, teaching the wrong academic skills that are not (1) functional or (2) appropriate/relevant to the child may cause the behavior problems to worsen.

One of the most common problems in autism education that Merrill experiences is focusing on skills that, ultimately, will not benefit the student’s functional life. The big takeaway from his conversation is that “an IEP should not be a watered down, non-functional version of what other children who are the same age but different developmental levels learn.” Instead, an Individualized Education Plan needs to contain skills based on what will have an impact on the student’s immediate behavior and immediate needs. The student needs to understand why they are learning it and be able to contextualize how it will apply in their lives.

Choosing the right goals is critically important for students who have few skills, learn slowly, and have behavior problems. In their academic career, they will only get an opportunity to learn a few key skills – make them count.

How does this work with state standards? Merrill sums up this question as, “Who is willing to go to bat for the child?” In order to provide appropriate and meaningful autism education program, everyone has to be willing “to go to bat for the child” from the teacher to the principal to the superintendent to the state. His advice is that if you have a good relationship with the parents, convince them to fight for it; give parents the information and knowledge of what to fight for, and of what will truly benefit the child.


Teaching the Right Things the Right Way in an Autism Education Program

Most problems with achieving IEP goals can be summed up in three (3) ways:

  • Teaching the wrong skills the wrong way
  • Teaching the wrong skills the right way
  • Teaching the right skills the wrong way

The wrong/right skill is a relative measure. Merrill stresses that educators should tailor the skill goals to the individual – ensure that behavior problems will not impede learning and that the student has prerequisite skills to contextualize what you are teaching. If the goals are achievable, it is much easier to ensure that teaching errors can be detected and corrected quickly.

Inclusion as part of an IEP: In order to use inclusion effectively, we must be very clear about the goals and expectations from the beginning. The goal of inclusion should be to teach skills that they can learn better or faster than they would in an ESE classroom.


Autism Education: What’s Next?

Merrill Winston uses equal part experience, passion and sarcasm to raise a lot of important questions. Students with severe behavior problems may not get the opportunity to learn as many skills during their academic career as we would like. Therefore, each teaching opportunity needs to be informed, appropriate and meaningful. We highly suggest that anyone who has the opportunity to hear Merrill speak does so post haste. If you’d like a copy of his presentation, you can download it here from the PCMA website.

Emaley McCulloch

Vice President, Relias Institute, Relias

Vice President, Relias Institute||In 2008 Emaley McCulloch co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has over 20 years’ experience in the field of autism and ABA and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents.

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