ARIN IU 28: Building a Communications Foundation for Students with Autism

For most people, a simple grocery run starts with internalizing the items needed – bread, milk, eggs – and succeeds when they recognize those products on the shelves and take them to checkout.

But many people with autism lack those enjoined skills of naming things and taking action with them. Without those abilities, the daily tasks demanded in the school years and beyond can be unmanageable.

Now, ARIN IU 28’s use of the evidence-based practice of “joint control” is helping students with autism and other disabilities gain the social and communications skills needed for success.  

With joint control, initiated after careful assessment of needs, students learn first to “tact,” or name everyday items, actions, prepositions, adverbs, and adjectives. The process gives them an internal library of things to talk about.

Next, they learn to echo to themselves what they’re told or instructed. Put the two practices together, and students can, at the most basic level, grab their crayons – now that they’ve “tacted” the term – and join their classmates when the teacher tells them to gather around.

And when the teacher is reading out loud, these students can “echo” elements of the story to themselves and ask relevant questions later.

“Those are all foundational skills that we combine and recombine to create more complex behaviors – in other words, become better communicators,” says Jan Foister, of the IU 28 Training and Consultation (TaC) Team, Autism/Inclusive Practices. “We teach kids to be verbally present.”

As Special Education Director David Norris puts it, “You can’t get to reading and math and science and social studies until we get to those communication levels.”

ARIN IU 28 adopted joint control in 2014 when member school districts were seeing significant increases in autism diagnoses but dissatisfied with costly private options. With its highly specialized and trained teachers, the joint control initiative saves districts money and is helping students transition seamlessly back into their neighborhood schools.

One boy entered the program at age 6, constantly acting out, and unable to imitate even basic actions like a teacher clapping her hands. By age 9, the boy had learned more than 100 verbal requests. He was imitating teachers without prompting, and his outbursts diminished drastically. 

“We are so amazed at this little guy, and he’s just one example,” said Foister.

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