Positive Behavior Supports for Students With Autism

April 2013, Volume 36, Issue 8

With 1 in 88 children diagnosed with autism, it’s more important than ever for school leaders to understand the condition. During April, National Autism Awareness Month, revisit NAESP’s five-part Unlocking Autism series. The pieces in the series, penned by autism experts, educators, and parents, aim to arm principals with the tools they need to support autistic learners.

This excerpted article first appeared in November/December 2011 Principal.

Due to atypical neurological development, students on the spectrum are affected by a range of issues on a daily basis that might trigger behavior that interferes with teaching and learning. In addition, students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) struggle to understand the thoughts and feelings of others and themselves. As a result, adults often respond to their behaviors without seeking to understand the student’s needs.

For instance, a student with ASD who continually repeats what has been said, known as echolalia, often is trying to indicate that he or she needs time to process the repeated phrase in order to formulate an appropriate response. Once educators recognize that their behavior is communication, and that every behavior is an attempt to meet a need, we are able to support students in new and powerful ways.


Response to intervention (RTI) has proved to be a successful strategy in addressing learning difficulties associated with ASD. (For a thorough description of RTI and its three tiers of interventions, see the full version of this article here.)

RTI includes a functional behavior assessment (FBA) and a positive behavior support (PBS) plan. The FBA, which is used during the problem-solving process to determine causes for a student’s challenging behavior and ways to address it, identifies social, emotional, cognitive, and environmental characteristics that might contribute to behavior occurrences. The FBA informs the PBS plan, which focuses on strategies to address the targeted behaviors. PBS techniques include teaching alternative replacement behaviors, controlling what happens prior to the behavior or what happens after the behavior, altering curriculum and instructional strategies to ensure success, and adjusting environmental surroundings.

Five-Step Plan

The following steps can guide school staff in using PBS to help students who have a variety of behavior challenges succeed. Using existing school staff makes this process feasible, considering current budgetary constraints.

Form a professional learning community to learn about and understand the student’s needs and behaviors. If the student has special education eligibility, the existing IEP team is used. Developing a student profile assessment summary provides the teacher and other staff information to better understand student motivations and develop optimal learning conditions. The assessment summary also helps to identify supports that are necessary for the student to succeed in classroom settings.

Use district experts to assess behavior and develop plans. When behavior interferes with learning, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act stresses the importance of using FBAs and PBS plans. Principals have great flexibility regarding the substance of FBAs and PBS plans and several formats are available online.

Implement the PBS plan. Knowledgeable school staff, typically social workers and school psychologists, collaborate with teachers working with students with ASD regarding appropriate PBS strategy implementation. Each student must be treated as an individual with specific needs and challenges because all strategies determined to be effective with students with ASD will not necessarily work with every student on the spectrum. After the strategies are implemented, evaluate the plan for effectiveness, making changes as necessary.

Develop a positive relationship with the student. Students’ positive relationships with their teachers influence competent behavior with peers and future teachers in addition to creating a bond that encourages academic risk-taking and task engagement. Strategies for developing positive relationships include making eye contact and smiling, presenting a neutral stance, making personal inquiries, delivering a minimum of four positives to each negative remark, and maintaining a calm voice and demeanor when correcting student behavior.

Janet Fisher is an assistant professor in the college of education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Copyright © 2013 National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.

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