Support Moms: The Alphabet Soup of Special Education

There are a lot of terms that you may have heard concerning children with autism or other developmental disabilities which can be mindboggling to someone who does not work in the school system or related areas.  Here are some of those terms with which you may not be familiar but would make it easier for you to understand the mom and her child who might have autism or other disabilities.

Accommodations.  Changes that allow a person with a disability to participate fully in a classroom activity.  Examples include extended time to work on something, having the child sit closer to the teacher, or having them point to a picture rather than answering a question verbally.

Assistive technology.  Any item, piece of equipment, product, or system used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.  Many of our students with autism have an iPad that they use for answering questions – the student can push a picture of the answer and the device speaks for them.  The device can also be used as reinforcement for the student when he/she has completed the work given to them.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  The DSM-5 criteria for ASD is defined as having deficits in at least three of four  categories: a) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction not accounted for by general developmental delays; b) Restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities; c) symptoms must be present in early childhood.; and d) symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.

There are three levels of severity of ASD which define how well a child is able to function in a classroom setting.  You may hear these terms used by parents to describe their child.

  • Level 1 – “Requiring support”. Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments.  The student may need help in social situations which require him/her to interact with other children.
  • Level 2 – “Requiring substantial support”. A child has marked deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills.  A child who needs substantial support may not be able to read non-verbal social cues and may need help with social interactions with other children.
  • Level 3 – “Requiring very substantial support”. These children may be non-verbal and may not have the social skills required to interact with other children.

Emotional regulation.  Emotional regulation is a child’s ability to notice and respond to internal and external sensory input, and then adjust his emotions and behavior to the demands of his surroundings.  Many children with ASD have difficulties with emotional regulation and often have abnormal or inappropriate responses to the ordinary demands of their surroundings.  They may also have problems adjusting to change, and transitioning from one activity to another, responding with strong negative emotions, tantrums, stereotyped, or even self-injurious behaviors.

Executive function.  This is the ability to coordinate and apply one’s own mental capacity; what permits us to initiate goal-directed action, decide not to take inappropriate action, screen out unwanted sensory stimuli, think abstractly, and choose alternate action as roadblocks arise.

Joint attention.  This is a desire to share attention on objects builds to sharing enjoyment by looking at others while smiling when enjoying an activity.  Research has shown that social attention, specifically, joint attention, is important for the acquisition of communicative competence. Impairment in joint attention is a core deficit of ASD.

Meltdown.  A term for the loss of control experienced by a person who is overwhelmed by social, emotional, sensory, or other stressful stimuli.  May include screaming, kicking, hitting, throwing objects, biting, banging head into the wall or floor, collapsing to the floor; a tantrum.

Mind-blindness.  A condition in which a person is unable to intuit others’ plans, thoughts, and points of view; to have difficulty understanding other people’s beliefs, attitudes, perspectives, and emotions.

Perseveration.  The uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus.  Examples in children with ASD include stacking or lining objects up for hours, or becoming fixated on a certain topic, such as trains or baseball statistics.

Pragmatic language.  Refers to the “art of conversation”, taking turns speaking, staying on a topic for a polite number of turns (even if it’s not your favorite topic) and showing interest in someone else’s comments.  Individuals with ASD and particularly those with what used to be called “Asperger’s Syndrome”are known to have difficulty with pragmatic language.

Ritual and repetitive behaviors (RRB).  Actions that one carries out over and over again, such as repeatedly spinning the wheel of a toy car, hand-flapping, or rhythmic body rocking.

Self-injurious behavior.  Refers to any behavior that can cause self-inflicted physical damage, such as bruises, redness, and open wounds.  Some common forms of these behaviors are head-banging, hand-biting, and excessive scratching or rubbing.

Social reciprocity.  Social reciprocity is the back-and-forth flow of social interaction.  A child who displays social reciprocity is aware of the emotional and interpersonal cues of others, appropriately interprets those cues, responds appropriately to what he or she interprets, and is motivated to engage in social interactions with others.  On the other hand, deficits in social reciprocity can have a lifelong negative effect on the social communication and cognitive development of children with autism.

Stimming.  A slang term for “self-stimulation”, behaviors which stimulate one’s own senses, such as rocking, spinning, or hand-flapping.

Theory of mind.  Theory of Mind is a child’s ability to ascribe thoughts, feelings, ideas, and intentions to others then use this ability to anticipate the behavior of others.  It is the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.

Strategies for Helping Students with Autism

Peer modeling.  A technique in which children with ASD are grouped together with “typical” children in the hope that they will learn to imitate their peers’ behaviors and social skills.

Positive reinforcement.  The strengthening of a behavior by presenting a consequence that is desirable, such as a prize or praise.  For example, when a child completes a task, he/she is given reinforcement such as a sticker or something else highly desirable.

Social scripts.  A technique in which individuals with ASDs are taught “scripts” for common social situations.  The individual initially uses a support, such as a reminder card with the script available to read, and then gradually lessens reliance on the support until he or she can use the scripted question or phrase spontaneously.

Social stories.  A social skills training tool for children with autism spectrum disorders; social stories break a social situation down into understandable parts and make clear social cues and expectations that children with ASD cannot pick up naturally due to the nature of their disability.

Visual schedule.  A tool used to help organize individuals by presenting the abstract concept of time in a concrete form according to age and understanding.  Pictures or photos showing a toothbrush (for brushing teeth), clothes (for getting dressed), and a backpack (for getting ready to go to school) are examples of items that would appear on a schedule helping to organize morning routine for a child not yet able to read.  For older children, the schedule may appear in written form.


Dr. Nancy Wilson is the founder of the SUCCESS program, a program specifically aimed at inclusion of children with autism at the elementary school level in the Irvine Unified School District.  She also has been a hands-on special education teacher in Irvine, California since 2000.  Prior to working in Irvine, she taught 3 years in general education elementary education.  After receiving her Master’s Degree in special education, she taught in the Orange County autism program.  She then retired for twenty years, after which she returned to teaching in 2000 to found the “SUCCESS” program.