educational programs and approaches for young children with autism fall into one of two theoretical frameworks: developmental or behavioral.
The developmental approach uses a model of typical development to guide the educational process involving assessment, goal setting, and teaching. When carried out in an optimal way, this approach involves assessing each developmental area—motor, cognition, communication, and social development, among others—and using a child’s successes, emerging skills, and failures to determine a child’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 2000). This zone indicates the set of skills that a child appears to be ready to learn next, based on his or her assessed performance. Those skills are then targeted for teaching. The developmental approach is widely used in early childhood education of both typically developing children and those with special needs.
Some advantages of a developmental approach are the ease with which it is conducted in early childhood settings, the many developmentally based curriculum assessment and teaching materials that are available, and the developmental training of those professionals typically involved in young children with special needs. Some drawbacks, when looking at education of children with autism, involve the fact that these children do not demonstrate typical patterns of development in several key areas (communication, language and speech development, social development). Nor do they necessarily learn through developmentally typical teaching practices (verbal instruction, imitation of teachers and peers, and independent learning), because these strategies are often dependent on a child’s internal motivation to learn, to be like others, and to gain competence.
In a behavioral approach, a child’s behavioral repertoire is evaluated according to the presence of behavioral excesses—presence of abnormal behaviors or of an abnormal frequency of certain behaviors—and behavioral deficits—absence or low frequency of typical skills (Lovaas, 1987). Behavioral teaching strategies are then designed to increase a child’s performance of deficit skills and decrease the behavioral excesses. These strategies involve identifying the target of teaching, determining the appropriate antecedent and consequence for the target behavior, and using systematic instruction and assessment to teach the target behavior and assess student progress.
Some advantages of the behavioral research on changing social skills have been the measurement of generalization and maintenance, attention to antecedents and consequences, and use of systematic strategies to teach complex skills by breaking them down into smaller, teachable parts. Some drawbacks of traditional behavioral approaches are the complex data systems that often accompany them and that may impede their use in more typical settings, as well as the lack of training in their use that most staff members on early childhood teams receive. Personnel may sometimes