by Aisling Whelan, Educational Psychologist, Beechpark Services for Children on the Autistic Spectrum


North Carolina’s programme for the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children (TEACCH) provides an educational framework from which professionals and parents can individualise strategies for use with their students and children. It is both an approach within which other programmes can fit and a set of concepts which guide the creation of programmes for all skills areas. TEACCH is a way of looking at and approaching children with autism.

The long-term goal of the TEACCH programme is for the student with autism to fit as well as possible into society as an adult. The TEACCH approach achieves this goal by respecting the differences that the autism creates within each student, and working within his or her culture to teach the skills needed to function within our society.

Although autism is not truly a culture, it does influence the way that individuals eat, dress, work, spend leisure time, understand their world, communicate, etc. Thus, according to TEACCH, autism functions as a culture in that it bears characteristic and predictable patterns of behaviour in individuals with this condition. So to teach students with autism, we must understand their culture, and the differences that are associated with it.

TEACCH goals

According to Division TEACCH, educational services for students with autism should have two goals: to increase their understanding and to make the environment more comprehensible. When the child genuinely understands what is happening and what is expected, learning is enhanced, and behaviour problems decrease (Schopler, Mesibov and Kunce 1998). Teaching children with autism involves a two-pronged approach that focuses on helping the child develop skills and competencies, while also recognising the need for environmental modifications to maximise student strengths and minimise student deficits. It is necessary, therefore, to design programmes around the underlying strengths and deficits of autism, which affect daily learning and interactions. The fundamental features of autism that interact to produce the behaviours which compose the ‘culture’ of this disorder include the following:

  • Lack of concept of meaning
  • Excessive focus on details, with limited ability to prioritise the relevance of details
  • Distractibility
  • Concrete thinking
  • Difficulty with combining or integrating ideas
  • Difficulty with organisation and sequencing
  • Difficulty with generalising.

Given the characteristic cognitive and behavioural patterns of autism, the TEACCH Programme has developed ways to help individuals with autism function in the culture that surrounds them. The TEACCH educational programme is based on several principles: strengths and interests; careful, ongoing assessment; assistance understanding meaning; non-compliance resulting from lack of understanding; and parent collaboration. These principles underlie the primary strategies for structuring the classroom environment for students with autism. These include: (1) understanding autism, (2) understanding the unique child through both formal and informal assessment, (3) making events consistent and predictable, (4) clarifying instructions and expectations, (5) structuring tasks and assignments to promote success, and (6) cultivating and fully utilising students’ compelling interests (Schopler et al. 1998).

Why traditional teaching methods are not suitable

The simplest and most effective way to teach students without autism is through the use of language. Teachers in regular classrooms talk all day long, explaining every aspect of the skills to be mastered. While verbal explanations work well for most students, for students with autism they are often unsuccessful and, at times, counter-productive. Even students with broad expressive vocabularies might have very limited ability to attend to or process the teacher’s verbal explanation. Even if they are paying attention, they are less likely to understand language containing idioms, subtle nuances, logical inferences, or complex vocabulary.

In addition to, or instead of, verbal instructions, we often show students what we want them to do. Unfortunately, this technique is usually ineffective for students with autism, because it depends on the student’s ability to attend to the demonstration and recognise the relevant aspects of it. In our culture we reward students’ achievements with social responses, such as praise, smiles, pats on the back, and other acts that communicate ‘I am proud of you’. But a student with autism may not comprehend the communicative intent of a smile, a sticker, a hug, etc.

The difficulties that students with autism have in learning from traditional educational techniques do not mean that they are incapable of learning, or that no effective educational techniques exist. The limitations of traditional techniques simply mean that different techniques and strategies must be used with these students.

Division TEACCH propose that the role of educators of persons with autism is primarily to see the world through their eyes, and to use this perspective to teach them to function in our culture as independently as possible. They suggest that while we cannot cure the fundamental cognitive deficits of autism, by understanding them we can plan educational programmes that are successful in meeting the challenge of this unique developmental disability.

For more information about Division TEACCH visit their website: