High School Autism Programs

June 18, 2018

student holding backpack

by Irene Cook, Ed.D.

Developing and implementing quality high school programs that appropriately serve students across the autism spectrum can seem daunting. How do we provide evidence-based teaching approaches that are age appropriate, meet the needs of our students and their families, and address state requirements? The manifestations of autism vary considerably from student to student and impact learning across multiple domains of development.

This process is more than just finding an available classroom, hiring a teacher with the right certification, and developing schedules for the students. It requires planning and time. Below is an overview of some of the components of a quality high school autism program.

Getting Started

A fundamental concept that should drive the development and implementation of your high school program is identifying and creating systems and supports that will assist students with ASD as they transition from school to the adult world.

Start with a careful review of your student’s Statement of Transition Planning. New Jersey special education law (N.J.A.C. 6A:14, available here) requires transition planning to be included in a student’s IEP starting at age 14. Sections 3.7 (c)11 and (c)12 address what is required at age 14 and then at age 16. This information should help guide the planning process for your program.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) defines transition services as “a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that is designed to be results-oriented and is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including post-secondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation….”

Transition services should be based on the student’s individual preferences and interests. Because ASD impacts learning across multiple domains of development, many of our students will need more time to learn the skills they need. The transition section of the NJDOE website provides resources on what to do and how to do it.

Identifying Appropriate Services and Supports

Next, begin to identify the systems and supports your high school program will offer. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) identifies three levels of severity for ASD: Level 1 requires support, Level 2 requires substantial support, and Level 3 requires very substantial support (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Because each student has individual needs, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all autism program. Instead, consider your program as one in a continuum of options. Some students may spend most of their day in the self-contained autism class; others may spend very little time there.

The following are brief examples of some of the possible components of quality programs for students with ASD and how they are delivered. This is not an exclusive list, but it can help you start to think about how your program will benefit your students. Some students who require Level 3 support might benefit from a teaching/learning experience that is often provided to a student requiring Level 1 support. Know your students and their families, know their vision for post-high school life, and provide programming that will help them work toward achieving their transition goals.

Community-Based Instruction

Community-Based Instruction (CBI) is a method where instruction in academic and functional skills occurs in real-life settings in the community. For example, students acquire financial skills using real money to purchase items from a grocery store. For more information on CBI, check out this link.

Table 1 below provides some examples of how to provide CBI based on student needs. Decisions were made after discussing options for each student with the IEP team (including parent and, if appropriate, the student). Decisions should be changed after sound instruction/behavior intervention yield improved data results.

Table: Examples of CBI Based on Student Needs

 Level 1
“Requiring Support”
  • Student has demonstrated that he/she can make purchases independently in cafeteria, pay, and get correct change. Student does not participate.
  • Parent reports that student goes to the store and buys items independently. Student does not participate.
  • Student can independently purchase items in the grocery store, but cannot independently use money. Student attends CBI to stores, but not the gym.
  • Student goes to movies with friends after school. Student does not attend CBI.

Level 2
“Requiring Substantial Support”
  • Student struggles with money concepts, so will learn how to use a debit card. Student participates.
  • Student cannot independently find basic items in a grocery store. Student participates.
  • Student is learning how to communicate using AAC.
    Student participates.
  • Student is learning to access information from his/her community. Student participates.
  • Student is learning to wait his/her turn. Student participates.

Level 3
“Requiring Very Substantial
  • Student elopes. Student does not participate yet. School works on Stop and Wait Program (See Teaching a Learner to Accept “No”)
  • Student has behavioral meltdowns in locations that are loud/busy. Student does not participate in mall trips. Student does participate in small store trips (e.g., local hardware store). School works on desensitization, using reinforcement and shaping in school. When criterion met, student participates.
  • Student is aggressive toward other students/adults. Student does not participate. School works on eliminating aggressions (Functional Behavior Assessment, Differential Reinforcement procedures)

Structured Learning Experience

A Structured Learning Experience (SLE) is an experiential, supervised educational activity designed to occur in the workplace. In addition to work experiences – which may be either paid or unpaid – SLE includes exploring career interests, and teaching/expanding employment related skills. All SLEs must comply with state and federal law regarding child labor laws and other rules of the State Departments of Education and Labor. For more information on SLE, check out this link. Determining appropriate SLE experiences should be an individualized decision process.

Parental Support

For parents of neurotypical children, parental support often comes in the form of information: what must be done, what is needed, and when to do it. Parents of students with disabilities often need support in how to do it. As neurotypical children mature, they often start to assume many of these responsibilities themselves. However, self-advocacy and self-support often takes many learning opportunities for students with ASD.

To help support parents, consider creating the position of Transition Coordinator, whose primary responsibility is to work closely with students, parents and staff; and agencies such as the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVRS)and the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD). This person would provide guidance, information, and timelines to students and parents; solicit and create relationships with supporting agencies; and be instrumental in developing quality transition plans. In addition, the Transition Coordinator could take on the role of SLE coordinator, which has specific requirements according to state code.

IEP Goals/Curriculum/Standards

Two questions are frequently asked in this area. First, how do we teach students who are at a younger developmental level than is assumed in the high school level curriculum content? Second, shouldn’t the curriculum and/or standards be used for the IEP goals?

Understand that standards are the academic outcomes that students are expected to achieve, and the curriculum is how a district will provide instruction so that students can achieve those outcomes. They are not the same as IEP goals and should not be used as IEP goals. The USDOE issued a guidance letter in 2015 stating that all IEPs must be tied to state academic standards.

A district does that by addressing the gap between the students’ actual performance levels and the grade level expectations. For example, a student might be learning 1:1 correspondence of objects to numbers up to 20. The high school learning standards for mathematics includes numbers and quantity. For this student to have meaningful interaction with the grade level content standard in numbers and quantity, the student needs to know numbers and quantities. An IEP goal that focuses on the student correctly and independently counting objects to a specified number would align to the high school math standard. This goal also could help support a transition goal of a work skill (e.g., sorting or packing items in a workplace).


When providing appropriate academics for your students with ASD, let the transition plan and students’ levels of support be your guide. Look at each subject individually. For example, students who require Level 3 support would probably need replacement curricula in the self-contained autism class. Students who require Level 2 support would benefit from a subject-by-subject discussion. Is there a strength or strong interest that this student has that would help support his/her learning outside of the autism classroom, such as a resource room? Students who require Level 1 support could probably benefit from inclusion in general education classes with supports from the self-contained autism class specific to that student’s needs (e.g., data collection on completion of work).

Activities of Daily Living

Activities of Daily Living (ADL) include activities such as eating, dressing, cleaning, and hygiene. For many students with ASD, learning daily living skills is difficult and requires targeted, systematic instruction. Students who need Level 3 support will probably need more ADLs than academics, whereas students who need Level 1 support might benefit from less ADL instruction. Determining appropriate ADL skills should be an individualized decision process, based on student needs and transition plans.

Related Services

Related services at the high school should focus on skills that the students need to transition. Often the best use of related services’ expertise is consultation with the teacher on developing age-appropriate activities to practice multiple times during the day, every school day, across multiple settings. The related service provider can join you during a CBI trip, or join the Transition Coordinator in scoping out job opportunities. A student who requires Level 3 support might still benefit from direct instruction from the speech therapist, where a student who requires Level 1 support might benefit from consultation where the speech therapist identifies specific topics of conversation relevant to the student’s SLE setting and works with the teacher to develop programs to teach these topics.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Even at the high school level, instruction based on the principles and practices of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) should occur across the entire school day. One of the more well-known teaching packages within ABA is discrete trial instruction. While ABA-based teaching procedures will look considerably different at the high school level, the three-term contingency is always in play in every real-world situation, including high school classes. For students needing Level 3 support, discrete trial instruction might be the primary teaching procedure. Every educator should ask, “How does this skill translate into something this student needs or will do when they graduate/are an adult?” For example, a student can learn how to match or sort so that they can participate in home life (e.g., sorting and folding laundry) or a job (e.g., setting place settings at a restaurant).

Many high school students with ASD could benefit from other ABA-based teaching procedures. For example, for students who require Level 2 support, consider using behavioral chaining and task analysis to increase independent responses to age-appropriate tasks (based on students’ transition plans). For students who require Level 1 support, consider using self-management procedures where you teach your students to determine their own target behavior and record the occurrence or absence of that target behavior (Koegel, Koegel, & Parks, 1995). The expertise of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst will help guide you. Sufficient data to monitor progress or lack thereof should be collected and analyzed on a regular basis (e.g., hourly, daily, weekly as appropriate).

Program Evaluation

One area that districts tend to minimize is the need for a yearly evaluation of their program. The New Jersey Department of Education’s autism program guide, Autism Program Quality Indicators: A Self-Review and Quality Improvement Guide for Programs Serving Young Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (New Jersey Department of Education, 2004), which was developed based on the findings of the National Research Council, recommends a systematic evaluation of the program by a professional with experience in the methodology used in the program. The outcome of this program evaluation would be used for systemwide improvement.

Concluding Thoughts

If you are reading this article, CONGRATULATIONS! You are probably working with students with ASD and are considering how to start a high school program, how to improve your existing high school program, or wondering what other schools are doing to serve their students with ASD. Welcome to the elite club of professionals and families who strive daily to make the most meaningful impact on their students’/children’s current and future lives. The most important takeaway from this article is this: when you develop and implement quality high school programs for students with ASD, always ask yourself, “How does this skill translate into something this student will need or do when they graduate?” Answering this question will connect you to the student’s transition from school to adult life, which is the goal of quality high school programs for students with ASD.

About the Author

Irene Cook, Ed.D. is a recently retired Director of Autism Programs for three public school districts in northern New Jersey. She earned her doctorate degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, where her research focus was on educational leadership in ABA-based programs. Dr. Cook is the Administrators Liaison for the New Jersey Association for Behavior Analysis (NJABA) Public School Workgroup. Dr. Cook served on the committee that developed the Autism Program Quality Indicators for the New Jersey Department of Education. If you would like to contact Dr. Cook, please contact Autism New Jersey at information@autismnj.org.



American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed). Washington, DC: Author.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004). https://sites.ed.gov/idea/

Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., & Parks, D.R. (1995). “Teach the individual” model of generalization: Autonomy through self-management. In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

National Research Council. (2001). Educating Children with Autism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10017.

New Jersey Administrative Code, Title 6A Chapter 14 (NJAC 6A:14), Special Education https://www.state.nj.us/education/code/current/title6a/chap14.pdf

New Jersey Department of Education. (2004). Autism Program Quality Indicators: A Self-Review and Quality Improvement Guide for Programs Serving Young Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Trenton: Author.

If you have additional questions, contact Autism New Jersey at 800.4.AUTISM or information@autismnj.org