What is TEACCH

Frequently, statements are made that misrepresent our TEACCH approach. “TEACCH does not allow Occupation Therapy,”& “TEACCH has low expectations,” or “TEACCH does not believe in inclusion,” people will say emphatically. Our TEACCH approach is quite different and much more flexible than many of these false descriptions would suggest. This short statement is designed to present the major priorities of the TEACCH approach.

Developed in the early 1970’s by our founder, Eric Schopler, the TEACCH approach includes a focus on the person with autism and the development of a program around this person’s skills, interests and needs. The major priorities include centering on the individual, understanding autism, adopting appropriate adaptations, and a broadly based intervention strategy building on existing skills and interests. By focusing on the individual we mean that the person is the priority, rather than any philosophical notion like inclusion, discrete trial training, facilitated communication etc. We emphasise individualised assessment to understand the individual better and also “the culture of autism,” suggesting that people with autism are part of a distinctive group with common characteristics. that are different, but not necessarily inferior, to the rest of us. Emphasising assessment and the culture of autism requires us to understand people with autism as they are and to build our programs around where each person is functioning. This does not suggest lower or higher expectations; it simply requires starting where people are and helping them to develop as far as they can go. This is different from espousing a model of “normal” behaviour for everyone and requiring people with autism to fit into that mould, whether that is comfortable for them or not.

Structured teaching is an important priority because of the TEACCH research and experience that structure fits the “culture of autism” more effectively than any other techniques we have observed. Organising the physical environment, developing schedules and work systems, making expectations clear and explicit, and using visual materials have been effective ways of developing skills and allowing people with autism to use these skills independently of direct adult prompting and cueing. These priorities are especially important for students with autism who are frequently held back by their inability to work independently in a variety of situations. Structured teaching says nothing about where people with autism should be educated; this is a decision based on the skills and needs of each individual student. Some can work effectively and benefit from regular educational programs, while others will need special classrooms for part or all of the day where the physical environment, curriculum and personnel can be organised and manipulated to reflect individual needs.

Cultivating strengths and interests, rather than dwelling solely on deficits, is another important priority. Obviously any program working with handicapped people has to maintain a balance between developing skills and remediating deficits. In this sense TEACCH is no different from any other program. On the other hand, most programs dealing with developmental disabilities emphasise remediating deficits and focus their entire efforts on that goal. Our approach, respecting the “culture of autism,” recognises that the differences between people with autism and others can sometimes favour people with autism. Their relative strengths in visual skills, recognising details, and memory, among other areas, can become the basis of successful adult functioning. TEACCH has also observed that capitalising on their interests, even though they might be peculiar from our perspective, helps increase their motivation and understanding of what they are doing. These strategies enhance efforts to work positively and productively with these people, rather than coercing and forcing them in directions that do not interest them and that they cannot comprehend.

The TEACCH approach is also broad-based, taking into account all aspects of the lives of people with autism and their families. Although independent work skills are emphasised, it is also recognised that life is not all work and that communication, social and leisure skills can be learned by people with autism and can have an important impact on their well being. An important part of any TEACCH curriculum is developing communication skills, pursuing social and leisure interests, and encouraging people with autism to pursue more of these opportunities.

In addition to these techniques of understanding autism, developing appropriate structures, promoting independent work skills, emphasising strengths and interests and fostering communication, social and leisure outlets, the TEACCH approach is most successfully implemented on a systems level. Based on the concept that co-ordination and integration over time is as important as consistency within a given situation, the TEACCH approach is most effective when it is applied across age groups and agencies. Frequently professionals obsess over maintaining a consistent environment from day to day but then a child jumps from technique to technique when changing settings over time. Division TEACCH believes that the interests of people with autism are best served with co-ordinated and co-operative programming based on consistent principles over a lifetime. Therefore, we try to maintain continuity in our approach while integrating new ideas slowly and only after they have proven effective. Our TEACCH principles, developed in 1974, have stood the test of time; adults brought up using those practices are now the most productive and successful in the world with lives that are full, rich and meaningful.

Gary Mesibov, Ph.D.

Professor and Director