TEACCH and Autism Ranking: Strong positive evidence

Key Features

TEACCH (an acronym for the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Handicapped Children) is the term given to describe the various activities undertaken by Division TEACCH, a state-wide community-based programme of services for children and adults in North Carolina, USA.

The TEACCH Autism Program or Model is used to describe some of the educational programmes run by Division TEACCH and by a variety of other providers in the USA and in other countries. 

The TEACCH Autism Program has several key components including

  • an understanding of the culture of autism - the characteristic patterns of thinking and behaviour seen in individuals on the autism spectrum.
  • the development of an individualised person (and family)-centred plan for each client.
  • the use of structured teaching (which consists of four elements: physical structure; visual schedules; work systems; and task organisation).
  • the use of a wide range of cognitive, developmental, educational and behavioural strategies.
  • co-operation between therapists and parents.

In practice, the terms TEACCH, TEACCH model, TEACCH Autism Program and structured teaching are sometimes used interchangeably, which can lead to some confusion.

Elements of the TEACCH Autism Program are used extensively alongside other approaches within other, multi-component interventions throughout the world. It also forms a key element of the SPELL approach, used in services run by The National Autistic Society in the UK.

Autism Culture

According to Mesibov and Shea (2010), “The TEACCH approach ….  is based on evidence and observation that individuals with autism share a pattern of neuropsychological deficits and strengths that we call the ‘Culture of Autism’.”

They go on to list eight specific characteristics of that culture:

1. Relative strength in and preference for processing visual information (compared to difficulties with auditory processing, particularly of language). 2. Heightened attention to details but difficulty with sequencing, integrating, connecting, or deriving meaning from them 3. Enormous variability in attention (individuals can be very distractible at times, and at other times intensely focused, with difficulties shifting attention efficiently). 4. Communication problems, which vary by developmental level, but always include impairments in the initiation and social use of language (pragmatics). 5. Difficulty with concepts of time including moving through activities too quickly or too slowly and having problems recognizing the beginning or end of an activity, how long the activity will last, and when it will be finished. 6. Tendency to become attached to routines and the settings where they are established, so that activities may be difficult to transfer or generalize from the original learning situation, and disruptions in routines can be uncomfortable, confusing, or upsetting. 7. Very intense interests and impulses to engage in favored activities and difficulties disengaging once engaged. 8. Marked sensory preferences and aversions.”

Personalised plan

A key part of the TEACCH approach is the development of an individualised person (and family)-centred plan for each client. That plan is based on regular assessments of “each individual's skill levels, talents, special interests, personality, feelings, quirks, and potential.” 

According to Mesibov and Shea (2010) that plan might include

“(a) structuring the environment and activities in ways that are understandable to [that ] individual; (b) using [that] individual’s relative strengths in visual skills and interest in visual details to supplement relatively weaker skills; (c) using [that] individuals’ special interests to engage them in learning; and (d) supporting [their] self-initiated use of meaningful communication.”

Structured Teaching

TEACCH is designed to make the most of an individual's strengths within a very structured environment (sometimes known as structured teaching).

The four major components of structured teaching are 

i) Physical structure: the organisation of the physical environment

According to Hume (2011), 

“Physical structure refers to the way each area in the classroom environment is set up and where materials and furniture are placed. A physically structured classroom provides organization for students and helps the staff, students, and classroom visitors understand what activities are occurring in each area of classroom at any given time.”

ii) Visual schedules: visual information depicting where/when/what the activity will be.

According to Hume (2011),

“A visual schedule communicates the sequence of upcoming activities or events through the use of objects, photographs, icons, words, or a combination of tangible supports. A visual schedule tells a student WHERE he/she should be and WHEN he/she should be there. Visual schedules are designed to match the individual needs of a student, and may vary in length and form.”

iii) Work systems: visual information informing an individual what to do while in a specific area

According to Hume (2011), 

“A work system is an organizational system that gives a student with ASD information about what is expected when he/she arrives at a classroom location. A work system is defined by Division TEACCH as a systematic and organized presentation of tasks and materials that visually communicates at least four pieces of information to the student”. 

Those four pieces of information are 1. The tasks/steps the student is supposed to do. 2. How many tasks/steps there are to be completed. 3. How the student knows he/she is finished. 4. What to do when he/she is finished. 

iv) Task organisation (also known as visual structure): visually clear information on what the task is about

According to Hume (2011),

“Visual structure adds a physical or visual component to tasks to assist students in understanding HOW an activity should be completed.”

“Visual structure has three components: Visual Instructions: Tells the student where to begin and the sequence of steps to complete an activity. Visual Organization: How the space and materials are limited or arranged. Visual Clarity: Emphasizes or draws attention to important or relevant information”

Range of other teaching strategies

The TEACCH Autism Program also makes use of a wide variety of cognitive, developmental, educational and behavioural strategies. For example, according to the TEACCH Autism Program website, accessed on 20 July 2017, therapists may use behavioural reinforcement as a way of building skills or prompting desired behaviours.

“To utilize reinforcement as an effective teaching tool, a teacher must be systematic in her use of it. The type and frequency of reinforcement for individual students should be planned prior to activities. (Some students may need constant and frequent reinforcement while others can handle more intermittent reinforcement.) The type of reinforcer must be appropriate and natural to the activity the student is doing and to the level of student understanding. (For example, if a student does not understand how a token system works, then this will not be an effective reinforcer. If making requests is the behavior being reinforced, then do not reinforce a request for juice with an m&m. The appropriate consequence or reinforcer is to get juice.)”

Cooperation between therapists and parents

Parents are encouraged to work closely with professionals. For example, according to Short (1984), parents are trained as co-therapists for their children so that techniques can be continued at home.  

“Parent training is based on principles from behavioral and developmental theory. Emphasis is placed on: (a) developmental assessment of skills; (b) communication at a developmental level appropriate to the child’s ability to comprehend; (c) presenting tasks at a pace that the child can handle; (d) appropriately arranging and presenting materials in the teaching setting; (e) the effective use of reinforcement and time-out”.

In addition, according to Mesibov et al. (2004), parents are encouraged to act as cross-cultural interpreters for their children. 

“Parents, teachers, therapists, and others who use Structured Teaching methods function as cross-cultural interpreters, helping people with ASD understand the expectations and skills needed to function in our culture, and also helping non-autistic people understand and adapt to the needs of their students, offspring, clients, employees, etc. with ASD.”

12 Dec 2017
Last Review
01 Nov 2017
Next Review
01 Nov 2020