The SCERTS Approach: A Guide to Being an Effective Partner for Individuals with Autism

Many approaches for individuals with autism begin by identifying their skill limitations and so-called “problem” behaviors. They then go on to immediately develop programs and behavior plans to train skills and “remediate” these problems, often based on a predesigned, one-size-fits-all curriculum.

This is not the case of the SCERTS framework. Instead, SCERTS focuses on individual differences—not deficits.

In the SCERTS framework, there is a strong focus on understanding each individual’s social learning style differences and creating strategies to address challenges to emotional regulation. This empowers all involved partners to create environments and activities that foster a sense of competence, emotional well-being, and positive self-esteem.

Interactive Partners Are Part of the Formula

Social-emotional learning differences and challenges in maintaining a well-regulated emotional state are two difficulties that individuals with autism face most days. These differences in social thinking can make it difficult for an individual with autism to predict what someone else is thinking, feeling, or planning to do.

In turn, this unpredictability can provoke anxiety—especially when others may not have the skills needed to be predictable, supportive, or a desirable partner who helps the individual feel competent and successful. Additionally, sensory processing challenges, social anxiety, and co-occurring biomedical issues such as sleep disorders and allergies may result in states of emotional dysregulation that can be confusing and, at times, challenging to individuals with autism and others who share time with them.

In environments where it is assumed that everyone can sort out what others are thinking, an individual with autism may feel confused, insecure, or even overwhelmed, which can result in less engagement with activities or people. Many of the challenges faced by people with autism are unintentionally created when those responsible for their education and care have a lack of understanding of their needs.

How Does SCERTS Address the Role of the Partner?

The answer to this question can be found within the acronym “SCERTS” itself, which refers to the focus on:

  • Social Communication—the development of spontaneous, functional communication, emotional expression, and secure and trusting relationships with children and adults.
  • Emotional Regulation—the development of the ability to maintain a well-regulated emotional state to cope with everyday stress and to be most available for learning and interacting.
  • Transactional Support—specific guidelines that help a partner respond to a person’s needs and interests, modify the environment, and provide tools to enhance learning. These guidelines specify how to implement interpersonal supports, such as fostering initiation and adjusting language input, as well as learning supports, like visual supports and curriculum or environmental modifications, within any given setting. Specific plans are also developed to provide educational and emotional support to families and peers and to foster teamwork among professionals.

Integrating Support into Everyday Life

The SCERTS model includes a well-coordinated and flexible assessment process that helps a team measure an individual’s authentic progress. At the same time, the process specifically determines the necessary supports to be used by interactive partners, which could include family members, educators, or peers. These supports are then systematically embedded in everyday, natural routines that are functional, meaningful, and developmentally appropriate.

The SCERTS model is an evidence-based approach, as documented in both small- and large-sample studies. Large-sample published research has demonstrated the efficacy of parent- and teacher-implemented interpersonal and learning supports to foster active engagement based on the SCERTS framework. Amy Wetherby and her colleagues1 first demonstrated the impact of these guidelines for parents within natural routines in the home setting with 82 very young children. Similarly, Lindee Morgan and her team2 demonstrated the positive impact of these supports when implemented by teachers with a heterogenous group of 197 elementary school-aged children. These studies showed marked improvement in adaptive communication, social-emotional well-being, and executive functioning.

We believe in the wise words of Michael John Carley, an internationally recognized, autistic self-advocate, “The best way to help autistic children and adults change for the better is for partners to change their actions, attitudes, and supports.”

The end result of these changes is strong, positive, and trusting relationships.

  1. Wetherby, A.M., Guthrie, W., Woods, J., Schatschneider, C., Holland, R.D., Morgan, L., & Lord, C. (2014). Parent-implemented social intervention for toddlers with autism: an RCT. Pediatrics, 134(6), 1-10.
  2. Morgan, L., Hooker, J.L., Sparapani, N., Reinhardt, V.P., Schatschneider, C., & Wetherby, A. (2018). Cluster randomized trial of the classroom SCERTS intervention for elementary students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86(7), 631-644.