Autistic students respond well to structure.

A teacher must structure the classroom in order to effectively teach autistic students.

These statements or similar ones are often proclaimed by teacher trainers and other professionals familiar with autism. But many times there is minimal understanding of how to plan for and use the concept of structure.

The dictionary states one definition of structure as the action of building or constructing–arranging things in a definite pattern of organization. For example, a gardener desiring a prosperous garden must use structure in planning and cultivating a garden. Seeds and plants must be arranged with a definite pattern of organization and using systematic methods to-allow for individual preferences and needs of plants for shade, sun, water, and closeness to other plants. Using this structure will amplify a plant’s strengths and help to compensate for and circumvent its weaknesses. The plant will then grow faster and bear more fruit. Teachers, too, must structure and organize classroom life in order for students to expand their strong areas as well as grow in their weaker ones.

Before further exploring the use of structure in the classroom, it will be helpful to briefly review some of the deficits of autism and how they can point to a need for structure when planning for successful learning experiences.

Receptive language difficulty is characteristic of autism. Many times a student cannot understand language as well as a teacher believes he can, and so may demonstrate aggressive behaviors or lack of initiative. He also may lack the necessary language to communicate things appropriately, and so can not let the teacher know when he is tired, hot, hungry, finished, or bored except by tantrumming or aggression. He may have a poor sequential memory, and so he can not keep the order of even familiar events in his mind or is not sure when something different will happen. Often he feels more comfortable staying with familiar activities and will resist learning new activities or routines. Many times he is unable to organize or put limits on his own behavior and does not understand or acknowledge society’s rules. This can result in trying to get others’ attention in inappropriate ways or preferring to be alone. Because of his lack of social relatedness he may be unmotivated to please others or unrewarded by praise, and consequently seems resistant to learning. Hypersensitivity to sensory input can often lead to disturbing behaviors. Being easily distracted and lacking skills in perception and organization of time can also lead to behaviors that get in the way of learning.

Providing structure and organization in the classroom or any other learning environment on a student’s level of understanding can help to alleviate or moderate these problems and the resultant ineffective learning situations.

This chapter discusses the features of structure that have proven useful in classrooms for students of all ages with autism. These features are physical organization, scheduling, and teaching methods. The key to effectively using each of these features is individualization. A classroom that is physically well-organized and scheduled will not benefit students unless individual student strengths and needs are considered in the planning phase. A teacher who uses teaching methods like prompts and reinforcement cannot do so effectively without assessing individual student interests and learning styles. Further discussion on the use of each of these features follows in the next sections.

Physical Organization

A teacher must teach autistic students the classroom in order to effectively teach students.

The physical layout of the classroom is an important consideration when planning learning experiences for autistic students. Even the arrangement of the classroom furniture can help or hinder a student’s independent functioning and his recognition and compliance with rules and limits. Keep in mind the deficits of autism when planning the physical arrangement of the classroom so that it will be structured effectively. Many autistic students have organizational problems, not knowing where to be and how to get there by the most direct route. Because of receptive language difficulties, they will often not understand directions or rules. Structuring the environment gives them visual cues to help them understand. Some persons with autism are also easily and highly distracted by things in the environment. Teachers need to structure the environment so it is not as distracting.

Before planning the specific physical arrangement of the classroom, the teacher may want to give some thought to the general classroom environment. Good structure will not be as effective if there are other problems. Many times a teacher does not get a choice of which classroom is assigned her in the school. But if there is a choice, features to give attention to include size of the room, what other classrooms/students are nearby, number of and access to electrical outlets, location of nearest bathroom, lighting, distracting wall space, and other immobile features.

Some undesirable features can be overlooked or even modified, but there are a few situations that might necessitate a change in classroom. A classroom with multiple exits (especially one to the outside) is not desirable for a teacher with a student who is a runner. A classroom for intermediate students should not be located on the kindergarten hall. This type of situation does not provide any peer socialization opportunities and definitely places a stigma on the obviously bigger and older students. A too small classroom or one without adequate storage spaces creates an uncomfortable atmosphere of always having something in the way or working on top of each other. This does not provide a relaxed learning atmosphere. A very high priority feature is the bathroom location. Teachers who are doing toilet training do not want to have to make a long distance trek each time a student is scheduled for the toilet. Even if students have independent bathroom skills, valuable classroom time should not be wasted as they walk long journeys to and from the bathroom, if other arrangements can be made — Once the teacher has settled on a particular classroom site, she is ready to begin arranging and structuring the learning and training areas specific to the focus or content of her classroom. Having specific areas for learning specific tasks, marking clear boundaries, and making materials easily accessible helps students independently know where they are supposed to be and where to get their own materials. In this way teachers do not have to be constantly giving reminders to students and repeating directions. There is much less verbal confusion in the classroom. Every classroom and every student will not need the same amount of structure, though. Lower functioning students and those with less developed self-control will need more structure, more limits, boundaries, and cues than higher functioning students.

A teacher of younger students would want to structure learning areas for play, individual and independent work, snack, and developing self-help skills. There might also be a group area and a specific area for doing prevocational skills. A classroom for older students would have a leisure area, workshop area, domestic skills area, self help/grooming area, and places for individual teaching to occur. Many classrooms need to utilize a time-out area as a place for particular students to get away from distractions and stimulation and regain some self-control. All classrooms should have somewhere for students to put their personal belongings. This can be cubbyholes, lockers, or special boxes. The teacher’s desk or area should be another established place in the classroom.

Establishing areas in the classroom can begin with the natural setting. For example, work areas are probably not good to set up near distracting mirrors or windows. if there is no avoiding this, then blinds or cardboard taped to the window can eliminate some distractions. It is beneficial to have work areas near shelves or storage cabinets, so work materials are easily accessible. Built-in cabinets are good for building a work area around because of the easy accessibility to materials. Blank walls are also good to build a work area around. Students’ tables or desks face the blank walls and some distractions are thus eliminated. It is important that classroom furniture be the right size for students for age appropriateness and for their ease and comfort in completing their work. Areas where students spend some independent time, such as play or leisure, are better off not being located near exits. This can take away a bit of worry about student escapes from the teacher’s mind. Rugs, bookshelves, partitions, tape on the floor, arrangement of tables, all of these can beused to make clear boundaries. For example, the carpeted area may be the leisure area. Students are not to be in any other floor area during break time. The workshop area may be outlined by shelves full of materials and 2-3 long work tables. When a student gets workshop materials, he then sits in that area to work. A teacher may use a small throw rug in front of the sink to show students where to stand when they are washing their hands or washing the dishes.

Materials should also be clearly marked or arranged at a student’s level of understanding. Some materials are for teachers only. Some materials can not be used at play or leisure time. Pictures, color coding, number symbols, etc., can help students label and obtain or put away materials by themselves.

As a teacher plans the physical structure of the classroom it is important to remember to consider individual needs of students. Individualization can be illustrated with examples of three differently structured work areas within the workshop area in a classroom. On two sides of the workshop area are shelves full of workshop materials. This defines the workshop area. There is a table and chairs in the middle of the workshop area for those students who are not bothered by others’ activities or are learning to work with distractions present. Another work table is facing a blank wall and pieces of tape on the floor show where chairs should be while working. This is for students who are more easily distracted and tend to wander when not busy working. A third work area is partitioned on two sides with dividers and faces a blank wall on the third side. The student who works here is easily distracted by what others are doing and has some behaviors which are disturbing to others while working. The structure needs for each student have been individually assessed and planned for. As students learn to function more independently, the physical structure can be lessened bit by bit.

Following are some questions for teachers to consider when arranging their classroom.

Work areas

Is there space provided for individual and group work?

Are work areas located in least distractable settings?

Are work areas marked so that a student can find his own way?

Are there consistent work areas for those students who need them?

Does the teacher have easy visual access to all work areas?

Are there places for students to put finished work?

Are work materials in a centralized area and close to work areas?

Are a student’s materials easily accessible and clearly marked for him or her?

Are play or leisure areas as large as possible? Are they away from exits?

Are they away from areas and materials that students should not have access to during free time?

Are boundaries of the areas clear?

Can the teacher observe the area from all other areas of the room?

Are the shelves in the play or leisure area cluttered with toys and games that are broken or no one ever uses?

Scheduling

A teacher must have a framework in order to effectively teach autistic students.

Two students are involved in a cooking activity in the kitchen area with the teacher assistant. There is a student latch hooking a rug in the-leisure area. Another student is independently completing a list-of activities in the workshop area, and a fifth student is doing some individual number work with the teacher. In the background a timer can be heard clicking off the minutes. It rings and there seems to be the potential for pandemonium as materials are put away, chairs are moved, reinforcers are awarded along with praise, a few directions are given, everyone moves to a new area of the room, and then steady work begins again. How does everyone know where to go and what to do? How do teachers know who they are responsible for? Why does it all flow so smoothly? This classroom most assuredly has a purposeful, clear, and consistent schedule–a framework that outlines who, what, where, and when.

Schedules are a part of the classroom structure needed by autistic students. Many students have problems with sequential memory and organization of time. Receptive language difficulties can also make it difficult for students to understand what they should be doing. Besides giving direction to everyone for certain time periods of the day, a schedule can help a student organize and predict daily and weekly events. This lessens anxiety about not knowing what will happen next. Besides knowing what activity will happen during a time period, a schedule can aid students in transitioning independently between activities. Their schedule lets them know where they should go next. Also, students with low initiative may be more motivated to complete a difficult or dreaded task if they see on their schedule that it will be followed by a more enjoyable task or activity.

There are usually two types of schedules being used simultaneously in classrooms. The first type is the general overall classroom schedule. The second type is individual student schedules.

The overall classroom schedule outlines the events of the day. It does not specify work activities for students but does show general work times, break times, etc. Here is an example of a typical schedule for an intermediate age classroom:

8:30 Student arrival, put belongings away, greetings
8:45 Work session 1
9:30 Work session 2
10:15 Break
10:30 Leisure learning/School friends
11:00 Work session 3
11:45 Prepare for lunch
12:00 Lunch
12:30 Outside/gym
1:00 Clean cafeteria tables and floors
1:45 Work session 4
2:30 Dismissal

This schedule shows when students are working and when they are doing other activities. During the work times the students and teachers might be involved in a variety of activities from independent prevocational work, individual training on self-help skills, to jobs around the school. These are reflected on individual student schedules. This general schedule may also serve as the weekly schedule, except on those days when field trips, special events, or community training are scheduled.

The general classroom schedule is usually posted somewhere in the classroom for all to be able to see and use. Often it is reviewed upon student arrival or during a morning group session. The format for this schedule may be written, as in the example. But not all students will be able to comprehend a written schedule. The same schedule as in the example can also be done with pictures or drawings representing the activities. For example, a picture of a desk or table can be used instead of the words “work session.” Picture schedules can be arranged from top to bottom or from left to right on large poster board.

Using this general schedule, teachers can daily or weekly divide the responsibilities for teaching students. A clipboard with the schedule attached to it for each teacher is easy to handle and glance at. Considerations when dividing teaching responsibilities include which students work well in small groups, which students have independent work skills, what activities will involve a teacher out of the room with students, and which students have hard to manage behaviors. Both teachers (and other volunteers using the schedule) must feel they know what and who their instructional responsibilities are.

To help students understand what to do during the activities listed on the general schedule, individual student schedules are used. These can take a variety of forms but must be individually oriented, i.e., age appropriate, balanced with difficult and successful activities, based on student level of comprehension, and based on student endurance level (how often reinforcement or change in activity is needed).

Individual schedule types can vary from ones that are teacher directed and administered to those that students make up and follow themselves. The important aspect is that they are individualized , i.e., understood by the students they are developed for. Some examples are described below:

  • As the teacher and a student finish an activity and its subsequent reinforcer, the teacher shows the student an item from the next activity. The student either moves to the appropriate area taking the item with him, or he uses the item as an example to get other materials needed and brings them to his work table.

 

  • On a student’s desk is a strip of poster board with different color circles paper clipped to it in a vertical row. The student has learned to take the topmost circle and match it to the same color circle taped to a box on the work area shelves. He takes the box back to his desk, completes the task in the box (with or without teacher help, depending on the task), and puts the box back on the shelf when finished. He continues this until all the color circles have been done.

 

  • Tacked to the bulletin board beside a student’s-work area are rows of 4-5 Polaroid pictures for each work session. The student starts with the topmost picture and gets materials needed, completes the activity and puts his materials away. He continues following this schedule through all the pictures for a work session. The last picture in each row is of a game or toy that the student likes. When he reaches that picture, he can play with the toy until the bell rings for the next work session to begin. Taped to a student’s desk is a piece of paper divided into 3 rows of 3 squares each. Each square has a drawing or a list of numbers in it. Each square corresponds to a time block of the general classroom schedule. The student follows the schedule from left to right. The first block lists numbers of the tasks he is to do independently in the workshop area. At the signal which ends the first work period, he follows directions in the second box which shows a drawing of a table and chair representing individual work with a teacher. The third block has a drawing of the break area. The student continues following the schedule throughout the day. This student receives money upon successfully completing or attempting all the activities listed or drawn in each block. He spends his money at snack and at the end of the day for edibles or inexpensive treats like stick-ons.

 

  • After arriving, a student puts away his personal belongings and picks up his clipboard which is hanging on the wall. On the clipboard is a time schedule which includes all his activities for the day, each followed by a small box for a checkmark. The teacher and student wrote the schedule together at the end of the previous day. He sees what his 8:30 activity is and does it to completion. He then calls the teacher to check his work and receives a checkmark in the box on his schedule. His next task is scheduled at 8:50. If there is time remaining he may spend it quietly in the leisure area. He proceeds through the day by referring to his schedule and the clock. He does not receive checkmarks if he does not finish a task in the allotted time or with appropriate behavior. Receiving a certain number of checkmarks results in a star on a chart at the end of the day. Four stars during the week leads to his choice of free time activity instead of work on Friday afternoon.

All of these examples show individualization. For students who do not read or cannot understand pictures, then colors or objects are used to help them move through daily activities. Some schedules have 2 or 3 activities to be done within a time period while others have only one before a break or reinforcement occurs. Each individual schedule also reflects a student’s preference for activities-alternating enjoyable with less enjoyable.

Utilizing clear and consistent schedules facilitates a smooth running classroom and grants more time for real teaching and learning instead of constant reorganizing and planning during student time. As students learn to comprehend and follow schedules, they develop good independent functioning skills and direction following skills, both of which are very important skills to have for successful functioning in future placements, e.g., vocationally and residentially. Following are some questions teachers need to consider when planning classroom and individual student schedules.

Is the schedule clearly outlined so that teachers know all daily responsibilities?
Is there a balance of individual, independent, group, and leisure activities incorporated daily?
Do individual student schedules consider student needs for break times, reinforcement, unpreferred activities followed by preferred activities?
Does the schedule help a student with transitions — where to go and what to do?
Does the schedule help a student know where and when to begin and end a task?
How are transitions and changes in activity signaled? timer rings? teacher direction? student monitors clock?
Is the schedule represented in a form that is easily comprehended by the student?

Teaching Method

A teacher must systematize and organize teaching methods in order to effectively teach autistic students.

Another way structure is used to help students function successfully is in the setting up of teaching tasks. Again, receptive language difficulties hinder autistic students’ understanding of what is expected of them. Directions for tasks and the use of prompts and reinforcers should be organized and systematic in order to build success experiences for students. This makes learning situations more predictable (and therefore easier) for students and helps to overcome distractibility, resistance to change, and lack of motivation. Giving a student directions for tasks can be done verbally and nonverbally. In either case, the directions should be given at a student’s level of understanding. For verbal directions this means using the minimum amount of language needed. For example, do not say, “I want you to finish putting all these nuts and bolts together, and then, when you finish, you can go over to the play area and choose a toy to play with.” This statement gets your point across just as well, “First finish nuts and bolts, then play. 11 Verbal directions should also be accompanied with gestures to help students understand. In the example above the teacher could point to all the nuts and bolts and then to the play area while giving the directions. A most important aspect of giving directions is having the student’s attention before the directions are given. This does not necessarily mean eye contact has to be established. Some students may signal attention by body orientation, a verbal response, or-by stopping other activities. When giving directions, a teacher needs to make sure expectations and consequences are clear and organized for the student. If a student does not know where materials are, how to start a task, or what to do when he is finished, then he is not likely to perform a task up to teacher standards.

Besides using gestures, as mentioned above, directions can also be given nonverbally with contextual and visual cues, like systematically presenting and positioning materials and using jigs and written instructions.

Uniformly setting up a student’s work from left to right gives him an organized and systematic base for completing tasks more independently, without as many verbal teacher directions. Providing only the materials a student will need for specific tasks will be less confusing to him. Placing materials in the setting where they will be used can also help a student follow directions and complete tasks more successfully. For example, having glass cleaner, sink cleanser, toilet bowl cleaner, and sponges sitting in a bathroom that is to be cleaned are cues as to what tasks should be done and what materials to use.

Jigs and written instructions also help a student get and stay organized while working. Teachers can use samples or pictures of finished products to show students what needs to be done. Pictures and written instructions (similar to a recipe) can be used to help students complete a sequential task in the right order. A teacher must be careful, though, not to give a student visual cues that are too distracting. Some students may not be able to comprehend complex picture jigs or may not have learned how to work from left to right yet. These skills should be assessed and training planned on an individualized basis, just as any other skill is taught.

When teaching students new tasks, teachers use prompts to help students be successful in what they are learning and doing. There are different types of prompts used to assist students or give them reminders. A physical prompt is used when the teacher guides the student’s hands in pulling up his pants after using the bathroom. A verbal prompt is used when the teacher tells a student to put a napkin on his lunch tray. A visual prompt can include a variety of forms, e.g., the jigs and written directions mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, a color card which a student matches to a work box to get his own work, PEANUT BUTTER written in extra large, bold letters on the jar to bring the student’s interest to that jar. A prompt can also be gestural, for example, instead of telling the student to get a napkin, the teacher points to the napkin holder or to the empty space on the student’s lunch tray. Modeling or demonstrating how something is done can also be a prompt. Prompts can also be situational, such as “Hi”, which is a prompt to greet someone.

To effectively use prompts, a teacher must be systematic in their presentation. That is, the prompt must be clear,.consistent, and directed toward the student before he responds incorrectly. For example, a teacher is teaching Chuck how to wash dishes. The step she has chosen to work on first is adding the correct amount of detergent to the water as it is running into the sink. After a week Chuck has not shown much improvement in learning this. A lesson usually goes like this. Chuck picks up the detergent bottle and begins squirting it into the water. He squirts out way too much detergent. The teacher notices this and says, “No”, which is a prompt to greet Chuck. That is too much. Only use a little detergent.” This is an ineffective attempt at using a prompt.

To effectively prompt Chuck to learn the correct amount of detergent to use, the teacher could start with a verbal prompt. When Chuck picks up the detergent bottle, she says, “Only a little bit of detergent.” Then she helps Chuck squeeze the bottle into a measuring item (for example, a lid from a soda pop bottle) and shows him how to swish the measured detergent into the water to make suds. This continues for 3 days. Eventually the teacher does not have to use the verbal or physical prompts and Chuck measures the correct – amount of detergent on his own using the soda pop bottle lid. A variety of prompts were used to make it clear to Chuck how much detergent to use, and the prompts were all presented before he had a chance to use an incorrect amount of detergent.

Teachers also need to be aware of giving prompts and cues to students when they do not mean to. This is where teacher and student positioning in the learning situation is very important. Many times correct responses can be relayed to students by the slightest movement of the head or eyes of the teacher toward the correct response. Some students will not continue working without glancing at the teacher after each step for confirmation and reassurance of their performance. In these situations the teacher may want to station herself beside or behind the student instead of in front of him or her. In this way, fewer unintended prompts and cues will be passed on.

Most people are motivated to work because of a combination of praise from others, intrinsic satisfaction, and compensation by paycheck. Autistic students often are not automatically motivated by these things. Teachers need to find out what things are motivating for students and then teach students how a contingency system works for them. For example, a teacher discovers that a student is very interested in feeling and using sandpaper. Work times are arranged so that he knows that when he finishes doing his work, he can use the sandpaper in the workshop area. Hopefully, this situation helps a student to build a motivation to work.

Reinforcement can include a variety of items or activities. Many students are motivated by food or toys that they really like. Others may be motivated by a preferred activity. Some students may be able to earn money or tokens throughout the day and save them to trade in for a reinforcer at a later time. All students should receive praise and social reinforcers, even when receiving a more tangible reinforcer. There are some students for whom praise from an adult or authority figure may be motivating enough to keep them busy working and learning. There are also some students who will find satisfaction in completing work and do not need other kinds of reinforcement. 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.) The teacher needs to make sure the reinforcing consequence immediately follows the behavior or skill being learned or increased so that the relationship between the two is clear to the student. A teacher should be able to determine if a reinforcer is effective by assessing student interest and acquisition or gains in the skill or behavior being reinforced.

Following are some questions that teachers should consider when planning how to effectively structure their teaching methods.

“Giving direction”

Does the teacher have the student’s attention before directions are given?
Is the verbal language used specific to a students level of understanding and are gestures paired with verbal instructions to help a student understand when he is having difficulty comprehending?
Is the student given enough information to be able to complete a task as independently as possible?
Does the setting and organization of materials help convey directions to a student?
Are materials presented in an organized manner?
Are there too many materials presented at a given time?
Is a student given as much help as he needs to complete a task successfully?
Are appropriate prompts chosen specific to a student’s learning style and level?
Are prompts presented before a student responds incorrectly?
Has the teaching setting been structured so that a student does not receive unintended prompts?
Is the student given clear feedback regarding correct and incorrect responses or behaviors?
Are consequences and reinforcers for behaviors made clear to the student?
Do they immediately follow the desired behavior?
Is reinforcement given frequently enough?
Are reinforcers based on a student’s level of understanding and motivation?

Summary

To effectively teach autistic students a teacher must provide structure, i.e., set up the classroom so that students understand where to be, what to do, and how to do it, all as independently as possible.

TEACCH Staff
Chapel Hill TEACCH Center
Lee_Marcus@unc.edu