If someone where to ask me what was the key ingredients to a classroom for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I’d say Structure and Visual Cues. Our days are routine, our classroom has defined spaces and there are visuals everywhere you look. I thought I’d take some time today to give you a virtual tour of my classroom and explain some of what makes it work for our students.

By giving our environment structure and “Defined Spaces,” it helps students better understand what is expected of them in each area. Our classroom has a group area, desk area, leisure area and teacher area. Students know that when we’re all together at the group table, they should be listening to the staff and working cooperatively with their peers. When at their desks, they are expected to work more independently and be respectful of their peers while they work. The Leisure Area allows them space for down time, sensory integration and social skills.

We have many visual cues throughout our classroom. We use a mix of picture symbols, photos and words to help our students communicate and comprehend. There are visuals for our daily schedule, classroom rules, leisure choices, behavior management, cool down techniques, learning tools and more!

Our behavior management system is also well defined with visuals. We use a “stop light” to help them monitor their behavior (green = good, yellow = warning, red = poor choices). We give warnings and remind students to stick to “green” behaviors – which are represented with visual cues (i.e. listening, nice hands, quiet mouth, taking turns, etc). Yellow and Red also have visual cues to let them know what their behavior looks like at that level and remind them what to do to return to Green. We also have a star and reward system that allows them to earn prizes for their short and long term good behavior.

Some of my students are verbal and can communicate effectively with spoken language but some of my students are non-verbal or have limited vocabulary and must use Picture Exchange Communication Systems to help express their needs and wants.

Each student works on their own individualized curriculum per their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and while we work on many things throughout our daily routine, we often work 1-on-1 with our students during their desk work time. This allows us to individually teach them the skills they are each working on, allow time for practice and assess for independence in their skills. We work on a great deal of functional life skills including time, money, reading safety signs, menus and recipes. I use many ‘home made’ file folder activities tailored to their educational needs as well as many hands-on activities that help reinforce what they are learning.

These are just a handful of the many things that go into making our classroom work on a daily basis. As we get into the school year and the students learn the routine, things run very smoothly. Some students refer to the daily schedule throughout the day while others check in once or twice a day to make sure they know what’s going on. We adapt to the students’ needs as we move through the year and learn what is most effective for each student.

Barb is a special education teacher for children with ASD. She has taught for 12 years in a center-based program for kids on the spectrum with moderate to severe impairments. Her classroom is in a general education building so that her students can have exposure to non-disabled peers. Their day to day routine is structured and consistent. Visual cues are present for everything from classroom rules, behavior expectations, school supplies, lunch and leisure choices. They focus on communication skills, appropriate behavior, life skills and basic functional academics. Barb has a Master’s Degree in Special Education with endorsements in Autism and Emotional Impairments. Barb blogs about her children, her classroom and life at My Sweet Life.