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The Autism Toolbox: An Autism Resource for Scottish Schools


2.6 Classroom Organisation and Classroom Strategies

2.6.1 Classroom Organisation

The physical environment can make a lot of demands on children and young adults with ASD due mainly to sensory difficulties and problems with central coherence. As with physical, visual or hearing impairment, for children with a communication impairment it is important that reasonable adjustments are made to reduce as many barriers to learning as possible.

'for almost any other special need, the classroom only becomes disabling when a demand to perform a given task is made. For the child with autism, disability begins at the door.'

Hanbury (2007)

Consideration of where children sit is important. There is never enough room in busy mainstream classrooms, and every child is different, but there are a number of basic issues which should be addressed. For example, are they going to be overly distracted if sat by a door or window? Will they be unsettled if they are in a main thoroughfare? Are they seated next to a radiator getting them literally overheated or are they so transfixed by the computer they can't concentrate on anything else?

As a general rule aim for a clutter-free environment to cut down on distraction and confusion. Sometimes it will be appropriate to provide a separate work area for certain pieces of work - this could be their work area, a work station, or office. If pupils do have a separate area to help them focus on work tasks they must also have a space within an appropriate social group rather than 'squeeze them in' when they are joining group activities. This area might be used at times for other pupils who are doing a special piece of work.

Example 9 - Creating a focused work area within a mainstream class

A school with 2 pupils on the spectrum in a P5 class developed the idea of an individualised work station by creating an "office" area within the class. This space was available to all pupils who recognised that they needed a quieter space in which to work. The office was deliberately designed to give the feeling of a "grown up" space using real life office equipment. Pupils were also given the option to wear headphones and listen to music if they wished. Very quickly this resource became a normal, accepted part of the classroom.

Consideration should also be given to social groupings and personalities, ideally providing good social role models. If badly handled, children on the autistic spectrum are often 'wound up', or victimised by peers which creates additional barriers to learning.

Structure and predictability can reduce stress and in some cases challenging behaviour. Where possible create physical structure, either using furniture or even tape or a mark on the floor. Make the function and any accompanying rules of each area as clear as possible, e.g. rules for using computer 1) No-one else is on the computer, 2) work tasks are finished, 3) permission from adult, 4) only for a set time, or a simple open or closed Visual on the computer.

Most children on the autistic spectrum respond positively to a visual timetable, sometimes existing class or group task charts will be enough, but often they require to be individualised (see classroom strategies).

The concept of time can often be difficult for pupils on the autistic spectrum, and they benefit from explicit visual cues or prompts to help them gauge the progress of the day and as they get older to manage their time. If pupils can tell the time a clock is the most obvious Visual. You could incorporate a marker to show clearly when a piece of work should be finished, younger children respond well to kitchen timers and sand timers. There are also a number of timers commercially available aimed at pupils with additional support needs.

The overall working environment can raise numbers of challenges for individuals on the spectrum, both within the classroom and beyond.

A teacher supporting pupils in a secondary school recognised the need to make adjustments to the environment for pupils on the spectrum. Drawing on information from www.autism-in-school.org.uk he constructed an audit tool that has been used to re-organise classrooms. An almost immediate positive effect on pupils has been noted.

Example 10 - Environmental audit ( www.autism-in-scotland.org.uk)





Are there three clearly delineated areas in classrooms for specific activities ( ICT, group work, independent work)

Is there a 'Quiet Room' for pupils who require time alone during times of stress?

Is all clutter stored out of sight in designated storage areas?

Do learning areas have clearly designated and well organised and attractive display areas?

Is there a calm and peaceful environment throughout the ASD resource?

Do external windows provide adequate lighting but sufficient privacy?

2.6.2 Classroom Strategies

There are no set answers to working with pupils on the autistic spectrum. Although we have a number of strategies which have been proven to be successful, a careful analysis of the pupil's learning needs must have taken place to understand how ASD will affect each individual pupil's perspective, motivation and preferred ways of working.

"..if educationalists try to follow a "recipe", then, they will sooner or later come across a child or a situation where the recipe does not work. Without an understanding of what to do and why, they will find themselves in the same position as the individual with autism: unable to step outside of the learned routine and at a loss how to proceed next."

Jordan and Powell (1997, preface)

Once you have considered the general physical environment it might be helpful to develop specialised visual supports to support learning in a number of ways. Children and young adults on the autistic spectrum usually respond well to information being presented visually rather than relying on language or verbal instructions, visuals are not just for timetables. Appropriate use of visuals can help children to:

  • Predict and prepare for the day's activities, often reducing stress levels
  • Organise themselves and materials or resources, reducing the likelihood of confusion or frustration - for pupils and staff
  • Introduce and develop an understanding of the concept of time (now, next, finished)
  • Work through tasks or common routines independently
  • Make choices and express opinions
  • Identify and explore feelings
  • Reflect on personal experiences and behaviour patterns

Visual Supports - what are they?

Visuals are not just shiny, computer produced, laminated symbols. They should be relevant, motivating, and flexible/transferable. Visual timetables and supports should take account of the pupil's cognitive ability and age. Any of the following can provide visual support:

  • Photographs
  • Objects
  • Magazines
  • Drawings
  • Commercially made icons
  • Words/text
  • Timers/calendars
  • Video

We all depend on visual supports to some degree or other - diaries, to-do lists, elaborate networks of post-it notes, or shopping lists scribbled on the back of an envelope. The potential for using visual supports is vast, but they should only be used if appropriate and effective and should be regularly reviewed as part of the assessment process. Used indiscriminately they will be at best ineffectual, or in some cases damaging in terms of social development and self esteem.

In some instances the introduction of visual supports can make a significant difference to a pupil's ability to cope with their environment, modify inappropriate behaviours, or work more productively. While it is tempting to think things are 'sorted', removing visual supports too quickly may simply see a return to previous difficulties. Some children, including the most cognitively able, may always need some additional structure or support to organise themselves and be able to access their educational or social environment. (See examples of visual supports, pp 56, 61, 83, 85, 95, 99, 124,151, 208,134 and 143).

Parents and any relevant agencies should have copies of any visuals being used in the class to ensure consistency. Even if a visual is not applicable in the home environment it is always helpful if parents are aware of strategies being used.

Social environment

Having considered the physical environment, staff will also need to plan the social environment and be aware of strategies to support pupils to negotiate the hidden social curriculum (see section 2.8 - Social Curriculum). Staff should, where possible, make social rules or procedures explicit - possibly with a supporting visual. There will also need to be specific preparation or teaching of social skills, and agreed strategies or approaches for repairing social situations which have broken down. There are a number of commercial packages or programmes available, such as Social Use of Language Programme (Wendy Rinaldi, www.wendyrinaldi.com), Socially Speaking (Schroeder, 1998), and Developing Social Interaction and Understanding (Knott and Dunlop, 2007). There are also a wealth of resources and games available to promote social understanding and self esteem which can be accessed through catalogues such as 'Incentive Plus' ( www.incentiveplus.co.uk).

Social stories

One of the most commonly used approaches for pupils with ASD is a social stories approach. They are short pieces of writing which enable children to understand information, cues and actions for specific social situations. Social stories describe a specific social situation and often include suggestions for appropriate actions in the future. An important element of the stories is that they help us understand the perspective of children with ASD. Carol Gray, who developed Social Stories™, recommends a specific structure when writing a social story, using different types of sentences, e.g. descriptive, perspective, affirmative or directive. Information around social stories can be found at www.thegraycenter.org.

Social stories should always be individualised. It is highly unlikely you will ever be able to photocopy a social story, as it would not be specific enough to your situation and would bypass the crucial step of considering the social situation from the particular pupil's perspective. Carol Gray emphasises that the process of writing a story can be as important as the product.

Stories are usually written in the first person. They should be non-judgmental and positive, and use vocabulary which is relevant to the child, e.g. story corner/group time/ circle time. Language must also match the pupil's cognitive ability. Stories can be written about any situation - even when it may be a little indelicate - for example, a social story about why we have to wipe our bottoms. As long as they are factual, delivered sympathetically, respectfully, and are helpful.

Parents should have a copy of all social stories, even if it is not pertinent to the home environment to ensure that the pupil's family are aware of social situations being tackled, and are able to reinforce in a range of environments outwith school.

Comic Strip Conversations

Also developed by Carol Gray, comic strip conversations are an excellent method of exploring social situations from different perspectives in a very immediate and visual way. Comic strip stories are discussed and developed with the pupils in a factual non-judgmental way. The adult (or child) talks through a situation illustrating relevant people with matchstick figures. The two key elements of each story is what the involved parties said or did (in a speech bubble), followed by what they were thinking (in a separate thought bubble). The process of understanding what other people are thinking, particularly if it does not seem to match up with what they are saying can be problematic, confusing and at times upsetting for pupils on the autistic spectrum. For example, ' I don't want to play anymore' could be interpreted as not ever playing again, not playing because they don't like the pupil, or game (which could be just as offensive to a pupil on the autistic spectrum). The reality might be that the child has been playing chases for a while and just wants a rest, or to play something else. Sometimes the relationship between thoughts and actions or words needs to be simply but explicitly discussed with children on the autistic spectrum.

As with all strategies this approach does require time to be tackled effectively. However, it is one of the best ways for adults working with a child on the autistic spectrum to understand the world from their perspective, enabling them to become more perceptive and skilled at responding appropriately. Crucially this type of approach can also prevent secondary behavioural problems and be a constructive means of helping pupils understand the social world.

Understanding Behaviour

Some children with ASD might at times present challenging behaviour. It is crucial to understand that there is no behaviour which is in itself 'autistic', and there is no easy or standardised approach. Perceptions of 'challenging' can vary widely: school staff are not a homogenous group and will have different tolerance levels and interpretations of challenging. However, if unrealistic expectations are imposed on pupils, it is highly likely that they will eventually respond in an unacceptable or challenging manner. Staff must establish the communicative intent of behaviours, viewing problematic situations from the perspective of the pupil on the spectrum, while considering their own interaction style and how it impacts on the pupil.

When dealing with a challenging situation priority must be given to resolving the immediate situation keeping the pupil, peers and staff safe in as dignified a manner as possible. Staff should also consider why the situation arose and what they would do to prevent it happening again. Typically this process might include drawing on some of the strategies mentioned: visuals to provide structure and predictability, adaptations to the environment to limit distractions and sensory sensitivities, or social stories to explore and direct future social interaction. Reward systems may also need to be developed to focus on areas of difficulty, recording and rewarding positive behaviours (see Section 2.7 - Differentiation - Principles and Practicalities). Understanding and responding to pupil behaviour is clearly a complex issue. Helpful resources are highlighted in Section 6 - Resources which is available in Part 3.

2.6.3 Collaborative Working in the Classroom

The need for collaborative working is highlighted in a raft of recent policy guidance and documentation. There can be a tendency to interpret multi-professional collaboration as formal meetings involving external agencies and professionals who are allied to the school. This can involve the teacher engaging with professionals such as speech and language therapists, occupational therapists or educational psychologists and there are likely to be existing, formal procedures to facilitate this. Whilst everyone has an important contribution to make there can be issues in terms of the management and co-ordination of a range of professionals and the information they generate. This is especially true where pupils with complex needs are concerned. However the most vital aspect of collaborative working is that which occurs on a daily basis in the classroom and wider school community, particularly support assistants.

The dynamics of the relationship between the teacher and support assistant is especially important. The support assistant tends to be the adult who has the most prolonged, individual contact with pupils on the spectrum and it is therefore important that they are enabled to make a contribution to the planning and reviewing of pupil support and progress. For pupils on the autism spectrum this will be especially relevant to the social aspects of school life e.g. dinner hall, playground, school transport and lunch/out of school activities.

In order to nurture and facilitate the effective deployment of support assistants there is a role for managers within schools to sensitively monitor and review the activity and involvement of staff in this role. Policies and procedures are required that support the development of the relationship between teachers and support staff, that identify and respond to the need of all staff for CPD in autism spectrum disorders and that ensure appropriate support and responses to staff when they are involved in supporting difficult or challenging behaviour. The National Plan for Autism ( NIASA, 2003) recommends that staff who have acquired experience in supporting the complex needs of pupils on the spectrum should be regarded as an asset and consideration should be given to consistency and stability for them and the pupils when allocating staff resources throughout the school.

Support assistants will need guidance to ensure that they are able to fulfil their role in a way that promotes independence, autonomy and self determination for pupils rather than being overprotective or creating a relationship of dependency. This is not to say that establishing trusting and respectful relationships is not to the advantage of the pupil but rather that support will at times need to be subtle rather than overt.

It is important to acknowledge that teachers may feel insecure or unsure about managing and directing another adult within the classroom especially if they are also in the early stages of developing their knowledge of the autism spectrum. Similarly the support assistant may lack confidence to contribute to discussion regarding pupils or may feel unsure of their role. Again, leadership and direction will be required to support staff to establish productive working practices.

2.6.4 The Impact of ASD on Classroom Organisation and Classroom Strategies (Grid 5)

The impact of ASD on Classroom Organisation and Classroom Strategies

Impact of ASD

Responding to the needs of pupils with ASD

Links to HGIOS Quality Indicators

1.1 Improvement in performance

1.2 Fulfilment of statutory duties

2.1 Learners' experiences

5.2 Teaching for effective learning

5.3 Meeting learning needs

5.4 Assessment for learning

5.5 Expectations and promoting achievement

5.6 Equality and fairness

5.7 Partnership with learners and parents

5.8 Care, welfare and development

7.3 Staff development and review

8.2 Management of finance for learning

8.3 Management and use of resources and space for learning

8.4 Managing information

9.1 Vision, values and aims

9.2 Leadership and direction

9.3 Developing people and partnerships

Refer to HMIEEducation for Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder Recommendations 4, 5, 7 and 8

  • Sensory processing differences may cause the pupil to experience stress and anxiety in a range of environments.
  • Staff working with the pupil need to accept that these are legitimate and often complex issues that impact on learning and learning behaviour. Staff do not need high level technical knowledge in relation to sensory processing but do need a willingness to adapt advice based on assessed or identified issues that may have a sensory basis.
  • Cognitive processing such as Central Coherence difficulties may impact on the pupil's capa-city to identify and act upon common environmental cues. Identifying and understanding the appropriate focus of attention may be problematic.
  • Pupils may need time to familiarise themselves with the classroom environment and surrounding key areas.
  • Cupboards and resource areas should be clearly labelled to show content and or function.
  • Pupils may become overwhelmed by environmental stimuli.
  • Pupils may need the opportunity to identify where they feel most comfortable sitting.
  • Pupils may benefit from access to a quieter, distraction free area in the class, this does not need to be for the sole or permanent use of pupils with ASD but could be an area where any pupil can go to focus on a piece of work (see example 9, p.80).
  • Pupils with ASD may appear to be easily and frequently distracted by environmental factors. Such factors may be obvious, uncommon or responses to anticipated events e.g. the bell ringing.
  • Pupils with ASD may benefit from having a map of the school so they are clear about how they will move from area to area. This is increasingly important in primary school but will almost certainly be a valuable support in a secondary environment.
  • Pupils may, on occasion need time to withdraw and settle following upset. They may need:
    • Time to calm down and return to the environment
    • An explanation of what has occurred
    • Some aspect of the environment may have to be altered
  • If children are unduly stressed they will be unlikely to be able to learn therefore such approaches are a valid and worthwhile investment of time and are a legitimate strategy to enable learning needs to be met.
  • Pupils with ASD may have a poor sense of group culture and group identity and this may be a factor in relation to collaborative working or group tasks.
  • Pupils may need a range of prompts including verbal and visual supports in order that the focus of attention is explicit. An environment that is as clutter and distraction free as possible will maximise capacity to concentrate. This does not mean that there should be no visual stimulus present however when pupils are involved in altering their environment e.g. being present when displays are mounted rather than them appearing overnight are more likely to accept and adjust to such change.
  • Pupils are likely to be more vulnerable to peers who may focus in on unusual social behaviour and who may exploit inappropriate attempts to interact.
  • Pupils will need a sensitive and empathic approach to enable them to be meaningfully included in social aspects of learning. An incremental approach may be needed e.g. working with an adult then working in pairs and building to groups. It should be acknowledged that for some pupils this will always be problematic. It may also be sporadic with pupils being able to function in groups for some purposes especially if they are related to specific interests but not for others. This also applies to social aspects of the school day, e.g. lunch times.
  • Ritualistic or routine driven behaviour may develop as a compensatory coping strategy if there is an absence of structure and predictability in the immediate and wider environment.
  • Staff will need to monitor carefully peer interactions and when necessary intervene to prevent escalation of any issues. Sensitivity will be required so that social attempts by pupils with ASD are not undermined. Any negative targeting of pupils with ASD should be dealt with immediately and be seen as bullying. It may on occasion be necessary to undertake work with peers as well as with the pupil on the spectrum. This work could form part of a PSD topic or programme. Whilst individual, confidential information regarding specific pupils must not be shared a more general approach to discussing diversity and difference may be helpful. It may be beneficial to be proactive in relation to such issues rather than have to formulate approaches when issues arise and the confidence of the pupil with ASD is damaged.
  • Concerning behaviours may arise as a result of high levels of stress from prolonged periods in unpredictable or highly socially demanding and confusing settings.
  • It is important to observe and assess such behaviour as it may be due to environmental factors that may be relatively easy to adjust. Using an environmental audit tool may assist (see example 10, p 81). It is also important to ascertain if there is sufficient predictability from the child's perspective, if there is sufficient visual communication and if there is a balance in terms of expected demand especially social demand.
  • Poor understanding of time concepts, including the passage of time, quantifying time and abstract language used around time e.g. later, soon, in a wee while may provoke anxiety.
  • Individualised, empathic responses are important. Regular time out or access to time out may be beneficial. Teaching self-regulatory strategies may be important i.e. having supports and strategies in place that enable the pupil to recognise when they are stressed and need to take evasive action. Reasonable adjustments and allowances may need to take place such as not attending assembly or withdrawing from certain subjects that result in stress or having content of such subjects delivered by alternative means.
  • Concrete markers of time, passage of time, start and finish are required to enable the pupil to orientate themselves across the school day. Language that can be interpreted literally should be avoided - "in a minute" may mean precisely that to a pupil with ASD. Similarly abstract language such as" later" is best avoided, instead use concrete signifiers such as "when lunch is finished" For secondary pupils the timetable should indicate the times when classes will start and finish. Pupils may need specifically taught to accept a more flexible approach to time. Rather than it will happen at 1pm it may help to give parameters e.g. It will happen between ten to and ten past one - this is dependent on individual knowledge of the child as some pupils will find this approach stressful.
  • Pupils with ASD are likely to need a high level of repetition of information. This may be due to the way in which information is processed or to a high level of anxiety.
  • Staff attitude is important here. The pupil is unlikely to be asking repetitive questions to irritate staff, rather they may have difficulty retaining and recalling information in context or indeed see the relevance of specific information to a context. A concrete record of key information using visual supports if needed is likely to minimise the need for repetitive questions. However if supports are in place such behaviour may be indicative of much deeper rooted stress and anxiety.