Children and teens with autism seem to do best when their classrooms have a clear order and predictability to them. From the very beginning of the academic year, things they see and experience—both from their teacher and in their classroom—are considered rules and standards for how things are to be done. Everything hung up on walls or on the whiteboard has a time and a place. If you know that your classroom will include children with autism, you can do a great service to them by setting up your classroom with intention and a focused sense of order.
Particularly important is having a daily or weekly schedule posted for all to see on a whiteboard or on a wall. This will help students with autism know what is coming next and give them a sense of being grounded in the classroom.
Things that you might consider when first setting up your room might include:
- Minimize distractions. Remember, children with autism are often easily distracted. You can keep the distractions to a minimum by placing them in specific places in the room. Special art and children’s seat work should consistently be hung in specific areas of the classroom rather than instruction areas.
- Be strategic with seating arrangements. Since children with autism can be easily distracted, they need to be seated near the teacher and away from windows. Outside events or activity including birds, cars, and playground noises can be very distracting.
- Use natural light when possible. Lighting can be a problem for children with autism. Florescent lights can often give off a soft buzzing sound, which can be very distracting and very irritating to children who can hear it. When you have a choice, use natural light from windows or light from lamps.
- Monitor the temperature in the room. A classroom that is too hot or too cold may distract any child, not just those with autism. It is important to know in advance if your classroom’s temperature fluctuates greatly. If so, position the child’s seat or desk in a place that maximizes the child’s ability to focus on you and your lessons. (See point #2 above.)
- Keep children engaged. One of the more common problems shared among those who have autism is that they often don’t know what to do when they are bored or when they have finished a problem or a project and don’t know what to do next. They may fidget or move about their desk or even the classroom without asking. Have a strategy to keep children occupied while they wait for the teacher to move on to the next phase of a topic. Examples include having a piece of Velcro under the edge of the child’s desk for him or her to rub, giving them rosary beads to manipulate, or giving them bonus exercises from a different or advanced subject as a reward.
In summary, it is important to help make things as clear and as concrete as possible for all children, not just those who have autism. When children understand what is expected of them, when they know beforehand about changes in activities and routines, and when they know how to respond when things aren’t right, they will have the best chance to succeed in the classroom. Know your students as well as possible. If a student has sensory problems due to sound, or is easily distracted by light or movement, or is bothered by temperature changes, make appropriate changes. Having access to headphones or ear buds may be of some help. Covering or filtering lights with colored paper can soften lights. And finally having spaces in your classroom where a child can read or spend time when there is open or down time, away from his or her desk, might be valuable. Thinking outside the box is often necessary if one is to be successful in teaching children with autism or other developmental disorders in typical classrooms. Not only will the child with the developmental disorder benefit, so also will all your students.