Adapting your classroom to fit the personal needs of your students with autism is important. Students with autism have specific desires for consistency and reliability between people, places, and things. They enjoy routines and the safety that expected reactions bring. It is possible to help alleviate student anxiety by getting your classroom in order and setting them up for success. Here are 6 Ways to Adapt Your Classroom for Students with Autism.
It’s no secret that students with autism need structure. Individuals with autism enjoy routines. The consistency that a well-rehearsed routine brings is comforting and makes a student with autism feel safe. Set that up for your students. Create routines with visual schedules and practice these routines every day. Inform them of transitions or changes in the routine beforehand. If possible, make your schedules vertical with “to do” and “all done” sides. Another great way to create a predictable classroom for your students is to create a physical space that makes sense. Make sure that furniture is set up in a way it has a natural functionality and flow. Take a walk through your classroom, paying close attention to individual work stations, group work stations, sensory stations, etc. Ensure that one station naturally flows into the next with minimal chance for your student to become confused or disoriented. Avoid having large open spaces as this tends to disorient students and may cause them to engage in self-calming behaviors such as spinning, hand flapping, or repetitive language.
Self-calming behaviors are typically a distress call that the student is overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused, so make sure your classroom is organized. Have a place for everything and keep everything well-labeled. Make sure that your students have a place for their coats, backpacks and other personal items.
Including sensory experiences are important for students with autism. Allowing for a natural exploration of the senses is vital for integration in the brain. Set up these situations by having a sensory table or area where your students can touch, smell, or listen to a variety of materials. If you have a student who is sensory defensive, create a calming space that is closed off, free from distraction, quiet and has dimmed lighting.
3. Distraction Free
Your students with autism cannot function amidst chaos. Make sure that you keep with your organization and maintain a neat, clean classroom. Everything in your room should serve a function. If it doesn’t, get it out of there! You should have everything that you need, but keep necessary items to a minimum. Remember, less is more. If you have items that you may need, but don’t necessarily need in the foreseeable future, store it. Avoid overwhelming visual stimuli by limiting the number of things that you hang on the wall. Depending on the size of the room, hang bulletin boards where they can be functional, but cannot be seen from your work area. Sometimes placing independent work stations facing an empty wall helps alleviate distractions and allows your students to continue to work without an issue.
This is probably a no-brainer, but depending on your students, you may need to consider more items as “unsafe.” An innocuous rocking chair in a general education classroom may be no big deal, however it may be a total disaster in your classroom as students decide to launch themselves on or off it.
Avoid sharp corners and slippery surfaces. Use carpeting, foam or rubber floors where feasible. Bolt shelves to the wall especially if you have students that like to climb or tip things. Spend a considerable amount of time designing and preparing a time-out or reflection space for use when your students are too unsafe for the classroom. If possible, this area should be a small, private room with drywall walls and without furniture. This luxury is not always practical and every school district is different. Space for such a room may not be realistic. If you cannot have a dedicated space for students who are being unsafe, you will need to create a space for students to be in when they are in crisis. This can be a corner of your classroom, or another space as long as you have it free of clutter, debris, and furnishings. This space needs to be a place where your students can remain safe while trying to calm down.
Having a safe classroom also means keeping things sanitary, having appropriate space for activities, and ensuring proper structural elements. Many students with autism have medical issues that compromise their immune systems. Ensuring that the materials that your students use can be properly cleaned and sterilized is vital. If you have plush furniture, have slipcovers for easy cleaning. Have antibacterial spray or wipes to clean counters, desks, tables and toys periodically throughout the day. Read labels carefully, however, as many antibacterial cleaning products require that you wash down the surfaces with water after cleaning. This is especially important if you have a student that places inappropriate materials in their mouth.
Ask yourself these questions:
Do you have enough table/desk space for centers or individual work activities?
Do you have a calming space?
Do you have a safe place for a child to go to when they are unsafe or physical aggressive?
Your classroom should be inviting for both students and parents. Use child-sized furniture to invite participation from your students. Use subdued colors to create a calm and warm environment. Be welcoming and encourage all students to strive for their best.
6. Have Good Staff
Everyone has strengths. And everyone has flaws. Your staff included. Some students you will easily bond with, while with others, it will take a bit more work. We all have things that drive us crazy. But good staff members realize that we are all flawed, and they know that we can help each other out when necessary. Good staff encourage each other and recognize when a co-worker is getting frustrated or overwhelmed. Recognizing these little idiosyncrasies in each other and tagging in when you see a colleague getting worked up are signs of good staff members. Having a great team will become invaluable for the days when you just can’t seem to get yourself together.