How to Set Up an ASD Class

I taught in an Autism class attached to a mainstream school for the 2021/2022 school year. Prior to this I had extensive experience working with autistic students as a mainstream class teacher, resource teacher and later a SET teacher, and as the SENCo in my school which has extremely high levels of pupils with SEN. The experience of an ASD class teacher was enjoyable, and yet very challenging. Below I will document how I set up my room and some of the different resources/ approaches I found most useful and that I would recommend for working with autistic pupils.

I followed the TEACCH approach and other evidenced based interventions and programmes. I also liaised with our school’s NEPS psychologist, NCSE advisors, and the HSE disability team to ensure that the approaches I was using were suitable for the children in my class. While these approaches worked for my students and I followed what would be considered best practice, each autistic child is unique and may require a different approach to what I have outlined below.

Below are some photographs of my classroom and the approaches that I used.

I was very fortunate to be in a newly built dedicated ASD class wing in my school. We had our own purpose-built classrooms, sensory room, kitchen, occupational therapy room, and yard so we had plenty of space.

Therefore, I kept the main floor area in my room free of furniture so we had space for movement, drama, floor activities and circle time. In many classrooms this would not be possible and the room would need to be partitioned into different work areas for the children.

This is the desk for working with groups and children on a 1 to 1 basis. I kept all of the resources I need for the lesson on a shelf next to my desk so I had everything to hand quickly. I also had a second desk where I keep concentration toys, weighted animals, a timer and visuals that I will needed for the lesson laid out and easy to pick up when needed.  

On entering my room, I had visual schedules for each of the children so they know what to expect from each day. We went through these with the children each morning and as the day progresses, they put activities that they have done in the “finished” envelope at the bottom. I also kept ear defenders here so we had them quickly to hand if needed.

I used actual photographs of the places/ items to create the visual schedules for my children. Depending on the needs of the child, you might need to have what is called an “object schedule” (a Google image search will give you examples), or more able children may be able to have a schedule with generic symbols from something like BoardMaker or even a written schedule.

I used partitions to create a “Calm corner” in my room where the children could go when they needed to relax or calm down when they were dysregulated. All of the children in my class used this area regularly and I can’t recommend having a space like this highly enough. I kept a peanut ball in my room so that we could roll the children with it if they needed deep pressure. I also bought yoga mats for each of them so we could do their OT school’s programmes in the classroom if the OT room was in use.

This is a shelf in my “calm corner” where I kept things that we used for relaxation and regulation. I had blankets and the “Relax Kids – The Wishing Star” book of meditations, lulls headphones which I put calming nature sounds on, gorgeous affirmation cards which I downloaded from here, a “worry monster” that I got in Dealz, pompoms which I would let the children throw if they were angry (there’s a lot worse thing they can throw, believe me!), and small world toys of the characters from “Inside Out” and “ The Colour Monster”.

Our caretaker also built this area as an enclosed space that the children could go into when they needed to feel safe and to regulate. I kept a book shelf next to it with books that the children enjoyed, books specific to their special interests, and books about coping with feelings. I also kept some visual cues on how to calm down when upset on display in this area, for instance the breathing visuals from The Zones of Regulation programme.

This is a picture of the inside of the enclosed calming space. I kept teddies, a giant beanbag, cushions, a weighted blanket which I got from Dunnes Stores which was great value (check with the children’s parents or the OT if the children can use a weighted blanket first), plush toys of the Inside Out characters if the children wanted to choose the one that showed how they were feeling, sensory toys and ear defenders.

These are the sorts of regulation/ sensory toys that I kept in my “calm corner” and also by my group work area for use as concentration toys. I got them all from thingkingtoys.ie or sensaionalkids.ie. The body brush is a lovely tool and can be extremely regulating for children. Ask the OT how to use it if you are unsure. Ear defenders are another must as many autistic children are sound sensitive. I also had chewie toys for the children in my class who needed oral motor input. They help the children not to chew on inappropriate items like their clothes or erasers, but again you need to check with the child’s parents/ OT before using these.

Sensory play and experiences are really important for autistic children and are very regulating. The Treasure Within Therapy does a lot of excellent teacher CPD relating to this which I would highly recommend. These are just booklets with fabric samples from an interiors shop. If you can get something like this, they are very tactile and are super. I also had sensory drawers in my room where each drawer had a different sensory play item e.g. coloured rice, pasta, flour etc. I scheduled sensory play everyday for the children as a way of helping them to stay regulated.

These are some excellent visuals from the NCSE on how to / how not to interact with a child who is in a high arousal state (aka very dysregulated and upset).

I made copies of these visuals and hung them around the room as a reminder for myself and the SNAs on what to do in the middle of a crisis. The best thing with most children who are very dysregulated is for the adults to give them time and space to calm down. Talking to a child who is very upset will usually make them more upset.

Many ASD classes follow “The Zones of Regulation” programme and it is with good reason. I found it excellent for use with my children. It is very visual which is great for autistic students.

The are lots of other excellent social skills/ emotional regulation programmes too which I have used with my students. I did an overview of them, including details of which age they are suitable for in another blog post here.

I had the visuals from The Zones of Regulation on display on a notice board in my classroom so that the children could show us what zone they were in.

I used a lot of displays like this in my classroom that were very functional and which we used on a regular basis, for instance the class rules, visual reminders of routines etc. It is important to know your children’s needs as some children can find lots of visuals very distracting and overstimulating so you may need to keep a clear area for them to work in.

This is a Wobble board which I bought for the children to work on balance, but mainly for regulation. It was very expensive, but worth the investment. Rocking is a very calming movement for children, as is anything rhythmic such as drumming (we kept a set of hand drums in the classroom), or walking. If you want to learn more about this, I would recommend you read “The Body Keeps the Score”.

I was really lucky in that there was a small 1 to 1 teaching room attached to my classroom. One of the SNAs would usually work in this room with a child or a pair of children while I worked in the classroom with different children. We used this room mainly as a play room or for the children to do project work based around their special interests. In my experience, teaching social skills through play is much more effective than following any manual or social skills programme. For more on this, you could do a course with the wonderful play therapist and child psychotherapist Aideen Flynn from the Treasure Within Therapy.

Each child in my room had their own “work station” area. I mainly used this space for keeping all of their individual resources in their drawers e.g. I had the maths we were currently working on in one drawer, their handwriting in another etc. The children would also use their work station for independent work e.g. completing Nessy literacy lessons using a laptop. It’s important to note that I have a lot on display in this work station as the child was not easy distracted by visuals. Some children would need a much less visually stimulating work area.

I also used the children’s work stations to display the individual resources that they needed throughout the day. For instance, each child had a “choice time” board with visuals of the rewards that they could choose from once they had completed their work with me. It is important that the rewards on a child’s choice time board (or any reward chart) are very desirable for them or they won’t be motivated to earn their choice time!

I also made a visual with each child at the beginning of the year to show them what targets they were working on. This wouldn’t be suitable for all children, but where a child is able, it is important for them to be involved in creating and reviewing their own learning goals. The 2021 Preparation for Teaching and Learning guidelines from the DoES also outlines how the child should be supported in being able to describe and demonstrate their learning where possible and this will be an important consideration of the inspectorate when assessing a teacher’s preparation for teaching and learning going forward.

Movement is incredibly important for promoting regulation and well-being.

On this partition board, I displayed some resources that we used on a daily basis for the children’s movement breaks. We aimed for 3 movement breaks a day, but some children need more than this.

We used some of the activities from the SmartMoves motor skills programme, Therabands activities with this great visual from the Middletown Centre, and yoga poses cards from twinkl.ie.

I also found that each of my students had the exact same exercises recommended in their Occupational Therapy Schools Programmes, so I did up this guide which divided the exercises up across the week and 3 movement breaks each day to ensure that the children did all of the exercises that were recommended, and also so they wouldn’t be bored of doing the same few exercises over and over. I have this available as a free download on my website here.   

Social stories are a very effective approach to use with autistic children and I have literally written hundreds of them over the years. If you would like to learn more about social stories, then you can visit Carol Grey’s website here. The NCSE also do an excellent teacher professional development course on how to write social stories which I would recommend. I have some social stories available on my website here, and I will be adding more in future.

“Now/ Next” or “First/ Then” boards are very useful when working with autistic children who need to know the certainty of what is coming next. I always used this in conjunction with a visual timer so the children could see exactly how long they would have to work for before getting their choice time. I wouldn’t have been able to get my children to engage in any work without using this approach. There is so much more I could say about using visuals, but the best thing I would recommend is to do the TEACCH training as it is an excellent approach and they outline everything so well.

Using timers (both visual ones pictured above, and simple countdown timers such as this one) are an important part of helping children to transition from one activity to another, especially if it is a preferred activity such as choice time. I made this little visual to help a child who had a lot of difficulty when a preferred task would come to an end. He used to pause the timer when I wasn’t looking so I put it in a Tupperware box!

Difficulties with executive function will mean that children often struggle with classroom routines or other seemingly simple activities. My first port of call in these instances was to see if a visual would help.

I would break down a task or routine e.g. coming into school in the morning, into each individual step, photograph it, then put it into a visual cue card like the one pictured for the child. This can be done for many different routines e.g home time, lunch time, or even smaller tasks like putting on your coat.

Any time an issue would arise in the classroom, I would always consider first if a simple visual could help.

If you find yourself constantly saying the same thing to a child/ reminding them of a class rule over and over again, consider creating a visual reminder which might be much more effective. This is a visual reminder for the children that they must ask for permission from the teacher before turning on the whiteboard.

Last but not least, where possible, always use the children’s as motivation for them to learn and as a key to enter into their world.

One of my students was also severely dyslexic and after a year of no success using more traditional approaches and programmes, I taught him how to read using books about his special interest.

I have also had students who refuse to engage in any traditional academic work, but would complete a project, write a report or read a book if it related to their interest.

Finally, I cannot recommend it enough that new ASD class teachers undertake the NCSE professional development seminars that are one offer each year. In particular the TEACCH and the contemporary ABA courses are very valuable, but I recommend that ASD class teachers do all of the Autism seminars. I would also recommend requesting a visit from the NCSE behaviour or autism teams. It is a free and supportive service where an experienced advisor will come to your school to help you with any issues you may be having and give advice/ support. The Middletown Centre for Autism also do excellent professional development seminars. Also, don’t be shy in asking for assistance from your school’s NEPs psychologist and your local HSE services, especially the Occupational Therapists/ Speech and language therapists/ psychologists etc. who wrote your student’s report. For instance, if you don’t feel confident doing the recommended OT exercises with the children, then ask the OT if they can come out to the school to demonstrate them to you and the SNAs. I have not gone into detail above about communication systems for non-verbal children such as PECS and Lámh. For information about these, I would recommend you undertake the NCSE training.

In terms of teaching resources, there are excellent free lessons and social stories available from The Watson Institute. And for planning, I have sample School Support Plus plans, Individual Education Plans, Personal Pupil Plans etc. on teachingplans.ie here.

I hope this has been of assistance, please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, or if there are any other areas you would like me to cover in future blog posts.

Claire

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