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Using Activity Completion Signals to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

An activity completion signal is a tool which can help students identify when an activity is over. Many students with autism have difficulty knowing how long an activity or task will last. These difficulties may also be present when students are asked to switch their focus to another task. Activity completion signals such as “Finish Pockets” or a “Finish Boxes” provide a lot of support for students transitioning between activities. Finish pockets, like other tools, can easily be created—folders or plastic containers can be labeled and placed near students’ visual schedules for students to place completed work into. When the student completes an activity, he or she should remove the icon of the current task or activity, and then also place it in the finish pocket. During this time, the teacher would indicate that the activity is over. For example, “math is over everyone, time for recess” thereby allowing a student to recognize a transition, and recognize what comes next in a visual format rather than only hearing the instructions.

There are various ways you can use activity completion signals such as turning an icon-card around so that it is facing backwards, placing an icon or object near the finish box, crossing off the name of the activity or task on a white board, and of course, the old tried and true timer to indicate the end of a task. The more creative you can be, the more variation you will have, but again, just like with visual schedules, the student’s learning rates and skill levels need to be considered when determining the type of signal you use.

In addition, it is always true that you will need to teach the student with autism how to respond to the signals and that you will need to reward (reinforce) the student’s correct responses to the signals.

Using Boundary Markers to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

Boundary settings are a type of environmental support for students with ASD. Basic boundary markers which establish physical space for specific activities such as break time areas, and reading areas help students differentiate expectations across settings, especially when one area is used for different activities (this is very common in classrooms around the world). For example, if two or more tasks must be completed at the same work space or work area, using a colored tablecloth can help distinguish one activity from another. Reading could take place at the table and then it could be covered with an orange tablecloth when it is time for math. Additionally, sectioning off an area on the floor with colored tape, rugs, or anything else that would indicate where a student is expected to be during any given activity is an effective environmental support. This type of marking or labeling is simple and seems to be a minor modification, but in fact, it is highly effective for working with students with ASD. These modifications can reduce students’ confusion and increase clarity by identifying expectations.

It is important to note that simply applying these types of environmental supports without explicitly demonstrating them to the student and explaining what they are intended for will likely not result in the desired outcome. It is almost always necessary to show the student how they are intended to be followed for the markers and boundaries to be effective. Often times, showing or demonstrating to the students how the boundaries and markers are to be followed needs to be done repeatedly and over time.

Finally, when boundaries and markers begin to show effectiveness with students with ASD, rewards for appropriately following the supports should be utilized. That is, when a student correctly follows them they should be provided with social praise or other types of rewards.

How Choice Boards and “Wait Supports” Can Be Used to Support Students with Autism in Classrooms

A “Choice Board” is a type of visual environmental support that can be beneficial for students, especially students with ASD. Choices should be incorporated into as many activities as possible as choice boards provide students with decision-making opportunities. As such, it can display the objects, pictures, icons, or words that would represent a menu of activities or reinforcers. These can easily be made with supplies such as poster paper, card stock, white boards, or on any surface that you can attach or write on. Choice boards are often placed next to a student’s daily schedule, and when a designated time arrives, students simply select a preferred activity from the board. Choice boards with preferred activities can be placed near the free time or break time area of the room, and provide a stimulus for independent selection of an activity.

Similar to choice boards, ‘Waiting Supports’ are another visual strategy, or tool that can be incorporated throughout the school day. As we know, waiting is a difficult skill for many children, with or without disabilities. But for students with autism in particular, waiting typically presents problems because they have limited ability to delay gratification and comprehend the concept of waiting. We also know that if a student is waiting too long or is not engaged in some type of activity, even if it is a simple activity such as putting a back pack away or clearing a desk, then more than likely, unwanted behaviors will occur. Therefore, students with ASD will typically require specific instructions to develop appropriate waiting behaviors. When developing waiting supports, we need to determine if the student has the prerequisite skills that are necessary to engage in waiting behaviors. This is easy to do. First, role-play and practice waiting using different instructions and in different settings when you want to identify this skill. Keep in mind that when you are practicing ‘learning to wait’ with your students, make sure it is authentic and in an actual setting where you would expect the student to use this skill. Again, be sure to teach waiting skills across a variety of settings to increase the likelihood of generalization. Even using a peer model or a peer buddy during waiting times can offer support for desired behaviors, and specific ‘physical supports’ such as chairs near the waiting area, setting a timer, or holding a picture representing “wait” can also help a student learn this concept.

As we know, for any kind of learning to take place, it is essential for students to have active involvement with their teachers, peers, and the curriculum. Students with autism tend to be passive learners. Therefore, it is necessary to plan activities that require students to become active participants. Creating opportunities for students to respond is a high instructional priority. Research supports a functional relationship between academic performance and how often a student is able to respond. Therefore, the more a student participates in an activity, the more off task and disruptive behaviors will decrease.