Teaching components include Work Systems and Visual Structure.
- Work Systems, refers to the systematic and
organized presentation of tasks/materials in order for students to learn
to work independently, without adult directions/prompts. It is important
to note that "work systems" can reflect any type of
task(s) or activities (e.g., academic, daily living skills, recreation
and leisure, etc.). Each "work system", regardless of the
nature of the specific task or activity, should address the following
- What is the work to be done? What is the nature of the task? (e.g., sorting by colors; adding/subtracting 2 digit numbers, making a sandwich, brushing teeth, etc.).
- How much work? Visually represent to the student exactly how
much work is to be done. If the student is to cut out only 10
soup can labels, don't give him a whole stack and expect him to independently
count and/or understand that he is to cut out only 10 soup can labels,
for the task to be considered complete. Seeing the whole stack of
labels - even if told that he is going to cut only ten - can cause
a child with autism a great deal of frustration and anxiety in not
being able to understand exactly how much work to complete.
Remember, students with autism rely upon their visual channel to process information; therefore, seeing a whole stack of work to complete can prove overwhelming. Provide only the materials the student will need for the specific task/activity in order to decrease his possible confusion in understanding exactly how much and what work is to be done
- When am I finished? The student needs to independently recognize
when he is finished with a task/activity. The task itself may define
this, or the use of timers or visual cues, such as a red dot, to indicate
where to stop on a particular worksheet, has proven effective.
- What comes next? Items such as physical reinforcers, highly
desired activities, break times or free choice are highly motivating
toward task completion. In some cases, being "all done"
with the task motivates the child enough to complete it.
Experience with structured teaching and the use of "work systems"
has shown that a student's overall productivity increases when the student
has a way of knowing how much work there is to do, as well as when it
is to be finished (1). Use of a "work system" helps to organize
the child with autism through use of a structured and systematic approach
to completing various tasks independently.
Examples of various types of work systems, from easiest to most difficult,
Left to right sequence - finished box/basket/folder to the far right. This is the most concrete level of "work systems" and involves
placing items to be completed to the left of the person's workspace
(e.g., a shelf, folder, basket/tub, etc.). The student is taught to
take the items from the left, complete them at his work space in front
of him, and then place the completed work to the right in an "all
done" box, folder, basket, etc.
Matching - color, shape, alphabet, number. This would be a higher
level skill in that the person must complete his "work jobs"
in a sequential order by matching color, shape, alphabet letter or number
Example. The student has a sequence strip of individual numbers
1-10 velcroed on their desk/work space. He also has multiple "work
jobs" located on his left. To complete tasks in this work system
(matching), he takes the number "1" off his number strip
and matches it to the number "1" located on one of the work
jobs. This is the job/task/activity he must complete first. He continues
matching numbers to tasks in order to complete those tasks (work jobs)
in a specified sequential order.
Written system. This is the highest level of the work system.
It would involve a written list of "work jobs" to be completed
in sequential order.
- Visual Structure is the process of incorporating concrete visual cues into the task/activity itself. By doing so, the student will not have to rely on the teacher's verbal or physical prompts in order to understand what to do (2). The student can use his strong visual skills to get meaning from the task/activity without adult assistance. Thus, these visual cues increase the student's ability to work successfully and independently.
Students with autism tend to have difficulty processing the most obvious information in their environments, and at times they may become overly focused or attentive to insignificant or irrelevant details. In order to help students with autism identify and focus on the significant and relevant details of a task/activity, their daily activities/tasks need to be modified to incorporate the following:
- Visual Instructions: A student should be able to sequentially
complete a task/activity by looking at the visual instructions given.
Visual instructions will help the student to combine and organize
a series of steps to obtain a desired outcome (2). Visual instructions
may include the following forms:
The materials of the task define the task (e.g., putting rings
on a stick with the rings located in a container on the left, and
the stick standing upright on the right - again following the left
to right sequence).
A cut-out or outline jig (e.g., an outline of a plate and silverware to direct the person where to place the silverware on a placemat).
A picture jig (e.g., a picture of various toys or clothing items
in specific locations for the child to match the real object, in
order to learn to put away his belongings).
Written instruction (e.g., written steps to complete a task or
sequenced activity such as the morning routine or spelling work.).
Product sample or model (e.g., a completed art project).
- Visual Organization: Visual organization refers to the task of presenting the materials and space in an organized manner so that the sensory input or extra stimulation are reduced. Visual organization can be achieved through the following adaptations:
Use containers to organize materials (e.g., placing the various materials of an activity into separate containers, or arranging alphabet letters to be matched by standing them upright in a foam tray, rather than having them bunched together in a single container).
Limit the area (e.g., use masking tape to enclose specific areas for a student to vacuum).
- Visual Clarity: The purpose of visual clarity is to highlight
the important information, concepts, specific parts of the instruction
and key materials (1). The nature of the task is designed to prompt
the student to focus on the important details of the "work job"
(task/activity/assignment). These details are highlighted through
colors, pictures, numbers or words. Providing visual clarity promotes
student independence rather than relying upon adult guidance (2).
The most concrete level of visual clarity is achieved by limiting
the materials needed to complete the task successfully (e.g., removing
unnecessary, irrelevant or extra materials) (2). Examples of visual
Color coding (e.g., assign each student a specific color and consistently use this color to teach the child to identify his environmental belongings more readily, including work areas, cubby space/locker, small group chair, snack/lunch seat, communication books, etc.
Labeling (e.g., for sorting tasks, highlighting openings on containers to make them more visually obvious).
Through the use of a visually structured teaching method, a student with autism can learn to complete various tasks/activities independently, i.e., without an adult's physical or verbal prompt. Therefore many students with autism can engage in "independent work sessions" for various periods of time throughout their day, in any environment (home, school, work), and on any skill area, such as academic/curricular, daily living skills, recreation and leisure, etc.).
The structured teaching approach
allows the student with autism to learn a process of focusing upon and following visual cues in various situations and environments, in order to increase his overall independent functioning. It is important to note that various instructional interventions, such as sensory integration, Picture Exchange Communication System-PECS, Greenspan's Floortime, discrete trial, etc., can easily be incorporated into the structured teaching approach.