Structure – an Important Teaching Tool

Editor’s Note – This article was written by Amy Hobbs, Training Coordinator for the Autism Society of North Carolina. To read Amy’s bio click here.

It was Sunday and a new group of campers had arrived in the afternoon. I was called to the old dining hall to assist a counselor who was having trouble getting a young camper back to the group lodge to take a shower and get ready for bed. The four-year old camper who I’ll call Alex was at Mountain Adventure Camp for the first time. It was Alex’s, first time ever spending the night away from his home. Alex did not speak and to communicate his needs he typically cried, flopped to the floor and banged his head. Lucky for Alex, he was attending a camp that was specifically designed for individuals with autism.

Alex was wandering aimlessly around the dining hall, but every time his counselor tried to direct him towards the door, he flopped to the floor. Alex did not understand the pictures that the counselor was showing him that represented the Group Lodge nor did he understand the words used to explain that it was time to take a shower.

The old dining hall had lots of tables and chairs and also lots of doors leading to the outside. When Alex flopped to the floor the next time, we opened the nearest door and simply pulled chairs in around him making a corral with the only opening being a door to the outside. It took Alex about 30 seconds to stand up, look around and then walk straight out the open door.

I remember the look of amazement on that counselor’s face as he watched Alex walk out the door. He never forgot that example of using physical structure and how it helped Alex to understand what we wanted him to do.

Sometimes when students with autism are in inclusion settings, they have trouble attending to their work because of all the distractions in the room such as other students talking or moving around or people coming in and out of the door. Planning seating arrangements for these students to optimize their success in the mainstreamed setting is crucial. It might be that sitting on the front row or away from the main door will be enough to reduce the distractions. Another student might benefit from having a desk that faces the wall to help them concentrate on the work in front of them.

The simplicity of using the physical structure in the environment to address behavioral challenges is sometimes overlooked. However, the first step to addressing a behavior problem or instructional challenge is to make sure that the individual with autism understands the expectations. Often when the demands are clarified through moving the furniture or adding visual supports, then the behavior challenge dissipates.

The training department offers training on using a structured approach to teaching individuals with autism. For more information on this and other available trainings, click here.

Amy Hobbs can be contacted via email at ahobbs@autismsociety-nc.org or by telephone at 828-236-1547 or 800-442-2762, ext. 1501.

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