Autism Strategies tried by a Special Education Teacher that Work!

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Author: Jennifer Kitzmiller is currently special education coordinator for the Ogle County Educational Cooperative. (OCEC)  Prior to becoming an administrator she was a special education teacher for 18 years with OCEC. She taught in the Life Skills Program at the elementary, middle school, and high school level.  Jennifer is a member of OCEC’s Autism Team. Jennifer earned her Special Education Teaching Degree from Northern Illinois University. Then to Aurora University to obtain her Masters in Leadership, and Director of Special Education.   Jennifer is also a wife and mom to three girls.

Over the years, Jennifer has attended several trainings to benefit students with Autism.

I have been in special education for 22 years. First, as a Special Education Teacher and now as a Special Education Coordinator. The majority of this time I have worked with students with very high needs. Ninety percent of these students have had Autism. I absolutely love all of the students I work with! Autism is a spectrum disorder, as all the students are different and each and every day is different with them. However, there is one strategy that is my go to when first working with any student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or high need.

Before my second year of teaching I had the opportunity to spend a week in North Carolina learning about Autism through TEACCH. TEACCH provides training to school staff to work with students with Autism. After I went to TEACCH my classroom was set up in their suggested format. Work stations, structured work tasks, and visual schedules were my go to’s.

My ultimate go to strategy from TEACCH is the visual schedule. The visual schedule is by far one of the most important tools a teacher should use for a student with Autism. Everyone depends on some kind of visual schedule, list, or organizer. Imagine if you didn’t have your schedule, calendar, phone, or grocery list. How would you manage your day? Even I depend on my schedule on my phone everyday. I also have my husband’s and my three girls schedules to help me remind them what they are doing for the day. It even rings to remind me of important dates! I know I would have major an anxiety attack and would not get anything accomplished without my schedule.

Visual schedules are so important to students with ASD. It not only shows them what they will be doing during the day, if shows them what to expect and teaches them how to manage changes in their schedule.

A lot of teachers also think that schedules need to be colorful boardmaker like pictures, but they don’t! First, you need to decide which is best way for student to access a schedule. Can the student understand what a line drawing is? If not you should back up to digital pictures or even objects that represent each section of the schedule. One of my former students favorite part of the day was snack. She used an object schedule. Her object that represented snack time on her schedule was a spoon. When it was time for snack she would check her schedule by going over to her schedule and take her spoon from the schedule with a huge smile on her face! She would then take the spoon to the snack area for her snack. She would then gobble down her snack. For her, that spoon was everything! Some students may not need as much support as an actual object. Some may be fine with pictures or even words.

Visual schedules can look like lists, post it notes, or simply a word on a card. I had a student that used a word schedule. He would also match his schedule card to the area he needed to move to to complete his task. One normal day of class “Joey” went to his schedule to check his schedule. He pulled a card from the schedule that had the word bathroom on it. Joey knew this meant he needed to use the restroom. He turned and started to move across the classroom. He only made it to the middle of the classroom and something caught his eye and he became distracted and forgot what he was supposed to be doing. I verbally prompted him by saying “Joey look at your card” He looked at his card refocused and was back on track to the go to the restroom. It was crazy to think that one simple word on one piece of paper had so much power over his Autism.

Whatever kind of schedule you decide to use you will need to decide how you will teach your student to “check their schedule”. You can create a beautiful schedule but if you don’t teach the student how to check the schedule it won’t work!! You can use anything tangible to symbolize the student to check schedule paired with a verbal cue to “check schedule”. Some students may even need hand over hand assistance to get started. Some ways to check schedule: use a laminated card with a check mark that says check schedule, a poker chip, a laminated high interest picture the student can match to their schedule.

I once had a high school student “Brad” that had never been introduced to a visual schedule. When he didn’t want to do something he would just plop down where ever he was. He was a solid high school boy so there was no moving him once he was down on the floor. The staff was used to sitting and waiting him out or bribing him with food, yes that’s right bribing him. So now you know why he was still doing this and he was in high school! I started using a visual schedule with him. I didn’t have boardmaker and this was way before google image. So I used post it notes and drew pictures!! Did I mention I’m not an artist!! So knowing that Brad liked to plop down on the floor I would always give him something prefered on his schedule for a few minutes and then have him recheck for work. Brad got use to checking his schedule and having something prefered on it. Then the day came when Brad plopped down in the middle of the gym where entire high school had gym class. Now this would usually have been a huge deal, but not today!! I walked over and handed him my homemade post-it note check schedule card. Or should I say “magic card”!! He looked at the card, took the card, stood up, and walked right to the classroom. It was Amazing!!! He got his prefered task for a few minutes and then back to regular schedule. It was a major break through for this student and for all of us!!

I have come across a lot of teachers that say “my students don’t need a visual schedule they already know what we are doing everyday”. Or “I only have them do their schedule when they are having an off day.” The key to a visual schedule: you have to teach it when students are not in crisis mode and you have to use it everyday to benefit the student. It can get annoying to keep saying check your schedule. I think I say it in my sleep! But my students knew how to use their schedule. They could handle transitions. They could handle change. At the end of the day my students even built their schedules for the next day so they knew what was going on in advance. When your student is finally doing well with the schedule don’t stop doing it. You can slowly fade away the type of schedule. So go from picture to word, but please don’t fade away the schedule. When your doctor puts you on a maintenance medicine you don’t stop taking it when you start feeling better! You continue to take it so you stay healthy!

This information is a just small overview of some of the different schedules that can be used. Visual schedules can start with an object schedule. Then work through digital pictures to line drawings with words (boardmaker pictures). Some students can benefit from just words on a card or a list on a sheet of paper. The end of the line being post it notes or reminders in your phone. Visual Schedules are a great place to start with students with Autism. It helps with transitions, changes, and shows the student what to expect. Schedules have really made a positive impact on all of the students.

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