How to Set Up a Classroom for Autistic Students

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Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that first occurs in childhood and is characterized by severe impairments in many areas of development, including social interactions, verbal communication and play activities. Teaching autistic children can be challenging. Children with autism can display repetitive, self-injurious and aggressive behaviors. They may also be overly sensitive to touch and noise. Classrooms can be set up in order to assist autistic children with the types of challenges that they face and create an optimum learning environment.

1 Arrange the furniture

Arrange the furniture so that there are clear physical and visual boundaries. Autistic children do not organize space the same way that other children do. A wide-open space can be intimidating for an autistic child. Clearly mark where each section of the classroom begins and ends. Use furniture, such as bookcases, room dividers, shelves, tables and rugs to clearly show the different areas. Make the routes between each area clear as well; this will minimize the autistic child’s tendency to move randomly.

2 Create visual guides throughout the room

Create visual guides throughout the room. Autistic children are visual thinkers and learners. Visual aids and pictures are key to helping autistic children learn and understand instructions. Post a large, visual classroom schedule that students can refer to throughout the day, with specific times and the activities that accompany each time slot. This reminds students what to expect next and will help decrease anxiety. Make a visual seating chart, which makes it easy for students to identify their seats. Use tape to mark boundaries on the floor around student’s desks and make sure there is ample space between desks. Autistic children frequently need to be reminded of appropriate personal space and boundaries.

3 Designate a corner

Designate a corner of the classroom as a calm-down area. When a student with autism starts to feel overwhelmed or anxious, the student needs a place to calm. Use dividers to separate this area from the rest of the room with a comfortable chair, such as a beanbag chair, to help the student relax. Check to make sure that this area is free from excessive noise or visual stimuli, which autistic children can find overwhelming. Instruct children to use this area when they begin to feel anxiety. This will calm the child before the student escalates and can be helpful in avoiding classroom meltdowns.

  • Auditory distractions can also be overwhelming for autistic children. Use carpeting, lowered ceilings and acoustic tiles. Cover P.A. systems with foam to mute the sound or turn them off.
  • Minimize visual distractions. Avoid the bright colors and visual clutter that accompany the typical classroom. This will help autistic students focus. Use as much natural lighting as possible. Autistic children often feel distracted or over stimulated by fluorescent lighting, while natural lighting can create a sense of calm.

Rebeca Renata has been writing since 2005 and has been published on various websites. She specializes in writing about clinical social work and social services. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Connecticut as well as a Master of Social Work from the Smith College School for Social Work.