What is a structured environment? Why is it helpful for autistic individuals?
A structured environment describes the conditions under which a person should be taught and supported rather than where they should be taught or what to learn. This is a system for organizing environments, developing appropriate activities, and helping people understand what is expected of them.
A structured environment is comprised of the physical set up of a room/space, schedules, work systems, routines and visual strategies, and the visual structure of materials. All of this can help a person sort out what information is relevant vs. nonrelevant, provide predictability, give visual cues as to what comes next or what to do, support transitions, and reduce stress and anxiety. Having a structured environment at home, school, or in the workplace increases the likelihood of success.
Autistic people benefit highly from regulated and predictable schedules, and may need help to overcome anxiety around any transitions and change by finding and highlighting areas of predictability within them. While communication can be an issue for autistic people, creating predictability and lowering anxiety can go a long way towards creating an environment that supports the most communication possible.
Let’s explore some of the aspects of a structured environment.
The Physical Space
In my blog post Supporting Autistic Students in the Classroom, I wrote about how to structure a classroom space and what to consider. How do we do this in the home environment?
1. Provide a quiet space to retreat to. There are places to go in our home where one can sit quietly and be undisturbed. Our son uses his bedroom for this purpose daily. He retreats to read aloud to himself or to meditate to music. Our daughter wears noise cancelling headphones when she needs complete silence in her space. There are always opportunities to withdraw and regroup throughout the day.
2. Have an organized home. Easier said than done at times, but knowing where things are or where they go after you’ve used them creates order and predictability. This also fosters independence because if you know where the item lives, it’s easy to find and or put back.
3. Know which activities happen in what space. Have a dedicated area to do homework. Use tech devices in certain areas of the house and try to refrain from using them in a bedroom where they can interrupt sleep and supervision is more difficult to provide.
4. Establish routines in spaces throughout the day. Consistency is key for routines and establishing them supports predictability and independence. Since our children have been young, they’ve had established routines around mealtimes, bedtime, hygiene, getting dressed, weekday and weekend schedules. Weekends are more relaxed, but their daily living routines are still intact. They also know where all of these routines take place in our home.
5. Have the visual schedule visible for easy referral. Now that my children are adults, we also use daytimers on their desks and wall calendars which hang in their bedrooms.
Visual Supports and Schedules
Visual supports can take many forms. You may have to try several different types to figure out which ones a person prefers and understands best. Some examples of visual supports are:
- tactile symbols/objects of reference – Ex. a book means story time; a ball means time for outdoor play etc.
- photographs – so easy to produce in the digital age
- short videos
- miniatures of real objects
- colored pictures
- line drawings
- written words – I always recommend putting text with picture visuals. My autistic daughter could read at age 4 before she could speak.
Use visual supports for:
- making choices – start by teaching this concept with a preferred and non-preferred activity so the child starts to understand they are making a choice
- first/then – Ex. First we clean up/ Then we go outside. First/then can also be motivational.
- single messages – going to toilet, play outside, snack time
- timetable, schedules, sequences of activities such as a play sequence to support play skills. Ex. Restaurant play sequence – take the order, cook the food, serve the food, clear the table, pay the bill
- task breakdown – the individual steps for a task such as washing hands, dressing for outdoors. This supports recognizing relationships between steps of an activity.
- to show units of time – 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes. You can use these units of time for countdowns to transitions such as moving from one activity to another or having to stop an enjoyable activity.
Visual schedules can be daily, weekly or monthly ones or any combination of these. We can also teach flexibility through visual schedules by adding in a new activity or task from time to time. I used to add the word “surprise” to my children’s schedules to teach them that unexpected things happen even when the day is structured and planned and that isn’t always a bad thing. As adults, they both have a good degree of flexibility which has served them well in their volunteer positions and community activities and with ongoing staff absenteeism.
The concept of making a choice can also be introduced through a visual schedule. There can be a part of the day allotted for choosing an activity. When first introducing choices, limit it to 2 options. To teach this concept, you can make one of the choices a non-preferred one so that the idea of choosing something you like is understood.
Visual supports and schedules support greater independence as well. As the late Barbara Bloomfield, SLP, said, “True independence implies being able to set up visual supports of your own as you need them. Making lists, keeping track of appointments and visually organizing one’s living spaces and possessions are all self-prompting strategies that can be taught in small steps beginning at the pre-school level.”
Structured Work Systems
Structured work systems were first created by Division TEACCH. A structured work system is a set up of work to be done within a visually cued system that answers four questions:
- What work needs to be done?
- How much work needs to be done?
- How do I know when I’m finished?
- What do I do next?
Work systems can be used in a variety of settings such as the home, school, or workplace, and with all ages from preschool through adulthood. The level of difficulty can be increased by increasing the the amount of work, the number of tasks, or bumping it up by having the person move to check their schedule and/or travel to get their tasks.
You can start this process by using baskets or bins that are set up with a schedule about what to do first and next, and then has a visual at the end indicating what to do when a person is finished. Resources that support work systems are the Tasks Galore books and Building Independence: How to Create and Use Structured Work Systems. Even part of being social is knowing how to finish something.
Visual Structure of Materials
The visual structure of materials refers to what they look like and how they will be used. Some examples are:
- Having a worksheet with a limited number of questions and a dedicated space drawn such as a square on where to write the answer.
- Showing the sequence of steps inside a container along with the objects, then moving along left to right with each numbered step.
- Taping the actual item outside of the bin where the items goes. Ex. Taping a pop can outside of bin to show that cans go inside the bin.
- A written list with pictures showing each step.
- A picture of what the finished product will look like along with the materials to make it in a basket.
There are many ideas and ways to use materials to support comprehension. You may find the Structured Tasks videos and suggestions from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism helpful.
Although it takes some effort to set up a structured environment, over time you’ll see greater independence and reduced anxiety from the individuals you are supporting. This environment can be helpful with other disabilities or people learning a new language. Having clear expectations and systems that are understood will help with the flow of the day and foster success no mater what the setting is.
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