Balancing the unique needs of an autism classroom can be exciting and sometimes a bit tricky. This blog post is here to help. I have 19 practical autism classroom ideas to make your autism classroom run smoothly starting today.
These tips, based on my real experience, cover everything from creating a comfortable sensory environment to using effective communication tools. Let’s dive in and create a supportive space where every student can shine!
How to Setup and Run an Autism Classroom
Whether you are brand new to special education or a veteran teacher, running an autism classroom is no easy task.
Every special education classroom should meet all students’ needs, have visual supports and be extremely structured in order to run effectively. Over the years as an autism teacher, I learned some valuable lessons about what works and what doesn’t and if I had to do it all over again, these are the 19 ideas I want to share with you about how to make your autism classroom EFFICIENT.
Autism Classroom Setup Tips:
First thing is first: Setting up your autism classroom correctly is a huge part in making it run effectively. You can definitely change the setup and layout of your room mid year if needed also so don’t worry about that . Here are 4 important autism classroom setup tips that I learned throughout the years in the classroom:
1. Get Rid of Visual Distractions
Autistic students can quickly have sensory overload so make sure to consider this when setting up your autism classroom. The classroom should be a calming atmosphere without too many bright colors and too many things on the walls. If you have tons of posters on the walls and objects around the room that don’t serve a learning purpose, students will tend to get distracted by all of it during learning time and become unfocused. Minimal is better. Keep things in closets that you don’t need that month and pull out only important materials.
2. Have Dedicated Spaces for Activities
This is one of my favorite tips to utilize when setting up your special education classroom. Setting your classroom up to have specific spaces for different learning activities always worked really well for me.
For example, I liked to have a specific bulletin board at the front of the room right when students walked in that housed their visual schedules for the day and their IEP binders. In addition, I had a specific area with a desk in which students would go to to complete independent work stations, two different table areas for small group work time with the teacher for both math and ELA, a carpet area for morning meeting and a calming sensory area.
3. Use Visual Schedules
Using visual schedules with autistic students and students in special education in general is super important. When students can see what their day is going to look like ahead of time, it helps to reduce anxiety and uncertainty, which helps because autistic students can thrive on routines and predictability. As I said above, I had a bulletin board in my room or would use a file cabinet to house each student’s daily visual schedule. Most all students had picture schedules in my room. For older students, you can just have words if you would like depending on their reading capabilities.
Having the schedules right when students walk in reminds them to unpack their backpacks and get their morning work out. It also shows them what special they will have for the day. Speaking of specials, my students even used visual schedules in art, PE and music as well. This really helped them stay on task and focused during more of an unstructured time outside of the classroom.
4. Create a Calming Sensory Area
Sensory input needs are crucial for an autism classroom. Designate a calming area in your classroom where students can go to self-regulate.
Include items like sensory toys, weighted blankets and fidget toys in this area to help them feel safe and supported during challenging moments. Have a calming tools choice board available so students can choose what strategy they want to use to calm down and help regulate their body. Make sure you practice how to use this area of the classroom during the first few weeks of school so they understand how to utilize it. Some schools are lucky enough to have an extra room nearby that they allow special education teachers to make an entire sensory room. I would absolutely check to see if this is possible.
More Autism Classroom Ideas for Efficiency:
5. Use Visual Cues ALWAYS
Visual cues are one of the most efficient ways to keep your classroom schedule going throughout the day and keeping students motivated. Using visual timers were a game changer in my classroom because it allowed the students to visually see how much time they had left in an activity in a more concrete way. I truly believe this helped to eliminate many behavior issues that could have occurred at times when students were struggling to complete an activity. When I paired visual timers with positive reinforcement like a token board, it made for the perfect pairing during student work time.
Another visual I loved to use during small group time was the behavior management flip book. This is a visual cue that reminded students of things such as: having a quiet voice, safe hands and body, to listen and to listen to teachers and do your best work.
6. Put a Heavy Focus on Life Skills
Having students do things like putting away personal belongings, using the restroom independently and checking their visual schedule are all important life skills they should understand. Making functional life skills a priority in your autism classroom is always going to benefit you and more importantly, benefit the students. Here is a list of 10 life skills you should focus on in an autism classroom. Also check out 6 FREE Life Skills File Folder Activities to try with your students.
In an autism classroom, the main focus should be life skills. The goal is to get students ready to be successful and independent outside of school.
You might also want to incorporate the life skills task boxes into your classroom routine.
7. Use Social Stories Weekly
A social story is simply a little story that helps someone, especially those with autism, understand how to act in different social situations. It’s written in a way that’s easy to understand in the first person and sometimes it even has pictures to help out. Social stories typically include details about the setting, people involved, expected behaviors, and potential outcomes. So, it’s like a helpful guide that makes social stuff less confusing and more manageable!
For example, if a student in your class had trouble keeping his hands to himself, you could write him a social story about personal space and tell him in a simple way what he can do to try to keep his hands to himself and why it is important. If a student is nervous for fire drills like many kids are, you can have a social story to walk them through the procedures for that.
Social stories work best when read regularly to help enforce good social habits.
8. Have Clear Communication with All Staff
Whether it’s sharing insights, discussing strategies for different students or just giving updates, open communication with your classroom staff is of the utmost importance. It’s all about teamwork and making sure the students have the best learning experience possible. If you are allowed to have weekly meetings (clear it with administration first) this can be a great time to discuss any concerns or go over important information like how to collect data for IEP goals or new goals created for students on their updated IEP. Try to set clear expectations for staff from the beginning of the year so they know what you expect from them. Don’t assume they know how to do everything. Also provide clear written instructions and celebrate wins together!
Other ideas for open communication are:
✔️ a communication binder: House a communication binder where important documents, schedules and notes can be shared among staff members. This serves as a centralized hub for information.
✔️ send weekly email updates in the form of a newsletter
✔️ have feedback loops: encourage open feedback from staff about what’s working well and where improvements can be made.
9. Utilize File Folder Activities
I lived and breathed file folder activities as an autism classroom teacher. Check out 7 File Folder Hacks for your Autism Classroom. File folders made my life easier in special education because once they were prepped and ready, I could use them year after year. Another great benefit of file folders is that students do not have to be able to write or hold a writing utensil to use them. Finally, they are actually a great way to encourage independent work and also help increase fine motor skills. Learn about my favorite file folder tips right HERE.
10. Prioritize Motor Skills
Prioritizing fine motor and gross motor skills in special education is an absolute MUST. Let’s look more closely at each motor skill.
Fine motor skills:
Working on fine motor skills means having students do things like zip their coat, snap, open lids, write and cut. It’s anything that they have to do with their hands as more of a pincher grasp.
Sometimes autistic students and students with more severe disabilities can have weaker fine motor skills. Developing strong fine motor skills is crucial for various aspects of daily life, from self-care tasks such as brushing teeth or zipping your coat to writing your name.
Gross motor skills:
Making sure students get enough gross motor input from physical activity is equally as important as focusing on fine motor skills. Working on gross motor skills, like running, jumping and playing active games, is super important for autistic students at school. It’s not just about having fun (although that’s a big part of it!). These activities actually give their bodies important sensory input that they need. This helps them feel more comfortable and focused in the classroom. Plus, when their bodies feel good and energized (aka “regulated”), they can learn and engage in class even better. So, it’s like a double win—having fun and getting the sensory input they need to thrive in school!
Here are some ideas to work on gross motor skills at school:
- Take brain breaks using these brain break cards or yoga posters.
- Cosmic Kids Yoga
- Go on the playground for 20 minutes
- Short obstacle course in the hallway or occupational therapy room
- Sensory path (these are becoming more and more popular! I always wished our school would have one).
- Scooter boards (make sure they go on their belly to get proprioceptive input)
- Freeze dance party
- Sensory swings
11. Have an Independent Work Area with Task Boxes
Setting up independent work stations will be a true game changer to your autism classroom. It is crucial that we teach students how to work independently even if it’s only a few minutes per day. You can see how I set up independent work stations in this post.
Besides using task boxes, check out these 3 ideas for independent work.
12. Use Positive Reinforcement Always
Using positive reinforcement with kids is always the way to go. Positive reinforcement is like giving a thumbs-up, token or a treat when a student does something good. It’s a way to encourage them to do it again in the future. For example, if they finish their math problems, then they might get to play with legos for 20 minutes.
You can do this through a token economy system. Grab the visuals from the Visuals Starter Pack and a laminated file folder and you are ready to go after you read through these token board hacks. Token boards are simple because they are a visual to show the student what they want to work for (i.e.-“earn” once they complete the work.)
Positive reinforcement can also be things like high fives, saying good job or giving a thumbs up. It doesn’t always have to be a tangible reward.
13. Make IEP Goals the Focus
Remember that your main focus throughout the school year should be to help your students make progress on their IEP goals. Don’t wait until the last week of the quarter to start collecting data on IEP goals-have a plan for it week by week and plan your small group and 1:1 instruction accordingly. Print out data sheets ahead of time and keep them in an IEP binder or folder and teach other classroom staff how to take data as well.
14. Incorporate Social Skills Activities Daily
Incorporating social skills time every day into an autism classroom is also super important. This helps students practice these skills and learn how to interact with others in a friendly and comfortable way.
Start this routine by setting aside 15-20 minutes of the day to play board games or make a snack together. Board games such as Uno or Go Fish are great for taking turns, waiting, listening and conversing with other peers. Cooking is great for listening to follow a set of directions, waiting, problem-solving, turn-taking and practicing safety skills.
Morning meeting is also another great time to focus on social skills if you do one.
15. Use Differentiated Curriculum
When you have many students with different abilities and IEP goals to work on, it can be very time consuming to come up with lesson plans each day. Using differentiated curriculum so that once you have your small groups created or know your student’s levels, you can take one academic piece of content and easily differentiate it 3-4 ways so that it meets the needs of all learners.
Here are some options for differentiated curriculum:
Level 1: students practice the math skill and are given extra visual cues
Level 2: students practice the skill without extra visual cues
Level 1: errorless
Level 2: match picture to picture
Level 3a: match picture to word
Level 3b: match word to picture
Level 1: trace, cut and paste (match picture to picture)
Level 2: trace, cut and paste (match picture to word)
Level 3: write with letter boxes, cut and paste (match picture to word)
Level 4: write on lines, cut and paste (match picture to word)
16. Try Flexible Seating Options
Flexible seating can be a great idea in an autism classroom for several reasons. First, it allows for individualized comfort and sensory input if needed. Some students may find it easier to focus and engage when they have the freedom to choose a seating option that suits them best, whether it’s a cozy corner with cushions or a chair with movement. Even letting students stand if they prefer over sitting is a great option. Remember-we don’t all always need the same thing!
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Some of my favorite flexible seating options are:
chair bands (great for fidgety feet!)
17. Use Adapted Books
Making books accessible to ALL learners is especially important for an autism classroom. Adapted books are a great way to do this! You can read more about adapted books.
18. Have Ready-Made Errorless Learning Activities
If you haven’t heard of errorless learning yet, let’s chat about what it is exactly. Basically errorless work tasks are tasks that don’t have a wrong answer. As long as students complete the task, they are successful. These are great for 3 things- building confidence, building independence and reducing frustration. (All of which we want our students to have!)
When tasks are set up to ensure success from the start, it promotes a positive learning experience and encourages a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, errorless work tasks can help reinforce correct responses and build a strong foundation for more complex skills in the future. This approach is particularly effective for students with autism who may benefit from clear, step-by-step guidance in their learning process. Check out 25 errorless learning activities.
19. Keep a Structured Routine ALWAYS
This last tip is possibly the MOST important. A special education or autism classroom will thrive on structure and routine. Once students have the routine of the day down, then you are able to start differentiating activities more and focus on what really matters- their independence.
If the classroom routine is constantly changing, it will be more difficult to watch students be independent because they will be unsure of what comes next and what they should be doing without a strict schedule.
Have your classroom schedule at the front of the room as well as student’s individual schedules somewhere as well. Stick to this routine and refer to the visual schedule often throughout the school day so that they understand this is the schedule they are following.
Use the first few weeks of school to find a routine that works for you, the paraprofessionals and the students and then go with it. The other great part about having a strict routine and schedule is that any of your paraprofessionals or teaching assistants can step in to lead the classroom at any given moment if you need to step out for an IEP meeting or to help with a behavior issue.