As we enter back to school time, it is essential to set up your autism classroom in a way that fosters a positive and inclusive learning environment. With thoughtful strategies and research, you can easily create a space where all of your students thrive. It can be tricky to figure out furniture placement, sensory spaces and organization, especially if you haven’t met any of your students yet. I have some guidelines that I came up with that I like to follow to make sure I have a successful start to the school year. Let’s look at my top 5 tips for setting up an autism classroom.
How to Set Up a Classroom for Students with Autism
Setting up and setting the tone for your autism classroom is a critical foundation for a successful and inclusive learning environment. As educators, we hold the power to create a space where all students feel valued, supported and understood. By carefully organizing the classroom, implementing sensory-friendly elements and establishing structured routines, you will provide the stability and predictability that your students need to thrive. I thought long and hard about my classroom set up and changed things every single year to make things better for my students. I have gathered my top 5 tips for setting up an autism classroom that I want to share below. Think of this as your ultimate guide to an autism classroom set-up!
1. Understand Individual Needs
Every student with autism is unique, with their strengths, challenges and learning styles. Take the time to get to know each student personally. Collaborate with parents and therapists to understand their individual needs and tailor your classroom environment and instruction accordingly. Make sure you read through their IEPs thoroughly before the first day of school. Talk with their former teacher if they had one to get ideas of things that worked well for them in their previous classroom (and things that did not).
2. Create a Calming Sensory Space
Sensory needs are crucial for students with autism. Designate a calming sensory space in your classroom where students can go to self-regulate Include items like weighted blankets, fidget toys and sensory bottles 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.
3. Organize with Visual Supports
Visual supports are one of the most important things that you can implement in special education, especially in an autism classroom. Visuals can increase independence, decrease transition difficulties, increase positive behaviors, provide clear expectations, increase motivation and provide opportunities for communication. There are honestly only benefits to using visuals! Having visuals ready at the beginning of the year is only going to help you enhance your school day. Visual supports can be used for all parts of a child’s day. They can be used for a whole group schedule, small group schedule, positive reinforcement, choices, during specials and more. If you just plan to post visuals in your room and that is it and think that they will do their job, you will unfortunately be highly mistaken. Believe it or not, students actually need to be taught and trained on how to use visuals to best support them in the classroom.
I would suggest having some generic visuals ready to go at the beginning of the year plus individual visual schedules. For individual schedules, I liked to laminate colored file folders and add strips of velcro on the outside and inside of the folder. I would lay out the schedule on the outside of the folder and store the remaining pieces inside. I liked having student’s individual schedules on folders because we can literally take them anywhere we needed to that way.
More generic visuals to use in your classroom might be things like a First, Then board, stop signs, wait cards, yes/ no cards and token boards. It would be a good idea to have a lot of these visuals printed and laminated ready to use from day 1. The difference is that you probably won’t need one of these for every student but you may want 2-3 sets for your room. You can grab all of these types of visuals for an autism classroom in the Visual Supports Classroom Starter Pack.
4. Implement Structured Routines
Structured routines provide stability and a sense of security for students that have autism. Create a consistent daily schedule with clear routines and procedures for different activities. By creating a consistent daily schedule with clear routines, we give our students the predictability they crave, reducing stress and anxiety in the process. Starting your day the same and following a routine will actually make your day a lot easier also because students will become well-trained on what to do when they enter the room or make a transition. In our classroom, students always began by unpacking their backpacks and then completing their morning work. Depending on the year and students, I would use either Basic Skills Morning Work or Life Skills Morning Work. I would typically project it on the SMARTboard and they would do answer it on their iPad, since it was digital.
To help with this structured routine, use visual timers to help students understand the length of each task and prepare for transitions. For example, if you are going to have students complete independent work stations for 25 minutes, set a timer so they can see and hear when time for that is over.
5. Set Up Independent Workstations
Independent work stations might have been my favorite part of my autism classroom. It was magical to train students to be able to sit and work independently and gather the skills and confidence to do so. Using independent work stations in your special ed classroom is great because you teach students to work on their own for about 10-20 minutes and you can focus on working with a small group of students during this time. If you take the proper time to set these stations up and teach students how to use this time effectively, it will be well worth it, trust me!
To set up these work stations, you need the following:
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- a set of 3 plastic drawers like this
- clear plastic bins like these
Your Autism Classroom Set-Up is Important
Setting up an autism classroom in an elementary setting requires dedication, compassion and a commitment to meeting each student’s unique needs. By understanding individual differences, creating a sensory-friendly environment and fostering social interactions, you can create a classroom that celebrates diversity and empowers your students to excel while they are at school. I hope you found this post helpful in getting your special education classroom set up!
Please let me know below what other tips you have for an autism classroom set-up!