Subscribe to SLJ
Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise


 This summer I attended a workshop on Autism called “Structuring the Classroom to Promote Learning.” Structuring the classroom to promote learning doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with autism, does it? Here is the course description:

 School teams will learn how to structure a classroom to benefit learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder and will gain an understanding of curricular strategies to assist in appropriate modifications for these learners. Strategies will focus on behavior supports, functional communication, structure teaching, social communication, visual supports and work systems.

In order to attend this three day workshop, my school had to send a team of three teachers. They sent a new teacher with less than 3 years experience in teaching social studies, a seasoned math / science teacher  (with  little patience for teacher modifications on behalf of just one child), and the librarian who sees every student in school including the two life skills classrooms, two resource classrooms, and the behavior classroom.

We learned that structure had a great deal to do with helping students with autism. More important than beginning with a focus on academics, was targeting social interaction and communication skills. Along the way we learned strategies that would help all students, particularly those with any type of exceptional education needs.

Why was it important to attend? Look at these stats:

  • In 1990 ….. 1 in 2,000 students were identified on the autism spectrum
  • In 2000 …. 1 in 600
  • In 2004 …. 1 in 275
  • In 2007 …. 1 in 150
  • In 2009 …. 1 in 91

Those numbers and that pattern were shocking. According to those odds, my school of about 1000 students should have ten students with autism. I didn’t believe it, but when I went back to school and asked one of the teachers of exceptional learners, she counted that we did indeed have ten students identified with autism and probably some unidentified.

Nashville is fortunate to have the Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt University  which is “best in the world” for researching and teaching on autism. The team of 6 teachers who presented had tremendous skills, also, so MNPS is a fortunate district. Ada Winford, Rebecca Brewster-Sain, Courtney Brouillette, Adrienne Coscia, Amanda Wells, and Lynnette White were our presenters.

While discussing social interaction and autism, we talked about the focus on:

  • joint attention
  • gestural & communicative joint attention
  • turn taking
  • eye contact
  • sharing
  • parallel play
  • cooperative play
  • imitation
  • proximity
  • following simple commands
  • responding
  • rejecting appropriately
  • requesting help

We looked at quotations from people with autism who stated that with autism, “I see everything, I hear everything, I feel everything.” We did exercises to experience sensations or the deprivation of senses. We learned that our resting heart rate is 60 while someone with autism usually has a resting heart rate of 117.  We learned for babies to test for joint attention. We also learned how in MRI’s the frontal lobe area doesn’t light up as much for people with autism. This part is the social part or the mechanical part that puts things together.

Did you know there are power senses? Tactile, vestibular and proprioception. Proprioception receptors are located in the joints, muscles, and tendons. It provides us with an unconscious sense that lets us know where our body is in space. It tells us how hard or soft we are pushing or touching, and it allows us to gauge how much force to use.

Vestibular is the sense of gravitation, body rotation and movement.  Those sensors are located in the inner ear.

We took the AQ test or Autism-Spectrum Quotient from psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre. I wonder since the average score in a control group was 16.4 and I scored 22 whether this makes me more sympathetic to those who score 32 or higher (80% of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder).

Two aspects in particular that were helpful in this workshop were the sensory integration tips for teachers from an article online by Kari Shanks Hall ( and the information on how autism affects communication. We received a Senory Processing Disorder Checklist which helped me understand the range of sensory issues to be dealt with.

I learned about sensory avoiders, sensory seekers, and sensory under-responders. I can ask myself if the student is screaming to block out sounds and sensory overload or is he seeking sound.

Having a hearing disability, visual supports are vital to me. I have used picture cards to communicate with elementary students with autism, but the Boardmaker software program is so expensive. Along comes and this great website to create visuals. I hope to find many visuals for libraries there.

Why do we need visuals?

  1. Visuals give meaning
  2. Visuals help organize information
  3. Visuals add structure to an area or to an event
  4. Visuals provide a lasting reminder and are not transient
  5. Visuals increase INDEPENDENCE!

Visuals can be written words, pictures, gestures, and objects in the environment. I had a moment of enlightenment when I realized I needed to provide visuals for my autistic classrooms when the bookfair came. Bookfairs can be very upsetting. Think about the changes in routine, environment, attitude, expectations, and behavior.

All of us use visuals to some extent. We have schedules, agendas, planners. Visual supports can help us learn rules and reminders, improve the meaning of abstract tasks, teach “No”, and ease anxiety during transitions.

Choices are another key component in structuring the classroom. This has changed how I ask students about their interests in library materials. Now I may hold two choices up and keep cycling through until I pin down exactly the type of material they want.

Another aspect that carries over to all students is determining whether something is a skill acquisition deficit or a performance deficit.

I learned the importance of work systems – a strategy that addresses independence. What is a work system? A systematic and organized presentation of tasks and materials that visually communicates at least four pieces of information to the student:

  1. The tasks/steps that the student is supposed to do
  2. How many tasks/steps there are to be completed
  3. How the student knows when he /she is finished
  4. What to do when he / she is finished (what they get when they are finished).

These are just a few aspects of the three days we spent learning how to structure classrooms (and learning) to help all students be more successful. The presentors do offer a one-day class for teachers of related arts. I wish I could find a presentor who works with librarians. This person could attend state and national conferences all over the country because we need this information.


  1. Adrienne Coscia says:

    Diane, thank you so much for the positive feedback. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and found our information helpful. :)

  2. Lynnette White says:

    Thanks so much for attending and for presenting this amazing summary of the training. I am so glad that you felt the information was helpful. We strive to provide useful research based methods that can be utilized in a classroom setting. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of all children that you serve.