Ask the Expert

Understanding Autism in the Classroom

By Apr 22, 2011May 13th, 201224 Comments

This post may contain affiliate links which may give us a commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Jen is wrapping up our “Faces of Autism” Week on SITS by interviewing a special education teacher in the field. If you are just joining us, be sure you don’t miss Part 1, What Does Autism Look Like? and Part 2, The Faces of Autism: Meet Three Moms and Their Kids. It is all part of our effort to further understand and support those affected by Autism.

One of the most important things in the treatment of Autism is early intervention and education.

Most children who have Autism are integrated into main stream schools, but go to a special classroom developed just for them.

Barb is a special education teacher for children on the Autism spectrum. She has taught for 11 years in a center-based program for kids on the spectrum with moderate to severe impairments. She has a Master’s Degree in Special Education with endorsements in Autism and Emotional Impairments. Her classroom is in a general education building so that the students can have exposure to non-disabled peers.

She blogs about her life as a teacher and about her family as a mom of twins plus one at My Sweet Life.

Today, Barb is going to share a little bit about what Autism education is all about and give us a look into her classroom.


with autism

There’s a saying I’ve heard many times that goes “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met ONE person with Autism.” Autism is a Spectrum Disorder meaning that there is a wide range of abilities and needs. Individuals on the spectrum vary greatly in their cognitive functioning, language abilities, social skills, sensory needs, behavior and more.

With that understanding in mind, education for children with Autism may look different from one child to the next. Some children on the spectrum may function fine in a general education setting with minimal support. Other children may need more support from a special education program and others may need full support in a self-contained classroom for children with Autism that includes a low student-teacher ratio.

Special Education offers a wide range of services and this varies from state to state based on education laws. Any child who qualifies for special education services will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that will document short and long term goals, services and accommodations each year. It is likely that no two child’s IEPs will look the same.

Many programs for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) focus on communication skills, social skills and life skills. Structure and routine, paired with visual strategies are very helpful in a classroom for children with ASD.

In my classroom, the key ingredient is Structure and Visual Cues. Our day to day routine is structured and consistent. Visual cues are present for everything from classroom rules, behavior expectations, school supplies, lunch and leisure choices. These visual cues also really help the children who are non-verbal. My main focus is on communication skills, appropriate behavior, life skills and basic functional academics.

By giving our environment structure and “Defined Spaces,” it helps students better understand what is expected of them in each area. Our classroom has a group area, desk area, leisure area and teacher area. Students know that when we’re all together at the group table, they should be listening to the staff and working cooperatively with their peers. When at their desks, they are expected to work more independently and be respectful of their peers while they work. The Leisure Area allows them space for down time, sensory integration and social skills.


Our behavior management system is also well defined with visuals. We use a “stop light” to help them monitor their behavior (green = good, yellow = warning, red = poor choices). We give warnings and remind students to stick to “green” behaviors – which are represented with visual cues (i.e. listening, nice hands, quiet mouth, taking turns, etc). Yellow and Red also have visual cues to let them know what their behavior looks like at that level and remind them what to do to return to Green. We also have a star and reward system that allows them to earn prizes for their short and long term good behavior.

While we work on many things throughout our daily routine, we often work 1-on-1 with our students during their desk work time. This allows us to individually teach them the skills they are each working on, as well as practice and assess their skills. We work on a great deal of functional life skills including time, money, reading safety signs, menus and recipes. I use many ‘home made’ file folder activities tailored to their educational needs and many hands-on activities that help reinforce what they are learning.

with autism

These are just a handful of the things that go into making our classroom work on a daily basis. As we get into the school year and the students learn the routine, things run very smoothly. Some students refer to the daily schedule throughout the day while others check in once or twice a day to make sure they know what’s going on. We adapt to the students’ needs as we move through the year and learn what is most effective for each student.

Students with Autism often receive support from speech therapists, occupational therapists, behavior specialists, and social workers. Other supports include adaptive physical education, music therapy, peer groups and community based instruction.


Thank you, Barb, for all you do and for this look into your classroom.

While there is no known cause or cure for Autism, there is a great deal of evidence that supports Early Intervention. Children should be screened by their pediatricians at an early age. Being aware of the early signs can help parents present their concerns to their child’s doctor and receive the support their child can benefit from.

Birth to age 3 is such a critical time in a child’s development and with a system of support and early intervention, a child diagnosed with Autism can make many positive gains.

Some helpful resources to learn about your child’s development, early indicators of Autism and more about the Autism Spectrum Disorder can be found at First Signs and The Autism Society of America.

About Francesca

Francesca has an extensive background in content marketing, public relations, and social outreach. She oversees all Operations at Sway Group, including our robust metrics capabilities. Prior to joining the online world, Francesca oversaw viticulture and oenology at various wineries in both California and Italy, and managed regulatory affairs and facility approvals at the biotech company, Genentech. Francesca has been featured on CBS Sacramento and Food Blogger Pro’s podcast. She has also hosted an AMA webinar and spoken at Social Media World.


  • Jill Quigley says:

    Hello! I am a second year Autistic Support Teacher. I was just curious if you have any of these resources available that I could use?

    Thank you!

  • Love this post!! I am an AS teacher (K-2) so I totally appreciate the effort and organization put into your classroom. I just posted about my AS classroom organization too!!!


  • Karen says:

    Great classroom photos and ideas! As an occupational therapist in schools it’s always a pleasure to work in classrooms like yours.

  • Tracy says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It can be a scary place at school and to be able to see your beautiful classroom it’s wonderful. Thank you for all of the great information and a peak into your room. Take Care…

  • Barb, thank you so much for sharing this. Very helpful information, especially for folks with newly diagnosed kids, or kids who are about to go to school & who need to know what to look for in a classroom. I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again – you’re a wonderful teacher, wish we could clone you!

  • Jen says:

    My son is 4 and has autism. His classroom looks very similar to the one shown here, although of course at his age appropriate level, and incorporates a lot more toys!

    After almost 2 years of blogging, I’m still continuing to find so many wonderful autism bloggers. I will be a regular reader of yours!

  • ElizOF says:

    Thank you for the week of Autism. I echo what the other moms above have said that our hearts and hats go to moms of children with Autism. It takes tremendous dedication, love and vigilance to raise kids in general and especially so kids with special needs.
    Barb’s insights have been stellar and I’m glad we had this series.
    Happy Easter all!

  • I used to substitute teach grade school students. The days I was in with the special needs classes were the days that I came home beyond completely exhausted. I have a lot of respect for the teachers who do this every day. I couldn’t do it.

  • Tammy says:

    I also have tons of respect for teacher and parents who work with with specially talented autistic kids! It’s just so sad they have such issues trying to communicate. My daughter has an autistic boy in her class and it is amazing how far he has come in the past few years. Of course he has his moments but he has learned so much!

  • lisa fogarty says:

    it’s important to have teachers and mothers blog about this.. so we can get answers and awareness out there.. KUDOS>.. to you for showing and for her.. for doing

  • Nonna says:

    As someone with suspected Asperger’s, and having a lot of Asperger friends, I am a hog for all autism information. I am fascinated by how common autism is, even if it’s not really talked about in the media or in schools so it’s imperative people are educated on it and what better way than blogs? 🙂

    Keep up the good work, lots of useful information there!

  • Jean says:

    This is great information Barb. My son has been lucky to have had some great teachers and classrooms over the past 3 years. But now I am armed with some great info in case next year isn’t as good. The parts about defined spaces and all the visual cues are especially important for my son. He needs a written routine and schedule, every day we start by writing a picture/word schedule of our day. He has such anxiety that he needs to know exactly what is happening and what he will expected to do.

  • I have really appreciated the posts on Autism. Thanks for all the information and increased understanding.

  • debi9kids says:

    LOVE Barb! She’s one of my oldest bloggy friends and one of my go-to girls for ideas for my son Will.
    What a great post and so glad you featured Barb!

  • This is great information. I have two mommy-friends who I am emailing this to ASAP. Thank you!

  • Thank you so much Jen for asking me to contribute!

    I’ve dedicated my blog all month long to Autism Awareness. Everyone is invited to stop by for many more posts on Autism!!

  • Thanks for sharing this. I am learning so much reading about life with autistic children. Before blogging, I really didn’t have access to many families with autistic children. This week has helped to open my eyes!

  • As the mother of three ASD (autism spectrum disorder) children, I can attest that they are as different as fingerprints. My oldest has Aspergers and excelled in mainstream classrooms (she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 16). My 9 year old, diagnosed at five, has high functioning autism. He’s in one of the special classes and struggles. My 6 year old, diagnosed at 2, went into early intervention immediately. She is considered “recovered” and is a perfectly “normal” 1st grader.

    I am a huge advocate of early intervention. I think it would have helped my 9 year old tremendously. His teachers are amazing with their patience, devotion and creativity. I can’t imagine having a classroom of children with the kind of individual needs as these kids have. Without them, my son would have been removed from regular school and put into a special school, setting him up for a life outside the “real” world.

  • kirsten says:

    I have so much respect for people who work with autistic children. It must be such a challenge but the passion and commitment is amazing.