Many children and adults with autism have difficulty organizing themselves to play or work independently and spend much of their time either being structured and directed by others or engaging in aimless or perseverative behaviors when given “free time”. For these individuals, structured but independent schedules of activities can provide another level of purposeful and enjoyable activity. In addition to providing structure that allows the student to work or play productively with little to no adult involvement for significant lengths of time, it fosters a feeling of independence for students who spend most of their time accompanied and directed by adults. Following an activity schedule also can be a precursor to following written directions, doing homework or maintaining focus and productivity in a work setting. The process can be taught to preschoolers or started with teens and young adults. All ages seem to learn it easily and enjoy it.
Ben sometimes sang “Independent work”
repeatedly while he did it.
This is not an original idea. I believe it started with the TEACCH program in North Carolina, and many autism programs use forms of it. This is my variation. Nearly all of the students I’ve used it with have found it motivating and enjoyable and a lot of parents and teachers have been pleased to see their children begin to work/play productively and independently for 15 to 90 minutes.
The process in general:
1. Find a consistently available work space that is fairly free of distractions and where the student feels comfortable.
2. Select containers for the activities. A three drawer plastic chest is often a good choice, but baskets and boxes have also worked well, or folders for students doing paper and pencil activities. Be sure the containers will hold the items you plan to use even after they are assembled. For example, if you are using large puzzles, be sure they can be put away without having to stand on end in the basket or drawer. The completed work should stay done when replaced in the container, not fall apart.
3. Select initial activities to put in the schedule, knowing you can add others later. These should be things the student can already do easily. For children at early developmental stages, these are often puzzles, shape sorters, matching/lotto boards that can be velcroed so the small pieces don’t fall off, sorting activities, or simple assembly toys. More developmentally advanced students might be doing a coloring or dot-to-dot paper, completing a math or spelling assignment, assembling a snack, or setting up a game and inviting a friend to play.
Older students, even if at early developmental levels, should be provided with tasks and materials that are reasonably age appropriate. For example, sorting tasks might involve silverware, coins, small hardware items or jewelry parts (if you are certain they won’t go in the student’s mouth) and assembly might be flashlights, faucets or bracelets.
If the student does not have any activities he or she can do without help, you will need to establish some first, NOT within the independent schedule procedure. When you want to add new activities it may also be necessary to pre-teach them. An activity should not be included in the schedule until the student knows exactly how to do it.
4. Make a set of symbols (Examples: circle, square, triangle; 1-2-3; red-blue-yellow). Mount one on the front of each drawer or basket so that you have, for example a drawer #1, and a #2 and a #3. Place a small open or slotted box or cup on or close to the containers.
5. At this point you have set the stage; there are three containers (start with two if you want),each marked with a symbol, each containing a toy or task you know the student can do without help and all in a space you can use regularly that is familiar to the student.
Be sure that when you put the materials in the drawer, they are unassembled. The student is learning to find a task that needs to be done, do it and put it away completed, so we don’t want him or her to take it apart before or after doing it.
6. Provide whatever introductory explanation is needed or helpful for your particular student. For some you might say nothing and just visually direct him to the schedule then assist and demonstrate the expected behaviors. For others you might say something like “It’s time to do independent work. I will help while you are learning but I won’t talk. You can learn to do these things alone.”
Regardless of the introduction, the help you give during the process should be nonverbal and as minimal as possible. The idea is that eventually you won’t be there at all, so try very hard not to introduce verbal cues that the student with autism is likely to see as an essential part of the process. A child with autism will often wait for you to say “What’s next?” or “What should you be doing?” even when he knows, just because he thinks it is a required part of the learned routine. So, try very hard not to talk. And remember that the nonverbal prompts can be relaxed and gentle. You don't have to rap on his paper firmly to make up for not using words to remind him to keep working.
7. Walk him through the process of opening the first drawer, taking it or the contents to his work space, doing the task, replacing the completed item in the drawer, returning it to the chest, putting the symbol in the box or cup to indicate that this drawer is finished, and repeating the process with the next drawer. Use physical prompts, points and gestures or taps on the item that needs attention. Even start the task yourself to demonstrate if necessary, but DON’T TALK. For nonverbal prompting, do as much as necessary to get through the process smoothly and without delays, but as little as you can get away with, and always be trying to reduce it. For example, if you have to prompt at the beginnings and ends of tasks, try to move away while the student works on the familiar task. Remember, your goal is not to be there at all.
If this is a highly verbal student doing folders of school assignments, you may indeed tell him how to do the whole process, which might involve crossing completed items off a list or moving completed papers to the other pocket of the folder, before he starts. But avoid verbal prompting (coaxing, reminding, etc) while the student is working. The point is not that the child needs a quiet environment, but that you are trying not to use verbal prompts.
8. The student should have a way to recognize and tell you when the process is completed. Some might bring you the empty schedule card; others could have an “All Done” symbol on the third drawer. Often a tangible reinforcer is helpful, so the “All done” card might have a Velcro spot on the end where a symbol for a previously chosen reward or a choice symbol is attached. A nonverbal child might learn to bring you the card, then you point to the finished and reward symbols and say “All done! Time for jumping (or crackers, music etc)”. A child with echolalia will soon learn to bring you the card and say those words. A highly verbal child might just have the card to remind him of the need to report in at the end and it could say something like “I’ve finished my work and for choice time I would like to…” Some might not need a visual cue, but should be taught to tell a supervisor when the tasks are completed to avoid aimless time gaps and develop a responsibility that will be helpful in job settings.
C-Jay doing independent Braille work in his fourth grade classroom.
This independent work process generalizes nicely to other settings, even noisy and confusing places, and often provides an opportunity for mainstream inclusion for students whose work needs to be different from their classmates.