How to Teach a Student with Classic Autism to Take a Break in a Safe Place


This is how to use a student’s autism against him. It will be helpful for teachers who work with students with classic autism who may be prone to self-injury, interpersonal aggression, or object aggression during meltdowns.

You know the scene—a student comes back from PE and, for who-knows-why, begins to escalate quickly. He bangs his head on the table, stands up, and begins to pace the room. He is unable to respond to verbal direction and pushes anyone in his way to the side.

At this point, the student is beyond the point of his own control. As the teacher, you know that he is a risk to himself and others in his current state in the classroom environment. Pencils, scissors, fists, and chairs can quickly become weapons in the hands of a strong, enraged teenager—and you have a classroom of students to protect.

Additionally, if you work in a responsible setting, the student in this vignette is not at the point where you could or should put your hands on him in order to physically manage his behavior. He needs to get himself to a safe place to begin to calm down before he continues to escalate, and you need a reliable cue to get him there.

In order to teach him this valuable skill, you must start by establishing a break location that you can use every single time. A quiet location with a comfortable chair/beanbag to ‘crash’ and nothing that could be dangerously projectile-d (definitely a word) is ideal. Koosh balls, pictures of interesting animals, and other things like that are appropriate for this area. If you have head-bangers, you may want to secure padded mats along the wall/floor in this area to keep students safe.

This should be a location in which the student enjoys spending time, and he should visit this spot on most days. It doesn’t need to be student-specific, as long as you are easily able to clear out other students if a student in distress needs it.

break area

Next, you need to clearly label the area with a picture that is not used elsewhere in the classroom/building. A unique picture with the text ‘break room’ will suffice. Laminate the picture and hang it on the wall in the break area. Laminate several smaller versions of the picture and affix Velcro to both the wall sign and the smaller pictures.

Once you have the break area set up, the work begins. The good news is, that this is relatively easy on both the teacher and the student to teach and even easier to implement throughout a typical school day.

When the student is calm and happy, hand him one of the small versions of the pictures. Without any words, guide him to the break area, hand-over-hand match the picture to the sign, and gently direct him to sit in the chair/bean bag in the break area. It is important not to use any words during this process, since it is likely that the student will be unable to process auditory input if he is in distress. Set a timer for however long you like (I usually start with 5 minutes when I teach this) and, when it goes off, have him return to the activity he was working on.

Do this throughout his day during periods of calm and happiness. He will probably only need you to show him the process two or three times. Soon, you will hand him the card and he will trot to the sensory room, happy to somehow be getting out of five minutes of rigorous classroom activities to look at pictures of Barack Obama’s dog.

Soon, hand him the card when he is showing signs of low-grade anxiety or distress OR interrupting preferred activities. He should still follow the normal procedure, walking to the break area, sitting in the chair, and waiting for the sound of the timer to return to the activity. If he doesn’t, you need more repetitions when the student is calm and happy. Remember to eliminate all verbal directions and try to guide him as much as possible from behind, fading cues out when appropriate.

Even after he has mastered the routine, continue to sprinkle it through his week during periods of calm in order to keep it ‘fresh.’

Most students I have worked with have picked up on this very quickly and feel compelled to complete the routine when handed the unique picture. Students with classic autism experience major anxiety and feel a strong compulsion to complete routines after they hear/see specific triggers. You are teaching a visual trigger with a specific behavioral routine that follows, and a student’s need to complete this routine will almost always override everything else! By triggering this response, you are keeping the student and others safe. Rather than against him, you are using the student’s autism to work for him.

Good luck! Please share if you have other techniques or have used this successfully!



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