Classroom Environment for Students with Autism and Other Low-Incidence Disabilities Part Two: One Year Later


New school year, new students, new goals. My classroom structure and schedule has changed this year as students and their needs change. I often stop and reflect on what I am doing: Am I maintaining the status quo because it is easier and within my comfort zone, or am I maintaining the status quo because it continues to meet student needs?

When I asked myself that question as I set up for the year, I realized that maintaining the status quo in its entirety would be entirely for the benefit of my assistants and me. I decided to make some changes in order to better meet student needs.

The primary reason that I made the changes that I will describe is that I am reacting to an influx of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) users. To meet their communication and literacy goals, I have to incorporate many more language exercises. I have tried my best to strike a balance between independence and providing adequate communication opportunities. Social group activities have also been incorporated in order to teach and practice social skills and social communication.

Another reason for the change is that my school started a Digital Learning Initiative. Each student in the building received a Chromebook and I wanted to incorporate the technology meaningfully for my students.

Morning Meeting:

In order to facilitate communication and practice conversational turn-taking, we have a morning meeting at the beginning of each school day.

morning meeting

We start with a turn-taking conversational exchange. I started doing a new question each day, but it quickly became obvious that we needed much more repetition. Now we are practicing the same question for an entire week. This gives us an opportunity to practice other skills that are relevant to appropriate conversation, such as facing your communication partner and using appropriate volume.

Next, each student ‘checks in.’ We are currently using a version of the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers. Each student and staff member ‘checks in’ by describing how they are feeling and what “zone” they are in. Staff members model that we are not always in the “green zone” and that is A-OK by placing themselves in other zones and describing why they are feeling that way.

After we check in, we discuss any special activities that are happening that day. These can include students who are going to an off-campus job, community trips, holidays, student or staff special family events, etc. We usually have at least 3-4 ‘special’ things happening on a daily basis. Students are encouraged to share their own news using their devices through sentence starters.


Schedules look a lot different this year. All students are currently using a checklist-style homeroom schedule to navigate their homeroom activities. Homeroom activities include Chromebook tasks such as typing personal information into Google Forms or spending time on a website working on academic skills.

homeroom checklist update

Most students access their daily activity schedule on their Chromebook. Some students type their own schedule using the application Wunderlist. Non-readers use the extension Read & Write by Google to read the next activity to them.

Wunderlist screen shot

Other students access their schedules on The idea of this website is great, but there are some glitches on the Chromebook. If the student closes the lid or the Chromebook goes to ‘sleep,’ then the student needs to log in all over again the schedule starts all the way back at the top. That being said, it is still the best web-based picture scheduler that I have found up to this point. Students are able to manipulate it independently when it is working well!

go vizzle schedule screenshot

Off-Campus Jobs

In previous years, I have added off-campus jobs on to students’ daily schedules. This year, I left them off and instead I am discussing them during the ‘anything special’ portion of Homeroom. I am also assigning a time to those activities. This way, students practice being mindful of the actual time on the clock (or period in the school day) rather than simply following the sequence of activities on their schedule. This also gives me more freedom throughout the day to let one activity go long or cut another one short without it throwing off the schedule of students who have several time-dependent activities.

It also gives students practice with leaving activities in the middle when necessary. Some students with autism find it very difficult to disengage from something they are working on without completing it. Unfortunately, however, this is a fact of life! Practicing this every once in a while will help the student cope with these unavoidable schedule changes.

Afternoon Meeting

At the end of the day, we come together again for our afternoon meeting. Students complete the Daily Buzz sheet from the core materials on the Unique Learning System. This sheet includes cloze sentences for what the student ate for lunch, jobs the student accomplished, and how the day was overall. It also gives students the opportunity to use describing activities to rate different parts of their day.

After the Daily Buzz sheet, we discuss how each student did using the Class Dojo. We discuss different pro-social and anti-social behaviors that we saw during the day, emphasizing the positives.

class dojo screen shot

If a student has had an especially wonderful day, I offer them a treat. If the whole class has done well, then we play a favorite dance song and have a dance party!

More Communication and Social Activities!

Another change has been a major increase in communication and social group activities! We have been doing AAC scavenger hunts, playing Tic Tac Talk, practicing core words and lots more to help our AAC users develop their communication skills. I am hoping to focus on these activities in another post. If you want to check out some activities right now, I recommend the blog over at . Their blog is amazing!

Like what you see? Comments, questions, or suggestions? Leave them in a comment!

Miss Part One? Check it out here.


Attributes Game for AAC users


Many of my students use AAC devices in order to communicate and require a lot of practice to extend their sentence length and add attributes to their vocabulary. Today we played a game that required students to practice using their attributes in a fun and relaxed atmosphere. This game would work well with a small group or while working 1:1 with an AAC user.

I created the game in Boardmaker Studio. If you have access to Boardmaker, you can download the interactive project here.

Students must describe which button they would like pushed using at least two attributes. Each button is different from the others, but alike enough to another that students must take care to use at least two attributes. Each button is linked to a Youtube video that is easily customizable to your students by editing the action.

Each box has a design or pattern that is different from, but similar to, other boxes.

Each box has a design or pattern that is different from, but similar to, other boxes.

I printed the array out for students to use while creating their sentences and also had students cross out each button as we pressed it to avoid repeats.

If you don’t have access to Boardmaker, you could print out the array and manually open Youtube for the video of your choice. AAC game attributes

Conversation Cards


For a student with autism, conversations are hard. For a student with autism who uses an AAC device, they are even harder. For that reason, I created a deck of twenty conversation cards. I hope that this is the first of several decks that I will create.

The free download is here. They are printable and the fronts and backs of the cards print separately. I recommend mounting the fronts on card stock, cutting them out, and then applying the backs separately. They don’t match up correctly if you try glue the pages back-to-back. I laminated mine and that works well!

The cards are divided into different categories: giving compliments, what questions, where questions, when questions, and who questions. The ‘scripts’ are color coded to indicate when it is the other person’s turn to speak. Each card has two sides.

communication cards 1

Communicator A follows the green text. Communicator B uses the red text to respond. He/she may choose one of the options on the card to respond or come up with his/her own answer.

communication cards 2

Communicator A responds to B’s after school plans with a comment. No text is presented with the picture choices to avoid echolalic responses.

These cards are good practice for students who struggle with reciprocal conversation. I introduce them 1:1 and then use them at times when typical students would engage in conversations (i.e. eating a meal in the community, leisure times, etc.).

They are ideal for low-level readers and students who use AAC with a core vocabulary. When students need to choose an answer, picture supports are provided without text so students must practice word retrieval and are less likely to just read or type out the first or last choice.

communication cards 3

Communicator A (green) asks Communicator B (red) about his favorite place to eat.

communication cards 4

Here, communicator A will need to choose their response based on B’s opinion.

The free download is a PDF file. If you would prefer to be able to edit the file and you have access to BoardMaker software, leave a comment and I’ll send you the project file!

An idea that I have seen but haven’t tried is to have a conversation box. You can place it in the middle of the table during snack or lunch and have students pick a card to talk with a classmate. After he is done, he can put the card in the slot in the box!

conversation box

Happy conversing!



Students with significant needs require that the teacher focus on functional life skills, communication, and self-advocacy. In order to practice these skills as authentically as possible, the teacher will occasionally have to create stressful situations that require student action to correct.

Listen all of y’all it’s a SABOTAGE!!!

-Beastie Boys (duh.)

Today’s sabotage is brought to you by those people who insist that sitting at work will kill you.

While students were out sensory-breaking, bathroom-ing, and otherwise occupied, I collected the classroom chairs and put them in a storage closet. When students returned, there were mixed reactions. Some seemed not to notice any difference. Others seemed amused. Still others started looking around the room as if they were searching for the missing furniture.

Not one student commented that the chairs were gone.

Not one student asked for a chair.

The rest of the day was simultaneously hilarious and sad. It was funny to watch the students try their best to follow their schedules without chairs to sit in.

photo 5

It was sad that the students were not able to find the words to ask for the object when it was out of sight.

photo 3photo 4

The students were without their chairs for five hours of the school day yesterday.

photo 1

This morning, the chairs were still gone but I primed the language by projecting several pictures (including chair) with labels on the SmartBoard. With varying amounts of prompting, all students finally asked for their chairs within the first three hours of school.

This was eye-opening for me. All students had the capacity to ask for their chair. The vocabulary was in their devices if they used one and all students had demonstrated the knowledge of the vocabulary. All students had even asked for their chairs if someone else was using it. As soon as the chairs were out of sight, however, it was a different ball game.

These two days have reminded me that I need to be sabotaging more often in order to stimulate functional communication and provide students an opportunity to advocate for what they need. Typical adults and caregivers throughout their lives should not have to be in the business of mind-reading!

TouchChat Easter Egg


I have students who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Several of them have ‘graduated’ to using a dynamic display device with a core vocabulary and are doing very well! We have been working on a variety of communicative skills including requesting, commenting, questioning, etc.

One student is using TouchChat with WordPower on an iPad. Today, we were commenting about what we saw in different pictures. One of the pictures was of a man painting a doorway. My student wanted to say that he saw a paintbrush, so we navigated to the “Tools” page.

Imagine my delight when we spotted this little Easter Egg:

Keep looking...

Keep looking…

Do you see it? Yep, that’s a glass of orange juice on the rocks with the label ‘screwdriver.’

Someone at TouchChat headquarters has a sense of humor. 🙂

Students with Autism… They’re Just Like Us!!!



If you teach people with developmental disabilities, the above script is probably familiar. I’m sure you can imagine a number of individuals, including other staff members and typical peers, having a similar conversation with one of your students. This situation makes me cringe for a number of reasons, number one being that the offender usually has good intentions.

He is trying to make an effort. He is trying to engage with your student. And yet, he is doing it wrong.

When you interact with a person with a significant disability, here are some Dos and Don’ts that you should keep in mind.

DO speak in a normal volume. If the student has a hearing loss, speak with the teacher about strategies you could use so the student can better understand you. DON’T shout. Unless the student has hearing loss, shouting will not help him to understand you. Loud sounds may be upsetting to other students.
DO speak to the student about age-appropriate topics that might be relevant. Use complete sentences and age-appropriate language. DON’T speak to the student like he is a baby. He may be developmentally similar to a younger child, but he has many years of experience at that level.
DO encourage the student to use your name to gain your attention and other appropriate social niceties when interacting with you. Ask the student’s teacher about how to encourage social communication. DON’T treat the student like someone you have trained to do a trick. Maybe the student can say your name—so what? Don’t make the student say it over and over again when it isn’t functional.
DO expect the student to follow social rules. If there is a line in the cafeteria, the student should also learn to wait in line rather than being ushered to the front. If the student wants a cookie but doesn’t have the money to buy one, don’t let someone else buy him one! DON’T laugh at a student for making a mistake or committing a social blunder. If the student is aware that what he did wasn’t socially appropriate, he may feel bad. If he isn’t aware, then he may continue to do the behavior in order to make you laugh. Both situations are not ideal!
DO speak to the student in a conversational manner when appropriate. Talk to him normally about how your day is going, what you are doing later, etc. Use language, volume, and intonation that you would use with a typical person. DON’T always expect a response. If you are using a lot of language around someone with classic autism, he may be listening but may be overwhelmed if you expect him to keep up or respond to your stream of consciousness.
DO use short, concrete sentences when giving instructions or asking a direct question. Supplement with visuals or provide a model when possible. DON’T give a long set of directions, sigh when the student doesn’t seem to understand, and then just do it all for the student. Give the student a chance to be successful!
DO sometimes join them in their world. This is particularly directed for students with autism. I spent an entire 1:1 session with a student the other day saying “Whoops!” over and over again with the student. It was the best connection and most rewarding session I have had with that student in quite a while. DON’T force a student to look you in the eye or keep the student from stimming. Eye contact may be incredibly difficult for the student, and stimming might be the student’s method for organizing and making sense of the environment.

Remember that everyone with classic autism is unique, and all of these rules may not apply! Use what seems to work in your situation and have fun getting to know your student. He will have a lot to teach you if you give him the chance.