The Zahrádka Primary School has one class for children with autism spectrum disorders. The school primarily educates pupils with combined handicaps, and so the pupils in this class are children who have been diagnosed not just with (low-functioning) childhood autism, but with other related disabilities as well (mental retardation, sensory processing disorders, etc.)
The pupils in our class for children with ASD are taught using structured teaching based on the TEACCH program and cognitive behavioral therapy. In our view, the benefits of structured teaching rest primarily in the following points:
it respects the child’s special needs and individual level of development
it is based on the pupil’s personal characteristics and makes use of his or her strengths
it reduces cognitive deficits caused by autism spectrum disorders
it increases the flexibility of the pupil’s thinking and behavior
it motivates the pupil to establish appropriate behavior while breaking down expressions of unacceptable behavior
working with the family
an optimistic outlook on the effectiveness of teaching children with autism spectrum disorders.
We place an emphasis on the individual needs of each child and use visualization and structuralization to promote their development in various areas, including communication, socialization, and independent self-care.
Pupils with autism spectrum disorders can have a very diverse range of symptoms, and so individualization includes not only a detailed individualized choice of methods and approaches, but also an individually designed environment, communication, motivation and visualization. We cannot use regular curricula or teaching methods for pupils with ASD, and so we must create an individual education plan for each pupil separately. These plans must respect the child’s special needs arising from the specific nature of its disability and its chronological and mental age, while also taking into account other, secondary handicaps.
Structuralization means the creation of clear rules, the visualization of sequences of activities, and spatial organization. Pupils with autism can have serious problems orienting themselves in time and space. Organizing their environment, time, and activities helps pupils with autism to better orient themselves in time and space and thus to respond more flexibly to changes.
A daily schedule provides pupils with a significant level of chronological structure. Daily schedules are usually visualized using three-dimensional objects, photographs, pictograms, or images with text. Each object represents a particular activity. The child can thus more easily see how and why to perform an activity and in which order the individual activities are organized. The effectiveness of a daily schedule depends on the level of diagnosis, the child’s mental abilities, and its individual capabilities.
The daily schedule should be an auxiliary tool for the pupil’s independence and should answer to basic questions: “WHERE will I do the activity?” and “WHEN will I do the activity?”
During the active use of the daily schedule, the individual with autism removes the objects, photographs or images from the schedule and carries them to the room where the particular activity will take place. Naturally, the pupil will not automatically start using the schedule immediately after its creation. Before the child can work independently with the structured daily schedule, it must undergo individual training.
Forms of visual support help pupils with autism to more easily and independently orient themselves in space, time and activities. Visualized information is more easily understood and helps to clarify verbal information while facilitating independence and resilience to unexpected changes. Visualization should be designed in response to the individual needs of the person with autism. Even individuals with visual impairments can use a form of “visualization” known as haptic visualization.
Structuralization of space helps children with autism to more easily orient themselves in their environment. By dividing and organizing the physical space, we increase the child’s independence and help it to better connect a particular activity with a particular space.
All forms of chronological visualization help to clarify the sequence of activities visualized using the daily schedule. Chronological visualization gives the child a sense of certainty and regularity of its daily activities. The simplest form of chronological visualization is through specific objects. Activities are represented using three-dimensional objects (e.g., brushing one’s teeth is represented by a symbol of a toothbrush), or they can be depicted using photographs, pictures, or pictograms.
A frequent problem is how to depict the end of an activity. For many activities, time can be depicted by the number of coded tasks or by ending the activity. The end can also be signaled by the ringing of a kitchen timer or using a “transit card”.
When practicing structured teaching, the activities are often performed twice. As the pupil with autism learns to manage and understand the activities, he or she needs physical and verbal support. Once the child becomes more independent (or, on the other hand, if it fails to understand the activity) process-based diagrams can be used as an auxiliary aid. This means that the problematic steps of the activity are visually depicted and made more easy to understand. Process-based diagrams are used most frequently when learning self-care skills where a particular activity is broken down into individual steps.
PHOTO GALLERY, part 1
A school day in the ASD class
All pupils in our class have an individual education plan that has been customized according to the process described above. During the school day, the pupils participate in group activities and also engage in individual learning. They are also included in therapy and in the activities of the Zahrada integration center.
The school day starts with us singing together and with morning communication. After snack-time, the pupils have their individual program, go with their classroom teacher to instruction or to music therapy, and participate in activities in their homeroom or elsewhere in the school. The activities end before lunch, after which some pupils continue. The noontime quiet period is used to practice resting or for leisure-time activities.
Every day, we have a shared main activity – art, music and rhythmic exercises, pool and whirlpool, singing with the piano, snoezelen, equine therapy, or going out to the garden. Another integral part of the school day are single- or multi-day trips and group activities for the whole school.
Individual learning is divided into one part when pupils work with the teacher at a table and another part on the carpet, when they engage in less organized learning and relaxation activities. Instruction is fully adapted to the pupil’s individual needs and is realized in the spirit of structured learning, though with the addition of other teaching methods such as AAC, sensory education, working with children’s literature, music therapy and basal stimulation.