Structured Teaching for Students with Autism

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are a teacher who works with students with autism, you might be interested in ways to help them better understand their environment and learning. This lesson discusses structured teaching for students with autism.

About Structured Teaching

Erika has been teaching students with autism in a self-contained special education setting, or one where they learn and grow separately from typically developing peers, for several years.

Over the years, Erika has noticed that one of her students' most significant and consistent struggles has to do with understanding and controlling their environments.

Erika's students are often easily overstimulated, or overwhelmed on a sensory level. They struggle with social and verbal communication, so sometimes it is hard for them to express their needs or quickly catch on to what is happening around them.

These challenges can get in the way of Erika's students' ability to relax, self-regulate, and learn effectively.

Recently, Erika has learned about a therapeutic approach called structured teaching. Structured teaching focuses on helping students with autism understand their environments more readily. Erika learns that structured teaching is not a singular intervention, but rather an overall approach to working with students with autism.

She learns more about the five areas of focus that help with structured teaching.

Physical Structure

First, structured teaching considers the importance of the physical structure of the student's environment, meaning what the classroom looks like and how it is physically organized.

In considering physical structure, Erika focuses on:

  • limiting the amount of sensory stimulation in the environment
  • clearly establishing the boundaries of the physical space, and familiarizing students with these boundaries
  • keeping the physical environment tidy and well organized at all times
  • ensuring that students know how to move through the physical environment and find what they need within the environment.

Work System

Erika learns that the structure of the work system is also important. This means making sure students understand exactly what is expected of them during a particular activity or assignment. To structure work systems properly, Erika:

  • clearly defines how much time students will have to complete an activity
  • explicitly tells students what she expects them to accomplish during the time allocated
  • ensures that students are capable of completing the assignment she has given them
  • organizes worksheets and other assignments in a way that students will easily be able to follow independently.


Next, Erika thinks about the schedule she uses with her students. In structured teaching, students with autism should be able to follow their schedule with reasonable independence.

Erika teaches her students to read a calendar and a daily planner. To work on schedule with them, she:

  • devotes class periods to instructing her students in reading a schedule
  • provides each student with a scheduling system that works for their learning styles
  • adheres consistently to the expectations she has articulated on students' schedules
  • involves families in using the same scheduling strategies outside of school.

Visual Structure

Visual structure is also crucial for helping students with autism succeed. Many students with autism are visual learners, and they benefit from visual cues that help them understand the environment. To work on visual structure, Erika:

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