Autism Spectrum Disorder: Supporting Children and Youth – Module 2

Setting the Stage for Learning


Children with ASD can benefit from participation in peer groups. There are changes necessary in the group setting, however, because of strengths and challenges in children with ASD. This module discusses these changes. These include: physical environment (space and materials); visual supports; transition strategies; schedule and routines; individualized programming.


After completing this module, you should be able to:

  • Recall the benefits of group settings for children with ASD.
  • Develop specific ways to adapt the group setting for children with ASD.

Section 1: Children with ASD in Group Child Care Settings

1. Benefits/Needs

Why have children with ASD in group settings?
Like all children, children with ASD benefit from opportunities for social interaction, and development of play and communication skills, as well as development of all other areas of early childhood learning. Group settings provide increased opportunities for interaction with peers, for which the child with ASD will need support in order to benefit.

What do group settings need to provide for the child with ASD?
They will need to provide higher levels of structure, modifications of environment, additional supports, and individualized programming. Each of these concepts will be discussed in this module.

How will these changes in the group setting benefit the child with ASD and other children?
They provide predictability, comfort, and increased opportunities for successful teaching of communication, social interaction, and appropriate behaviour. They provide a context in which the child can better develop relationships with his peers and organize his behaviour for play and learning.

Section 2: Changes to the Group Setting

In Module 1 you learned about the strengths and challenges of children with ASD. These modifications are necessary in several aspects of a program:

  • Physical environment: space and materials
  • Visual supports
  • Transition strategies
  • Schedule and routines
  • Individualized programming

Adapted from Denver Model Treatment Manual, 2001

1. Physical Environment:


  • Provide spaces that are not too large to reduce running and wandering behaviours.
  • Provide spaces that are distinct from each other for different types of play to assist the child in identifying and focusing on what to do in that space.
  • Use shelves, furniture, and movable screens to help define spaces.
  • Reduce the amount of visually distracting materials or patterns hanging from the ceiling or on the walls.
  • Look for opportunities for natural lighting and subdued wall colours in at least some of the spaces.
  • Add sound absorbing materials such as plush furniture, carpeting (where permitted), and wall hangings.
  • Provide spaces for different kinds of play and individual needs; clearly defined spaces for dramatic play, arts and crafts, blocks, books, water, table toys, but also spaces for gross motor skills, sensory needs, relaxation and quiet focused learning and play. These can be achieved by partitioning and defining quiet corners in larger spaces, or by providing separate areas or rooms.
Exercise: Reviewing the Space in your Centre

OBSERVE the space in the centre in which you work. Describe the space with reference to the above points:
Can you find an example of how each of the suggestions in Section 1 can be seen in your center?

THINK List 3-5 ways you could alter your space to be more defined, less confusing, less overwhelming or to provide for an individual need:

TRY putting at least one of your ideas into action. Describe any effect on children or staff over the next week.

Click here to see a sample answer


  • Highlight specific materials and toys by removing or covering extraneous materials. Materials can be kept in plastic containers or cabinets and brought out as needed for use.
  • Highlight table or play areas where certain toys or materials are placed for play; remove other materials and toys not related to that purpose. This helps the child to focus on and elaborate on a particular theme or activity, rather than move from one thing to another.
  • Provide tables and chairs and other seating that promote good attention. Chairs should allow the child to sit with good posture, with feet flat on the floor, and hips, knees and ankles at 90 degrees. Tables should allow the child to sit with elbows about 1-2 ” below the table top. In some cases, a chair with arms may provide additional security and boundaries for a child to help with sitting and attending.
  • Promote relaxation, security, and ways to settle down: beanbag chairs, large overstuffed pillows and child-sized rocking chairs may be placed in some spaces. A small tent with pillows inside and heavy quilts on top may offer an opportunity for brief respite from noise or others’ activity. Tactile materials such as rice bins, playdough, and tactile boards can be calming for some children.
  • Provide for physical activity using climbing equipment, mats, heavy objects to lift, carry, or push; schedule use of these materials regularly and between activities that require focused attention, as a way to regulate emotions and prevent “meltdowns” before they happen.
    When changing or moving furniture, keep in mind that some children may need help and time to adjust to change. Changes can be made but may need to happen slowly or gradually.
Exercise: Reviewing Materials and Furniture in your Centre

OBSERVE and describe:

  • The placement, storage and use of materials in various areas within your child care setting. Can you find one example that illustrates each of the criteria listed for organizing materials?
  • Ways to highlight relevant materials and reduce distraction?
  • The sizes and heights of the tables and chairs for children:
  • Space/equipment for relaxation or quiet learning:
  • Space for physical activities:

THINK of 1 or 2 ways you could:

  • Organize materials so that the materials to be used are most obvious and other things are out of sight:
  • Improve space/relaxation. What would you move or add?

TRY putting these ideas into action. Observe over the next several days:

  • How these changes affect the child with ASD?
  • How these changes affect other children?

Click here to see a sample answer

2. Visual Supports

There are several reasons for increasing the use of visual aids or supports for children with ASD in group settings:

  • Children with ASD typically understand and respond better to what they see (pictures and visual aids) than to what they hear (spoken words).
  • Use of visual supports assists the child to know what to expect, or what to do next, or where to be; this usually increases their cooperation and improves behaviour.
  • Visual stimuli remain as a reminder whereas words disappear and are easily forgotten.
  • Visual schedules are a way of showing children what will happen and in what order. They can remind a child of what to do, or help a child decide what to do, just as we make lists for ourselves, especially when we are busy, overwhelmed, or have a lot to do.
  • Schedules may be made for the whole group and for the individual child. Individual schedules are often used when a child needs additional support to understand and participate in activities.
  • Schedules are usually done in a left to right or vertical sequence. Depending on the child, choose pictures with words, photos, or real objects. Children should be able to match pictures to objects as prerequisite to using pictures. Use what seems to have meaning to the child.
  • A visual schedule can be introduced to the child by modelling how to use it. If necessary physically guide the child through the movements of using the schedule (point to card, do activity, turn card over) until the child knows how to do this on his own. The goal is for the child to become as independent as possible in using the picture schedule. Decrease the use of the individual schedule as the child learns routines. Maintain individual schedules for activities that are new, that the child still needs reminders to do, or for organizing and carrying through on choices.
  • To start: use an individual schedule by pointing to 2 or more picture cards (e.g., “We’ll have circle, then bathroom, then snack”). Carry out the first activity. When the activity is completed, turn the card over (“Circle all done”), and point to the next cards (“now bathroom, then snack”). Repeat the sequence.
  • Use more complex and symbolic schedules as the child develops more complex skills and learns to use schedules more independently.

Examples of Visual Schedules

Here are examples of visual schedules:

  • Picture/word schedules of the activities/routines of the day (e.g., free play, circle, bathroom, snack, crafts, outside play)
  • Picture/word schedule within a defined play space or centre that identifies the activities to take place in that space in a sequence (e.g., small group activity)
  • Picture/word sequences of steps of a routine task or multi-step activity (mini schedule) placed near where the task is performed (e.g., self care or craft activity)
  • Picture card as a transition card for the child to carry to the next activity as a reminder of what is happening next.
  • Some children may need to use photos of objects initially
  • Some children may need to see/touch real objects initially as part of a sequence board or as a transition object
  • Choice boards with pictures of activity choices can be placed in activity areas such as free play, or gross motor play, when choices for creating individual activity schedules can be made

Visual Aids
Visual aids are used to help give direction, to cue a location and to define spaces. Examples include:

  • Picture/name cards placed on the chairs, cubbies, and near individual schedule boards
  • Carpet square or chair for sitting on in circle that better defines the space and expectation of the activity
  • Specific visual aids such as lines or symbols on the floor mayhelp the child to know where to stand in line or wait his turn
  • Pictures of objects on the front of bins or shelves can show where things belong
  • Use of gestures and facial movements to help child understand
Exercise: Using Schedules

OBSERVE: Look at the spaces in your centre.

  • Locate a place to post the schedule of the day’s routine:
  • Identify activity centres where a visual schedule of the sequence of activities could be placed:

THINK: Think about a child with ASD in your center.

  • What kind of schedule do you think he would understand best (object? photo? picture? written?):

TRY: Make a simple schedule for a day or for an activity period that has several parts. Make it so this child will understand. Try introducing it to him. Review it with him by helping him to point to each part. Try using the schedule over several days.

  • How did the child respond?
  • What you would do differently?
  • What would you do next?

Click here to see a sample answer

3. Transition Strategies

Children with ASD may have difficulty stopping one activity and moving on to another (transitions). This may be due to:

  • Not knowing what is coming next.
  • Difficulty shifting attention from one activity to another.
  • Poor regulation of sensory or emotional reactions to new stimuli.

Transition strategies you can use within a daily routine are as follows:

  • To let the child know what will be happening next and when, use a picture/word schedule or object schedule.
  • Review two things at a time: what you are doing now and what you will be doing next. Review frequently throughout the day.
  • Assist the child as needed to point to the picture by modelling or (if necessary) physically guiding his hand, and assist the child as needed to turn over cards as they are finished.
  • Allow the child to carry the transition card or object to the next activity; have a place to put the transition card or object near the activity
  • Plan activities so that there is less distance to travel between them
  • Use visual cues in the environment to indicate that an activity is ending. This could include turning lights down or using a visual timer (e.g., a countdown clock).
  • Transition chants and songs can be sung during transition times. Some children with ASD attend better to sing-song rhythms than spoken directions.
  • Use short consistent phrases to warn of the ending of an activity that does not have a clear finishing point, such as “one more, then finished”.
  • Some children may have difficulty moving to the next activity unless they finish the present activity. Monitor the activities so they can be finished before a transition to another activity is requested. Try to avoid starting activities that cannot be finished in the available time frame.
  • Some children may need physical prompting to help them stop one activity in order to start another. Once a direction has been given to stop an activity, stay behind the child and provide prompts as needed by physically guiding the child through the transition. Try not to repeat verbal directions. Be sure to fade any prompts as soon as possible (see Module 4).
  • Be consistent; give a warning that a change is coming and follow through. Not following through will confuse the child about the meaning of instructions.

Transition Songs

Hello, Hello, (name’s) at school
(name’s) your name so we’ll clap for you.

ALL DONE SONG (Tune: Goodnight Ladies)
There’s no more time to play – all done
Play – all done
Play – all done
It’s time to put the toys away,
Playtime is all done.

MEALTIMES (Tune: This Old Man)
We’re ready now
Time to sit
Quiet time for just a bit
Quiet hands and quiet little feet
Time for us to sit and eat.

WASH HANDS (Tune: London Bridge)
Now it’s time to wash hands,
Wash hands, wash hands,
Now it’s time to wash hands,
Wash, wash hands.

(Name) is all done
(Name) is all done
Put your cup
In the sink

WAITING AT THE DOOR (Tune: I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumble Bee)
We’re waiting at the door to go outside,
Oh, I want to go outside.
We’re waiting at the door to go outside,
1-2-3-4 – Let’s open up the door.

Clap, clap, clap clap,
Clap clap hands.

Clap, clap, clap clap,
Clap clap hands.

Up, up, up, up,
Up, up, hands.

Up, up, up, up,
Up, up, hands.

Down, down, down, down,
Dow, down, hands.
Clap, clap, clap, clap,
Clap, clap hands.

GOODBYE SONG (Tune: Goodnight Ladies)
Goodbye (name)
Goodbye (name)
Goodbye (name)
We’ll see you again tomorrow.

DRESSING SONG (Tune: London Bridge)
(Name’s) taking off his/her shirt,
Off his/her shirt,
Off his/her shirt.
(Name’s) taking off his/her shirt
Taking off his/her shirt.

Transitions within activities:

  • Some children with ASD have difficulty shifting attention quickly from one focus to another.
  • Some may become absorbed in one activity, or parts of an activity or toy, such as watching certain visual stimuli, or turning the wheels of a car, or lining up blocks in a certain way, or playing with water in the sink.
  • Some may resist shifting from one type of play to another
  • Sometimes children with ASD may use repetitive play for different functions, such as to settle themselves down, to “tune out”, to avoid a situation or because they to enjoy it so much (more on the “functions” of behaviour in Module 3)

Some ways to help shift attention within activities include:

  • Observe and identify those activities which seem to be repetitive, absorbing, or hard for the child to vary.
  • Try sitting in front of or next to the child with your own set of identical toys. Initially, imitate what he is doing; then model how to use the toy in a different way (e.g., knock down a stack of blocks with a car for a child who is absorbed in repetitively moving the car back and forth).
  • Give the child some physical guidance, if needed, to shift to this new way of playing.
  • Repeat frequently for short periods; fade supports.
  • A peer may be used to model the activity.
  • Use of picture sequence cards showing how to play in different ways or the next step can be also be tried; provide supports as needed for the child to attend (look at and point) to the pictures.
  • Consider the possible functions of becoming absorbed in specific types of play; some of this activity may be allowed but limited in use (for example, as rewards for other behaviour).

4. Schedule and Routine

By now it may be obvious that schedules, predictability, and routine are essential for child with ASD to function well, particularly in a group setting. Keep in mind the following:

  • Provide consistent and frequent use of visual schedules of the daily routines and within activities.
  • Provide routine that does not vary much from day to day, especially when the child is new to the centre.
  • Ensure that the location of materials and equipment is consistent.
  • Maintain an initial consistency in the staff whom the child will encounter daily to help establish routine.
  • If possible, have the same workers performing daily routines, such as toileting, hand washing.
  • Provide flexibility in staff’s routines, to allow them to provide some individual teaching time on a regularly scheduled basis, such as during larger group times (rest time, circle, music, free play).
  • As the child becomes more comfortable, introduce small changes gradually to help him develop some flexibility: changes in routine, place, and staff, using visual supports and schedules to cue the changes to the child.
  • Provide a written individual schedule for the child with ASD, showing what he will be doing and with whom. Post this where it can easily be seen by staff.
  • Provide consistency for staff as well: provide a written schedule of who will be where, doing what.
  • Schedule routine time for staff to plan and communicate about needs of child with ASD, with parents and consultants as needed or available (see Module 8).
Exercise: Scheduling Time with the Child

OBSERVE a child with ASD that you know at several points during his day at your centre.

THINK about times of the day that you could spend more focused time with this child:

TRY: Make a schedule that identifies about 5 times a day you could play or interact specifically with this child in your setting. Consult your Director regarding feasibility:

Click here to see a sample answer

5. Individualized Programming

For more information see also Module 6: Developing Functional Play and Adaptive Behaviour.

  • Children with ASD vary greatly in their needs for additional supports, adult direction, and ability to learn within a group setting.
  • Environmental factors such as noise and visual stimulation, and the presence and unpredictable movements of other children may be very confusing for a child with ASD.
  • The children have individual difficulties with communicating, and in initiating play and social interaction.
  • Some children with ASD need extra teaching and extra time to learn basic skills such as paying attention, playing with toys, communication, social interaction.

Ways to provide for individual programming needs in a group setting:

  • Try to provide some quiet corners or spaces for more focused play and teaching.
  • Try to focus on strategies that can be repeated many times daily to increase learning success.
  • Try to place child in a small group of children who are able to function rather independently. This will allow you some time to give extra attention to child with ASD in the group.
  • Set a goal to provide a consistent amount of attention to that child if extra help is not available.
  • Try to plan group activities that can be adapted to the child with ASD. For instance, a craft activity might be adapted, and the child with ASD provided with a picture schedule of the steps in the simplified activity.
  • Look for ways to add structure or variation through choice boards and physical guidance.
  • Look for ways to follow the child’s interests: observe what toys or activities a child may be looking at or standing near. This might indicate an interest but lack of ability to initiate the activity. Acknowledge the child’s interest verbally, and physically guide the child to the activity.
  • Provide regular time for staff to plan, prepare for, and communicate about the child with ASD.
  • Utilize consultants and community resources to help in understanding and preparing for individual needs of children with ASD.
Exercise: Planning Opportunities to Teach

OBSERVE a child with ASD. Observe and note a strategy being used successfully to help this child:

THINK about how that strategy could be repeated many times daily in your setting:
TRY to identify and write down the times, places and staff who can repeat the strategy. Identify a plan to show them what to do:

Click here to see a sample answer


  • Children with ASD benefit from opportunities for participation in group settings.
  • Modifications are needed in typical child care settings both to accommodate and to teach children with ASD.
  • Changes can be made in: physical environment, visual supports, transition strategies, schedule and routine, individualized programming.

Observing and Understanding Behaviour