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Back to School: Setting up Classrooms for Students with Autism #3-Design the Physical Space Part 1

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To check out other posts in this series, click here.
So now we are going to move onto physical space.  This part of the series will be a little shorter because I’ve already written a book about this part, however, you can’t talk about setting up a classroom without talking about the physical space.  The physical space depends on the schedule which depends on the students in the classroom.  Hence, the physical space may change greatly or very little depending on whether the students are similar or different from year to year.  In my last post of the series, I talked about a preschool schedule so today I want to show you the pictures of the classroom itself.  Bear in mind it’s a bit messy.  When we set up classrooms for a demonstration classroom, we do it in a week while the kids are attending school in most cases.  This leads to a bit of a mess and we don’t have a lot of time for “the pretty committee” as a colleague of mine calls it.  That comes later–we address the bear bones of the class.  However, as an aside, I have noticed that if you are setting up a classroom for students on the spectrum, your theme is usually chosen for you….I’ll call it Visual Town!  Typically there are so many visual supports and communication materials on the walls that there is little opportunity for “decorating.”  So I think about the design of the classroom more than the decorations.

Oh, and I should also tell you that the week before we worked in this classroom, I tore a ligament in my knee falling on black ice. We didn’t think I was going to be able to go, but we autism people are tough!  And I thought Sue would kill me if I didn’t.  So I went with my leg in a brace the whole time to run a PRESCHOOL classroom!  Those of you who teach young ones will understand.  Anyone know how hard it is to sit on the floor when you can’t bend your knee?  And they still made me run circle!!

OK, so here’s the tour.  This was a classroom that was somewhat long and had lots of space with shelves along most of the walls.  We needed to break up the space to prevent running, so we put the kitchen / housekeeping area in the center of the room and used that furniture to block it off.

Here you can see the housekeeping area with the table in the middle of the room.
This is the other side of the housekeeping area.
And this is the back of the housekeeping area so you can see how it blocked off the room.

On the side of the room, we used cubbies to block off space for a reading area and the direct instruction area.  This put a quiet place next to the work area.

Direct instruction area is the area under the curtains and  behind the bookshelf


This is the library / reading area


This is our independent work system area.  Note that the desks face the wall to decrease distractions and can maintain 3 students at a time in the center rotation.
This shows the other side of the room from the library.  The first area inside the cubbies on the left is the play area and then the independent work area is just beyond that.

And below you can see the schedule areas.  We had one or two students on an object schedule and one on a first-then schedule.  The rest used a full-day schedule with center strips that traveled with them when they rotated through the center

Somewhere I have a picture of the teacher’s mini-refrigerator that had all her visuals velcroed to it in rows according to category, but I can’t seem to find it.  It was a useful storage system and was positioned near the food, which the students were most interested in requesting.  I also can’t find a picture of the circle area, but it was across from the library / reading area.  If I can find those pictures I’ll share them at another time.
In the next post, I will share some floor plans of before and after of an elementary classroom.  If you are interested in the physical design of a secondary classroom, check out my post on A Special Sparkle that has floor plans.
To learn more about things to think about in designing the physical space with more pictures and examples, check out my book below-click the book photo.  [Amazon affiliate link–same price for you and I only link to things I love and think will help you.]

What are the things you think about in designing the physical space of your room? Or what questions do you have for the blogosphere to help you with?  Drop me a line in the comments and we’ll discuss!

Until next time,


7 thoughts on “Back to School: Setting up Classrooms for Students with Autism #3-Design the Physical Space Part 1”

  1. If I don't win this book I will be purchasing it for sure. I just accepted a position to teach a brand new K-5 ASD unit. The room is literally empty of materials and very minimal furniture. I have so much to do, yet I don't even know where to start. I'm stressed. They are allowing me to purchase some "sensory" items but I need a lot more than just my break area. Wish you lived in Lake Mary Fl, as I would love your input.

    1. Wow Morgan! That is a challenge. I should also mention that the book has lists of materials (other than furniture) needed in a classroom for students on the spectrum. Perhaps it would be a helpful resource to take to administration for what you need–or at least help you prioritize. I've been in those classes and know how hard it is when you start with nothing. Good luck and thanks for reading; I'm glad it's helpful!

  2. Hello, I have been teaching kids with Autism for 6 years. Your posts and products on TPT have been very helpful…I have a couple of questions about classroom set up..yes, 6 years later, I still have questions about set up…

  3. After thriving through my first year as a teacher in a K-2 self contained classroom for students with Autism, moving forward I do plan to buy you book and I want to set up my physical space for success. I see in your photos that you have shelves in the middle of the room, how do you keep students from pushing them over? This year one of my 2nd graders had a major tantrum while working with OT and pushed a very heavy shelf down to where in did not fall backwards but forward.

    1. Hi Roz, I love having shelves in the middle of the room to break up space and keep kids from running. However, you do want to make sure that they are heavy and I think it's best if they are low shelves that are less likely to tip over. Some of the ones in the pictures above are also on wheels so they are more likely to move than tip over. Clearly how it is set up is going to depend on the individual characteristics of the kids, but lower shelves have not bee a big problem for us in tipping over. Hope tat helps.

  4. Pingback: Back to School: Setting up Classrooms for Students with Autism #2: Schedule Part 4 | Autism Classroom Resources

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