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Structured Teaching for Autism: All You Need to Know

Structured Teaching for Autism: All You Need to Know

Structured teaching for autism is a well-researched method for enabling individuals with autism to complete tasks independently. It helps them cope with transitions and changes in school and everyday life. 

People with autism have many behavioral and cognitive barriers to learning. They often struggle in unstructured and unpredictable environments, like classrooms. 

Structured teaching aims to help them navigate these barriers independently by helping them understand where to be, what to do, and how to do it.

If you’d like to learn more about teaching children with autism, you can download your free guide here:

What is structured teaching for autism?

Structured teaching is a group of strategies extensively used in special-provision schools to support autistic students in functioning independently. 

It was developed in North Carolina in the 1970s as a core component of the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) program. 

It capitalizes on autistic people’s shared strengths and visual learning preferences and addresses their barriers to learning through individualized plans. 

While structured teaching is often applied in autism-specific education settings, it is not consistently used in mainstream schools due to logistical, time, and training constraints.

The four key elements of structured teaching are as follows: 

  • Physical structure of the environment: where they need to be.
  • Visual schedules: what they need to do.
  • Visual structure: how an activity needs to be completed.
  • Work systems: what needs to be done.

Work systems

Work systems are the hardest to implement in mainstream settings. Research suggests they’re not practical for a whole-of-class approach. 

However, you could still use them for your autistic students as they answer the following task-related questions for them:

  • What task/activity am I meant to do?
  • How much time will it take?
  • How will I know I’m progressing/when the work is finished?
  • What do I need to do next?

They can take the following forms:

  • Individual work systems at desks, zoned with tape–numbered tasks, are always on the left, and finished work is always placed on the right. 
  • Work systems in folders, using the above left-to-right organization and itemized tasks. 
  • Structured tasks are broken down and organized clearly, visually, and temporally.

Benefits of structured teaching

Structured teaching benefits autistic children in many ways. It creates a safe environment, facilitates independence and academic achievement, creates consistency, and promotes inclusion.

Creates a safe environment

A structured classroom creates a safe and secure environment. All students can thrive, enjoy themselves, and focus on learning by effectively reducing disruptive behaviors that can be triggered by anxiety.

Child stressed in school

Their tendency towards repetitive and restrictive behaviors can cause them difficulties with transitions and shifts in thought, making the dynamic school environment stressful.

Therefore, a calm, purposeful, and organized learning environment can help mitigate these problems.

Facilitates academic achievement and independence

Differences in autistic students’ executive functioning capabilities may mean that they struggle to:

  • stay on-task,
  • remember instructions,
  • navigate transitions,
  • follow sequential activities, 
  • plan/prioritize.  

Structured teaching strategies can help them overcome these learning barriers. They can master new skills and concepts and be proud of their work and achievements.

Creates consistency

Despite the best planning, change is inevitable, within schools and without. For example, teachers get sick or retire.

However, if a class teacher has successfully implemented structured teaching, substitute teachers can more easily step in and manage the classroom consistently.

It can also help autistic children learn to navigate change in other contexts.   

Promotes inclusion 

When structured teaching is applied in the mainstream classroom, it creates an inclusive culture

By promoting a whole-of-class approach in mainstream schools, classrooms can be made autism-friendly, reducing the need for numerous interventions that can make students feel singled out. 

This not only aids autistic students in their academic growth but also fosters social inclusion by reducing feelings of being marginalized.

Implementing structured teaching

You may wonder where to start if you are new to structured teaching and work in a mainstream school with bigger classes, fewer support staff, and less space.

But if you can implement what’s possible at a whole-class level, your inclusive classroom will be easier to manage. Before the school year starts, aim to complete most of the planning, research, and organization.

You could create a checklist that includes the following:

  • Enhance your understanding of autism using videos, books, articles, and other expert advice.
  • Familiarize yourself with your autistic students’ individual characteristics.
  • Consider your classroom environment and modify it if possible.
  • Divide your space into the necessary zones using tape, furniture, and labels.
  • Gather all necessary materials – folders, trays, boards, labels, and pictures.
  • Plan simple routines and time markers, like songs during transitions, timers, and a system for how students will move around the areas.
  • Organize individualized work systems for your autistic students before the term starts – one for each member of a mainstream class will be impractical!

Parents and educators should work together, be consistent, review arrangements regularly, and assess progress. 

How to organize a classroom for structured teaching

Organizing the physical structure of the environment benefits autistic students by addressing their sensory and executive functioning differences.

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There are many things you can do to organize a classroom for structured teaching, like the following:

  • Clearly define areas for activities 
  • Clearly label and position materials 
  • Minimize sensory distractions 
  • Plan appropriate seating arrangements 
  • Provide sanctuary spaces 
  • Use routines for transitions

However, to successfully organize your classroom for structured teaching, you must consider your autistic students’ individual characteristics. 

For example, a student may be easily distracted by too many visual stimuli. In that case, you may want to position their workstation so that they’re facing a blank space. 

Some of these things may be harder to achieve in a crowded mainstream classroom. However, using tape on the floor or screens is an easy way to zone spaces. 

Temporarily covering wall displays or closing the blinds when a child needs to focus may also help you minimize sensory distractions.

Using visual supports for structured teaching

Visual supports are key to structured teaching as they support autistic children’s understanding of their environment and activities.

The types of visual supports you could use are as follows:

  • Text and pictures to display rules and instructions
  • Organized materials to make their function clear 
  • Color-coded materials
  • Pictorial weekly schedules and individualized timetables 
  • Temporal order visual representations (first/then/‘what next?’)

Visual schedules anchor autistic students’ day/week by providing predictability. The visual cues help them sequence events, give them notice of anticipated changes, and encourage independent transitions.

Girl writing in a classroom schedule on the wall

While the whole-class schedule will be on the wall, students’ schedules should be placed on their workstations or folders. You could even create a daily schedule with the child, which they can manage with movable images or labels on the wall.  

Other visual aids help students independently organize and complete their tasks. Here are some practical ideas for how you could implement them in structured tasks:

  • Pictures of what materials they need
  • Color-coded shapes they can match to classroom zones to remind them where to get their materials
  • Photos showing steps to complete a task and how the finished work will look
  • Symbols/written labels to remind them where to put their completed work 

Visual supports offer the following benefits:

  • Utilize autistic children’s strengths
  • Enhance their understanding 
  • Promote independence and self-monitoring
  • Are easy to implement in mainstream classrooms
  • Aid language comprehension and organization 

Teaching students with autism 

The literature shows that structured teaching can benefit autistic children by increasing their independence, raising their self-esteem, and giving them transferable skills to benefit them as they grow.

While research into its use in mainstream schools is ongoing, implementing structured teaching at a whole-class level (where practical) will make classrooms truly inclusive and benefit all your students.


Q: What are the main elements of structured teaching?

A: The main elements of structured teaching are physical structuring of the classroom environment, visual schedules, work systems, and visual structure.

Q: How do you create a structured classroom for autism?

A: Organize the space using furniture and tape to help you zone areas labeled with simple words or pictures to show their function.

Q: What are structured activities for autism?

A: These activities are planned and set up for the individual child. They give instructions for completing a task using visuals, simple language, and a clear temporal sequence.

Q: How do you teach a student with autism?

A: To teach a student with autism effectively, you must have patience. Plan for their needs meticulously, and use consistent, relevant positive reinforcement.


Avier Virues-Ortega, Flávia M. Julio, and Roberto Pastor-Barriuso. ‘The TEACCH program for children and adults with autism: A meta-analysis of intervention studies’. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 33, Issue 8, 2013, Pages 940-953,

Macdonald, L., Keen, D., Trembath, D., Ashburner, J., Costley, D., and Haas, K. (2018). ‘The use of structured teaching strategies to support students on the autism spectrum to stay on task in mainstream classrooms’. Brisbane: Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism.

Sung Hyeon Cheon, Johnmarshall Reeve, and Maarten Vansteenkiste. ‘When teachers learn how to provide classroom structure in an autonomy-supportive way: Benefits to teachers and their students’. Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 90, 2020,

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