Many individuals with ASD are visual learners who learn best when information is presented in a structured format with a clear beginning and end point. Structured work systems are designed to take advantage of these strengths to help individuals with ASD learn to complete tasks independently.
Structured work systems were originally developed by Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children (www.teacch.com) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is an instructional strategy that emphasizes visual supports, and its aims are to increase and maximize independent functioning while reducing the frequent need for teacher correction and reprimand (Hume & Odem, 2006).
In a nutshell, the systems are designed to give visual information about what work needs to be done, how much work needs to be done, when the work is completed, and what will happen next. Schedules are used that include different elements (e.g. colors, shapes, numbers, letters or symbols) to indicate what work needs to be completed and can be two-dimensional, three-dimensional or electronic. Work that is expected to be completed is arranged in containers such as baskets, folders, trays, etc and is stored in designated areas. Work that is “finished” is kept in a different designated area, separated from the “to be done” tasks. The amount of work or number of containers depends on the skills of the learner.
Structured work systems have been shown to increase independence, as well as on-task behavior of both children and adults with ASD (Hume & Oden, 2006; Hume et al, 2012; Kucharczyk et al, 2019). What does it look like in practice? These work systems have been used to facilitate students’ ability to complete tasks from beginning to end without adult assistance, function in a general education classroom without paraprofessional staff support, and to help adults continue on a job site without the assistance of a job coach (Reeve & Kabot, 2012). Structured work systems can be applied to a broad range of settings and can often help people of all ages achieve a higher level of autonomy. Additionally, these instructional strategies have been shown to be effective when implemented by parents (Kucharczyk et al, 2019).
Work systems are designed to visually communicate four essential pieces of information to the learner (Schopler et al, 1995; Reeves & Kabot, 2012).
Work systems are designed to help the individual focus on what needs to be completed and what is expected. The physical environment is arranged in such a way that the tasks that the learner needs to finish are organized into containers so that they can see exactly what needs to be done. The type of container used should match the skills and developmental needs of the individual using them. The containers are then placed in a designated spot such as a shelf, table, or desk and remain there until the learner accesses them. Work should consist of skills and tasks which have been previously learned the individual.
A visual work schedule is used to indicate to the individual how many tasks they need to accomplish. The schedule could be a written list or could consist of symbols, numbers, letters, etc. corresponding to the work containers. If the individual can’t use a visual task list, the number of containers at his work area can provide the necessary information. Only the amount of work expected to be completed is placed in the container. This way, the learner knows what is expected and does not get confused.
The learner will know that they are finished because all of the completed tasks will have been moved to the designated “finished” area and there will be no tasks left in the designated “to be done” area. If the individual is using a visual work schedule, they will know that they are finished when there are no more items left in the sequence.
The learner should be directed as to what to do after all of the work has been completed. This can be indicated by the last symbol on a visual schedule pointing the individual to something else to do such as a book, going to check a different schedule, another area or location to transition to, or perhaps, a prompt to just relax and take a break. It is also possible to use a symbol to cue the individual to get the attention of an adult or supervisor to check their work or to get an ok that it is appropriate to transition to more reinforcing activities.
Structured work schedules can be a useful learning strategy for many individuals with ASD, especially if a goal is to increase the individual’s independence. Additionally, work schedules may be helpful in generalizing previously learned skills to new materials and settings as well as improving maintenance of skills over time. It is also possible to embed the need to send messages to adults or supervisors into the structured work schedule. For example, perhaps certain parts of the tasks are intentionally removed from the work area, creating the opportunity for the individual to have to initiate communication with others to ask for help, etc.
Additional information and instructions for implementing structured work systems can be found in Building Independence: How to Create and Use Structured Work Systems (Reeve & Kabot, 2012).
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Hume, K, Odom, S. (2007). Effects of an Individual Work System on the Independent Functioning of Students with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1166-1180.
Hume, K., Plavnik, J., Odom, S. (2012). Promoting Task Accuracy and Independence in Students with Autism Across Educational Setting Through the Use of Individual Work Systems. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 2084-2099.
Kucharczyk, S., Schaefer Whitby, P.J., Mrla, T. (2019). Parent Implementation of Structured Work Systems on Child Acquisition of Independence Skills through Family Preferred Routines. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 54 (1), 83-93.
Reeve, C.E., Kabot, S.S. (2012). Building Independence: How to Create and Use Structured Work Systems. AAPC Publishing.
Keywords: structured work systems, independent work systems, structured teaching, learning environment, increasing independence