Teachers strive to keep routine, organization and structured time in their classrooms. All of these are extremely important for students on the autism spectrum. One way to accomplish this is to incorporate workstations into students’ daily routines. Workstations are easy to make, can be individualized for students to meet Individualized Educational Program (IEP) objectives, and help to keep a classroom running smoothly.

Workstations are a win-win situation; the student is learning independence and practicing new skills. The teacher is able to use the data from workstations to measure progress toward benchmarks while encouraging student independence and time-on-task. Workstations are appropriate for students on all levels of the autism spectrum.

What are Workstations?

The concept of workstations (sometimes called work systems) was developed from the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication related handicapped Children) program at the University of North Carolina. Workstations are dictated by the goals on the student’s IEP. Stations can range from sorting activities (colors, shapes, nuts and bolts, categories) to writing activities. Depending upon the student’s need, they may include laundry sorting, preparing food, tying and buttoning, or matching. Workstations can be stored in baskets and shoeboxes, appropriately labeled so that it is easy for the teacher to choose the ones needed for the day. File folder tasks are also suitable for stations.

How Do Students Use Workstations?

Many students with autism respond well to visual schedules. Using a visual of the workstations to be completed in sequence, a student gets the station, completes the task, puts it in the “finished” box to be checked by the teacher, and proceeds to the next task. Elementary students may do three or four workstations at one sitting.

The visual schedule usually includes the choice of a reinforcer at the end. Visual schedules guide students through the entire process independently, and they give the student a beginning point and an ending point. Students with autism tend to be much more compliant and task-oriented if they know that there is an ending point for the task. Code workstations by color, shape, or some type of easily identifiable symbol so that students can match the station with what is on their schedule. By locating their own stations and completing them in their work space, they are exhibiting independence and saving valuable time.

According to TEACCH in Structuring Learning for Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, a good workstation will:

  • Use only activities the pupil can do independently and has a high chance of succeeding at without support.
  • Use activities that are naturally interesting to the pupil, building on their strengths and interests.
  • Requires little or no organization of materials by pupil, and components of activity are organized in a way that enables success and understanding, e.g. all objects to sort placed in a pot.
  • Use activities that require physical manipulation – these are generally the most successful.
  • Require as minimal support as possible, e.g. occasional guiding of pupil’s hand, touching needed object. Limit verbal cues which may inhibit independence.
  • Have limited distractions.
  • Help pupils to generalize skills.
  • Develop concept of working in a standard organized fashion, e.g. top to bottom, left to right.
  • Please note that it is preferable to correct and respond to a child’s mistakes after the workstation time. This reinforces the independence element. If the child does not achieve a task, simplify it, alter the structure or re-teach.

Workstation time needs to built into a student’s daily schedule. It is extremely important that students can do workstation tasks independently, as this provides for smooth transitions, prevents meltdowns, and gives the teacher a chance to work one-on-one or have small group time with other students.

Where Can I Find Workstations For My Classroom?

If cost is no object, pre-made workstations can be ordered from reputable companies such as Shoebox Tasks. Many teachers make their own workstations from extra materials found around the home and classroom. These workstations were developed at TEACCH workshops, and most are easy to make from readily available materials. Other ideas are shown from their 2007 workshop.

File folder activities, readily found online and in many teacher resource books, work well to implement objectives. Baskets and/or plastic see-through shoeboxes, available at dollar stores, hold materials and stack easily. Many times, workstations can be as simple as putting a math sheet with manipulatives. Some excellent visual supports and activities make for simple stations and hold students’ interest.

Workstations are an excellent way to implement IEP objectives for students with autism. They promote independence, provide practice for maintenance of skills, and increase chances for student success in the classroom setting. Teachers can easily collect data based on workstation completion. Visual workstation schedules allow the student with autism to complete a sequence of stations independently, and also give a starting and ending point for the student. Workstations are easy to make from household and classroom materials. They are a must-have for structured classrooms for students with autism.