How to structure a lesson or activity for pupils with autism

Structuring a lesson or activity by breaking it down into small parts with visual prompts can make the lesson/ activity manageable for autistic children because it enables the pupils to know what they will be doing now, next and when the activity is coming to an end. Here is an example of visual symbols used in a physical education lesson.

visual symbols for p.e.

At the beginning of the lesson, I would say “what’s first?” and take the first symbol to show all the children individually so they can say, sign, read or point to the symbol. In this case it is ‘warm up’ so we would then do the warm up. When the warm up is finishing, I would count down from 5 and say “warm up has finished”. In a P.E. lesson I usually ask the children to “sit on the bench” before referring them to the visual symbols and removing the warm up symbol whilst again saying “warm up has finished”. I would then say “whats next?” and again individually show the children the next symbol. This process is repeated for each small activity of the lesson. This gives a clear structure and routine to the lesson which the children learn and can feel comfortable with. When it is time for ‘cool down’, the children can clearly see the lesson is coming to an end as there is only 1 symbol left.

Here is a similar example of how I’ve structured a music lesson using a similar routine. I have used the SCERTS model (green and red board- green for what is coming up and red for finished).

visual symbols for music lesson


There is a similar pattern with how I’ve structured this lesson. The lesson is broken down into smaller activities and each has a visual symbol to show the children what is next. When an activity has finished, I move it to the red finished area and say “what’s next?” before showing all of the children individually the next activity for them to say, sign, read or point to.

Don’t forget this structure can benefit all children and can make mainstream activities more inclusive by enabling the children that can understand symbols to know what is happening next and how many activities to go before the session is finishing. This type of structure could also be used with photos for children who understand photos but perhaps not symbols, objects of reference for children at that level and words for more able children who are confident at reading.

Also, do remember that a symbol programme like the one I have used to make symbols is also not necessary. Symbols like these can be replaced by pictures simply found on the internet, photos you have taken or by simply drawing a picture!

Lesson and activity visual instructions – teaching resources for children with autism

During my subject, class or group lessons I will give each child a visual step by step instruction resource that me and my teaching assistants will have made using a symbol computer program (My school uses ‘Communicate In Print’) I print the symbol resources I’ve made and then laminate them.

The instructions give the children a visual step by step guide to the activity. This gives the children a visual structure to the lesson where the beginning and ending is clear. Visual step by step guides promote independence as the children are able to see the steps first and are not completely relying on a verbal instruction from an adult. More able children who can read are able to follow visual instructions with increasing independence as they read each step before undertaking the task.

Here is an example of a booklet for children who understand symbols but are not yet reading and possibly have a short attention span (hence no more than 2 symbols per age).

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

large symbol visual instruction

The large symbols are easy to see and focus on for a child with a short attention span. Only 1 symbol per page allows the child to focus only on that symbol instruction rather than seeing multiple instructions on 1 page. Before beginning each step of the task we will look at the symbol, point to the symbol and then say and sign the symbol. When the step is complete, I will say “…….  has finished” and the children will then move a red square onto  the box next to the symbol to highlight that step has finished. (See photos above – when a child puts a red square next to the symbol, this means the step has finished). This routine can be taught using physical and verbal prompts initially before reducing them as the child becomes more familiar and confident with the routine.

For the children who are more able and perhaps recognise a few words, the following visual instructions would be more suitable for the same activity. As the child becomes more able to read and understand text, these instructions can simply be written bullet points.

Visual instructions

The next instructions follow the SCERTS model ( for visual in-task schedules. The steps to be undertaken are on the green side and when the step is finished, the child moves it to the red side. These instructions show a clear beginning and end to the activity. I make these instructions for the children in my class that recognise some words or can read. After completing a step I ask the children “whats next?” and they read the next step on the green side. I will then model the task for the children so they can see how to do it before they begin the task. As you can see I have differentiated the 2 boards below for children at different levels by using a maximum of 2 symbols per instruction on one and much more detailed text on the other.

SCERTS in task schedule


For parents and schools without a symbol program, resources like this can be made with photos and images found simply on the internet (searching a word on google images will bring up a large selection of related images!). You don’t even need to have access to a computer or the internet, just simply drawing a picture will be just as good. The instructions above could just be simple drawings of first a pizza, tomato sauce, cheese, the toppings and the oven down the side of a page!

Please post any questions below.

Days of the week board

A visual days of the week board can be great for children with autism to learn the days of the week, the differences that happen on each day and how many days left there are until the end of the week. Here is an example of a days of the week board I show the children at the beginning of every day and I ask the question “what day is it today?”.

days of the week


I then say a child’s name and they give me the day of the week that it is today. The day is then put at the top of our morning registration board. After each day is finished, I do not put that day back on the board so it shows the children a visual count down of how many days are left in the week such as on Thursday the only days showing on the board will be Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The subject symbols next to each day show the children an activity that is happening that day that does not happen on the other days such as dance on a Monday.

The days of the week board is also useful to prepare the children for a change in the routine. For example, last week we were not going to go swimming on Friday as we were going to a dance festival. At the beginning of the week I changed the symbol next to Friday to dance festival and also put a red cross over another swimming symbol to show no swimming on Friday. When I showed the morning board to the children on the Monday morning, it was clear that many of them understood that there was no swimming on Friday. Two children were able to say “no swimming”, 1 non verbal child spontaneously walked over to the board and pointed to ‘no swimming’ and 1 child screamed (his favourite activity is swimming!).


Sand timers for children with autism

I cannot stress enough how valuable sand timers are for children with autism and teachers, parents and any one else working with children with autism. Sand timers clearly provide a visual aid and count down to the end of an activity and can be used in daily routines and during lessons. Sand timers can be used in any setting including at home. They can also help children to develop an understanding of time. I always use a sand timer to show when an activity is coming to an end followed with a verbal countdown from 5.

Visual timetables for children with autism

Visual timetables aid transitions by enabling children with autism to understand what they will be doing next or where they will be going. Visual timetables enable children to be independent and can motivate children by making it clear what will be happening in the day.

The child removes the next symbol from the timetable and travels with it to a board by the next transition point (i.e the classroom door, next too or on the classroom table or another room) and matches it to a corresponding bigger symbol. A finished box or pouch can also be used. The photo below shows a big symbol for dance and toilet which is on the door leading to the dance hall and the toilet. The big symbols are changed before prior to the children making the transition.

big symbol transition

The different coloured timetables making it clear to the child which timetable is theirs. The children using the timetables above are working at a symbol level. Timetables can be made up of objects of reference, photos, symbols or words for children who can read and have a good understanding of text. Travelling timetables can be made on clipboards for photos and symbols and wipe boards for written timetables.