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Training in the Use of Visually-Structured Environments

Our experience in Tanzania began when Maureen Bennie of the Autism Awareness Centre in Canada asked me if I would be interested in traveling to Dar es Salaam to work in a school for children with autism. I have a background in volunteerism and spend a week every year in Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies where I work with a group of parents through the Autistic Society of Trinidad and Tobago. I agreed without hesitation and suggested that my formidable colleague, Joyce Santo, go too. Joyce has worked with me in Trinidad and the two of us bring unique and needed skills and information to the training table.

When Joyce and I arrived at the school, we were immediately impressed by the welcoming nature of the building itself. We could tell right away that the teachers were well-trained. The entire staff greeted us warmly and appeared eager to learn new things.

The school facility includes a well-equipped and secure playground, a state-of-the-art sensory room, a kitchen and eating area, three main classrooms and other small work spaces. Since our goal was to teach the staff about visually-structured environments, we knew right away that we would have a receptive group.

Meeting the children was the highlight. We spent the first day just playing with all the children, observing them and getting to know them. The school staff were gentle and nurturing in their interactions with the children. The children obviously loved being at school and we could tell that they felt comfortable in the school environment.

We decided to focus on the five children who were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. We developed visual schedules for each of the five children. Visual schedules help to increase independent movement for dependent children. We taught the teachers how to teach the children to follow and use the schedules. The schedules were a great success and within two days, the children were already catching on to their use!

Another strategy we introduced was the use of predictable visual routines throughout the day. We created three to begin using including an entry/exit routine for children to “check-in” and “check-out” of school each day. We added visuals to the singing group to make it more routinized. We created a choice board so that nonverbal children could choose songs and added name cards to prompt the children to learn and use names.

The first week also included training and practice on the use of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Although the staff had heard of this strategy before, they had not yet implemented it as a part of their program.

Throughout our first week, we held daily training sessions for the staff and it was during these sessions that we were able to create the materials needed to visually support the school environment and to set up the PECS program. Each day we discussed what we had worked on that day, the educational reasoning behind the strategies and the plans for the following day. The teaching staff received extensive training and practice in the PECS approach.

The second week was spent practicing the use of schedules, visual routines and PECS training. We also introduced the idea of “functional work”. This training helps teachers to create work that leads to functional and long-term goals for both independent living and work skills. The staff spent many hours creating work tasks to use with the students. They really pulled through on this task, displaying their remarkable creativity!

The experience was judged to be beneficial for everyone involved, including Joyce and myself. This experience could not have happened without the support of the Autism Awareness Centre, The World Federation, and the Autism Asperger Publishing Company. We participated in an Autism Awareness Day before our departure. There were several special education teachers in attendance and everyone mentioned the need for teachers to begin networking, sharing and learning from each other. The World Federation Autistic Daycare Centre is in a unique position to truly be a leader in such training efforts.

Kari Dunn Buron
Autism Education Specialist, Hamline University

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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