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MODULE: Structured Work Systems

Why Use Structured Work Systems?

Constructing meaning and learning from any environment requires attention to many different aspects of that environment (Reed & Gibson, 2005). The importance of such attention is evident in both social and academic settings. For example, to truly understand the nature of what another person says, individuals must attend to multiple stimuli including tone of speech, facial expressions, and body language. When learning a new concept or following a new set of directions, one attends to verbal directions while looking at or manipulating a variety of materials. However, many individuals with autism are unable to attend to multiple stimuli or environmental cues (Quill, 2000). These individuals demonstrate stimulus over-selectivity (Reed & Gibson, 2005), or attention to a limited number of environmental cues at one time. That is, individuals with autism may attend to specific parts or aspects of a situation without regard for the context within which the situation occurs (Happe & Frith, 2006; Quill, 2000).

Over the past several decades, research and personal accounts indicated that over-selectivity and visual perception influence how individuals with autism process environmental stimuli (Edgin & Pennington, 2005; Grandin, 2006; Happe & Frith, 2006; Caron, Mottron, Berthiaume, & Dawson, 2006). However, the debate continues as to whether individuals with autism simply have a strength and/or preference for processing specific details or if they lack the ability to process information in context (Dakin & Frith, 2005; Porter & Colheart, 2006). In any case, stimulus over-selectivity keeps individuals with autism from attending to and processing important aspects of the educational environment (Gibson & Reed, 2005; Frith, 2003; Happe & Frith, 2006; Koegel, Koegel, & Carter, 1999; Reed & Gibson, 2005). Specifically, over-selective attention, or attention to parts rather than wholes, limits an individual’s ability to understand the “big picture” in academic and social settings (Happe & Frith, 2006, p. 6). This is especially true as task demands increase or situations become more complex (Reed & Gibson, 2005).

The characteristics described above significantly influence the ability of individuals with ASD to participate in many different environments. Individuals with ASD have difficulty completing an activity from start to finish. They are often unable to “(maintain) a mentally specified goal and…(implement) that goal in the face of distracting alternatives” (Fisher & Happe, 2005, p. 757). In addition to having difficulty maintaining attention to activities, individuals with ASD have difficulty generalizing the skill to a new environment (Koegel et al., 1999). Structured work systems offer a tool for assisting individuals with ASD in focusing on important details, maintaining attention to tasks, and generalizing skills learning in one setting to new environments. How do work systems support the characteristics described above?Work systems highlight important information and help limit distractions.

  • Work systems offer an external organization tool for individuals with ASD who may have trouble organizing materials themselves.
  • Work systems offer a clear and predictable sequence of activities to complete. The predictability decreases anxiety and uncertainty many individuals with ASD feel in the face of unknown tasks or activities.
  • Work systems limit the need for verbal instructions.
  • Work systems limit the need for constant adult support and prompting. Work systems promote independence.
  • Once an individual has learned how to use a work system, the system can be used across environments to promote generalization of skills.

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