Physical Structure

Physical structure is used in everyday environments and helps people to know what to expect, it provides meaning to the environment. It also helps to manage sensory stimulation and aids the person with organising their behaviours around specific contexts. Some examples of physical structure in everyday life are:

  • Road markings and road signs to show people where to drive
  • Airport queue ropes or boundaries
  • Coloured lines to direct passengers towards trains


Students with autism benefit from physical structure in the classroom and other settings. The amount of structure required should be individualised to meet the needs of each person.

The use of physical structure for students with autism aim will help

  • To increase organisation
  • To make the environment more predictable
  • To visually communicate what is expected in the environment
  • To visually direct the student to an activity
  • To reduce distractions and
  • To reduce anxiety

Please click on the bullet points below for some additional examples of physical structure within the classroom environment:

One to One teaching table and independent work desk.

Independent work desks are used in the classroom when the student is completing focused independent work, in order to minimise distractions, screens or similar structures may be used.

The cognitive ability of a pupil is not a good indicator of their tendency towards distractibility. A student in a mainstream school may work best with a high amount of physical structure. The structure should be adaptable to suit the student’s ability to focus on any given day.

In this image the table on the right is turned towards the screen/divider to reduce distractions. The student’s one to one teaching desk is in the fore ground. Students will transition (move) to the independent work desk to complete activities or tasks that have been taught at the teaching table and which the teacher knows they are capable of completing without direct assistance. This student needs little additional physical structure other than a table, chair and a screen.


Photo – The TEACCH Autism Programme

Another example of a structured work desk where the child is highly distractible and works best with 4 sided physical structure (the curtain, the wall and two movable screens)


Photo – The TEACCH Autism Programme

Work desks may range from a 4-sided structure (as seen above) to small portable screens on the pupil’s desk that is only used when required.


Photo- Education Authority South Eastern Region

It works best if systems are replicated across environment as illustrated below. Chair turned towards the wall to reduce distraction at home.


Photo – MCA

This structure below was for a student in mainstream primary school. The student used a standard table and chair. Activities the student was expected to complete independently were structured and placed on a shelf close by.   Much of the work was collected on the shelf then completed away from the table (a treasure hunt) for example. The students work system displayed on the table transitioned the student to the assigned work areas within the classroom environment and back without direct support.


Photo – The TEACCH Autism Programme

This is the same student’s teaching table, where new work is was introduced and taught by the teacher. An activity system is displayed on the desk and a visual reminder (turtle image) to slow down!   There are also suggestions for what the student can do to emotionally regulate behaviour on the shelf. If frustrated, for example, the student could choose a card and do one of the suggestions on the back of the card – suggestions for this student were go for a walk, go to the chill out zone, listen to the teacher’s words.


Photo – The TEACCH Autism Programme and SCERTS Emotional Regulation Cards

Physical structure should be used across environments; in the wider school environment and in the community.

Examples below show how the teacher used physical structure to increase meaning and participation for the students in the PE hall, the blue mats explicitly indicate where the student should stand.


The visual stop sign and physical boundary indicates to the student that this area is out of bounds.


‘Chair Yoga’ is used to help a young person stay emotionally regulated by doing gentle stretching exercises.


Activity zones in the classroom

Most classrooms have clearly marked zones for different activities. This is particularly helpful for students with autism as it communicates what the expectations are in that area. Some students may benefit from these areas being more clearly marked through the use of physical structure such as screens or coloured tape to identify different zones such as independent work, one-to-one teaching, calm corner, group work, snack/lunch.

classroom1 classroom2 classroom3 classroom4 classroom5 classroom6

  • Coloured tables

Different coloured cloths are sometimes used on a table to communicate to the student what activity is going to happen e.g. red tablecloth=independent work; blue tablecloth=one-to-one teaching; yellow tablecloth=break.

  • Colour coding

Some schools paint the walls or use different floor colourings to indicate the different parts of the school e.g. Science corridor, Languages corridor.

This picture shows the use of coloured boundaries in Cork Education Centre.