Completing work independently

Many students have difficulty completing work independently for a variety of reasons. This can be incorrectly perceived as disruptive behaviours. The student may be viewed as being intentionally oppositional, demand avoidant and/or defiant. There are likely to be a number of reasons why the student is not completing work independently and these can be easily addressed.

Reasons why working independently may be difficult for students with autism

  • Limited understanding of task: If the instructions for the task have been given verbally, some students with autism may be unable to complete the task due to receptive language difficulties. They may have difficulties processing the verbal language and understanding the instructions, and subsequently do not participate in the task or complete it incorrectly.
  • Unable to retain instructions: Some students may initially process the verbal instructions but cannot retain the information during the task. Many students with autism do not have the skill of knowing how and when to ask for help and so it is likely that they will stop the task before it is complete, or complete it incorrectly.
  • Task is not meaningful: Many students with autism are more likely to be motivated to complete work if it is meaningful to them. It is important that they see the end goal of the task and understand the purpose of completing it. This can cause difficulties in more abstract work (e.g. creative writing, Art).
  • Limited attention: It is important to be realistic about how long a student can be expected to work independently. Attention difficulties may mean they can only sustain concentration for brief periods and that they require and benefit from short breaks during/between tasks.
  • Prompt dependency: Many students with autism require additional support from adults, but this can sometimes create ‘learnt dependency’, meaning that students cannot complete work independently. They rely on prompts from adults to work through a task or series of tasks, and if they do not receive the prompts, they may stop working or lose concentration as they are unsure of what to do next.
  • Task is not achievable: The task may be too difficult for some students and if they lack the skill to know how and when to ask for help, they will not complete the task and may become frustrated.
  • Pre-requisite skills: The student may not have the pre-requisite skills required to carry out the task independently. See assessment in differentiation section
  • Distractions: Students who are sensitive to sensory input will be easily distracted by stimuli in the classroom e.g. hum from the data projector, display boards, activity outside the window, classmates whispering. This distracts them from the task and they stop working. See our sensory resource for more. 

Teach a student to work independently

  • Provide visual structure. It is important to visually structure tasks for students with autism as this reduces the need for complex verbal instructions and gives students a consistent reference point if they have difficulty in retaining instructions. It provides clarity and meaning in a task, and reduces the reliance on adult prompting. Visual structure may include setting out materials in sequence, providing an example of the end product or giving written instructions. Link to section on structured tasks.
  • Use a work system. A work system sets out tasks in a sequential order and is visually organising for the student. The work system will show the student how much work is to be done, the order in which it is to be done and what will happen when the student is finished. This reduces the reliance on adult prompting and removes the need to process and retain complex verbal instructions. Link to section on work systems.
  • Provide a ‘help’ card. A visual symbol to represent ‘help’ can be placed on the student’s desk to prompt them to request help from an adult when a task is not understood. The student will initially need to be taught how to use the card in a one-to-one setting with an adult before generalising to a real classroom situation. Link to example of a help card.
  • Make the task motivating. The student’s motivation can be increased by giving a reward on completion of the task, and showing this on a visual schedule. This may form part of a reward chart in which the student is given a token for the successful completion of work, and these tokens then culminate in an overall reward at the end of the day. Alternatively, the reward may be more instant and given as soon as the task is completed. Rewards may include time on the computer/iPad, time to read a favourite book or playing with a preferred toy/object. Link to examples of reward charts.
  • Make the task intrinsically motivating. The student may be more likely to complete a task if his/her special interest is incorporated into the task. Examples may include using a favourite cartoon character on the worksheet or linking the work to a preferred topic e.g. solar system, dinosaurs, films.
  • Learning style. Observe and determine the student’s preferred learning style, and then incorporate this into tasks. Many students with autism have a visual learning style, which is why visual structure in tasks is often effective. Others may be tactile learners and will be more motivated in tasks which allow them to work with practical materials e.g. blocks in numeracy, multisensory materials in literacy. Some students learn best through movement and so their motivation will be increased if they are given movement breaks during a task or allowed to stand to complete activities.
  • Break the task into achievable steps. Consider what length of time is reasonable for the student to maintain attention and then give a short break before the student returns to the task. The student is more likely to cooperate if he/she is presented with 1-2 steps at a time instead of feeling overwhelmed by multiple steps/tasks.
  • Make tasks more concrete. Abstract tasks (e.g. creative writing, Art, Music) can often be difficult for students with autism who prefer more concrete facts and figures. However, it is important to remember that many students will have creative talents which will emerge when tasks are structured in a way which is meaningful to them. Tasks can be made more meaningful by providing clear visual instructions for each step of the task and an example of a completed product.
  • Ensure the task is achievable. Tasks may need to be differentiated to ensure all students can successfully complete assigned work. Link to section on differentiating the curriculum.
  • Reduce distractions. If the student is sensitive to sensory input, this will affect attention to task as he/she will be easily distracted by sights, sounds etc. Minimise distractions through some of the following strategies:
    • Work station: The student may work in a screened off area. He/she does not sit here all day, but uses this station for focused independent work. See structured visual teaching.
    • Position in classroom: Position the student away from windows and doors.
    • Reduce visual distractions: Position the student facing a blank wall. Also consider the number of display boards in the classroom and ensure computers etc. are switched off when not in use.
    • Ear defenders/headphones: If the student is distracted by background noise, provide ear defenders (or similar). These should only be worn when it is necessary to block out unwanted noise while the student is engaged in focused work.