Using Structured Systems for kids on the Autism Spectrum

One of the main reasons that I love creating structured systems for individuals on the Autism spectrum (ASD) is because they lead it. As a therapist, I truly believe that structured systems can help.

A structured system is simply a program that you put in place in order to achieve progress with transition, structure, organization, and compliance. Although there often are more results. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum often struggle with managing their emotions through changes, expressive language, and receptive language. Structured systems focus on all the areas mentioned while building upon areas of difficulty and strengthening already strong areas.

Before diving in and creating a structured system for your child, I think it is important to understand the foundation.

Counseling for individuals and families in the Autism Spectrum can help.

Hi, I’m Amber.

I love working with kids and families on the Autism Spectrum. 

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School – Home system

The program that you are about to create will in some form or fashion mirror that of what is taking place at school. The reason for this is simple. Your child is already accustomed to school expectations and procedures. By mirroring the school’s system, you are creating a smooth transition for your child.

The system should have a unique physical environment that sticks out to your child. For instance, a location for homework that has colors to represent it.

  • The yellow desk = homework desk.
  • Kitchen = meals.

Common methods to support your child with the physical structure and visual structure:

  • Have areas color-coded.
  • Color code baskets or bins that are used for specific activities.
  • Have different clocks per space. This strategy often will help increase the association of a space with activity.
  • Sticking to a schedule

Your child will need some sort of scheduling platform that is visible and prominent. I think it’s even better if you can have more than one. Having clocks, calendars, planners at different locations in the home will provide a constant reminder of what is supposed to happen. If you think about your life as an adult, I’m sure that you have some sort of scheduling system you follow. Your child simply requires that with a few extra supportive tools.

You are the parent, so be creative. Consider locations in your home that your child will enjoy and not miss. Maybe their bedroom or the fridge.

What are the expectations?

In school, your child has expectations. If they are in elementary school, it’s a color system. Green is for “good” days and red “not-so-good”. Home should be no different. In reality, your child has expectations at home. They have homework, chores, behavioral expectations, and more. A structured system is aimed to address the expectations that your child has at home just as it addresses their expectations at school.

Common questions to consider when creating expectations for set activities or task:

  • How much time will your child spend on a particular activity (such as homework)?
  • What will be expected from your child while engaged in an activity?
  • How will you support your child during the activity?

Everyone loves rewards:

At school, your child gets stickers, gold stars, candy, and other awesome stuff for the desired behavior or once an expectation has been met. This is great to know. Use it to your advantage.

Rewards should be provided to your child per day, per week, and month. Unlike adults, your child will want an immediate reward for the “tasks” that they are being asked to do. Try to consider what this means in relation to what reward you will give out.

Below is a simple step-by-step platform to identifying what your child will do for the things they want.

Before initiating the steps review the following information:

Take your child to a quiet distraction-free space. Have something to write, a sheet of paper, two small containers, and scissors. Label the one container (BIG rewards) and the other (SMALL rewards). Take time to be creative in decorating the containers.

Step 1:

Ask your child what are things that they love receiving. If you need to give them current examples. Write down everything they tell you.

Step 2:

Ask your child to name places that they love visiting. If you need to give them current examples. Write down everything they tell you.

Step 3:

Ask your child what they would like to earn as a result of completing homework, chores, and other expectations they may have. During this part, it is common to expect resistance. If you are unable to move forward, it’s okay. You have gathered lots of information from steps 1 and 2.

If you are unable to acquire information from steps 1 and 2, reflect on what has worked in the past. You are the parent and know your child best. Consider the things they love and the places they love visiting. If you go this route, please be mindful to verbalize the “rewards” with your child so that they are aware and involved.

Step 4:

Cut each of the rewards that you wrote down into slips of paper. The ones that are small and tangible rewards (and will not cause you to go broke) put in the small container. The others in the big container.

During this process, you are going to be communicating with your child and letting them know what you are doing. Below is a simple script:


“Sarah I am going to cut each of the rewards that you mentioned into little slips. Then I’m going to fold the slip and put it in one of these containers. The big rewards you can earn are going to go in this container and the other rewards are going to go into this container”.

Understand the basis for a reward

There are two factors that you want to address prior to giving your child a reward. These factors are important because they are aimed to educate your child on why they are receiving the reward.

  1. Prior to giving your child a reward, verbalize why. Directly mention exactly to the detail what your child did in order to receive the reward.
  2. Once you give the reward, verbalize how it makes you feel. Tell your child how you feel about their success in earning the reward. The goal here is to support your child in understanding how their changes impact those around them.

With the information provided in this article, you have the foundation to create a system that works for your family. I want to encourage you to first review the content presented then to act on it. In addition, include your child in the process. Even if your child is not interested, let them know what will be taking place.

Consider how odd school systems are. Your child all of a sudden goes to a school with strangers and with little to no push back transitions into a structured system. All of a sudden your child is taking instructions from strangers. Your child is excited about earning stars or having a “green card”. With this basic notion, it should be pretty clear to understand how feasible it is for parents to achieve similar success.

Common difficulties you may face when implementing the structured system

  • Your child may kick, hit or be really upset with you. It’s okay. They have a right to be. Think about it, all of a sudden you implement a new platform into their life, and they are supposed to love it without push-back. I think not. Expect resistance.
  • Implement the system in baby steps if your child gives too much push-back. This means that you can for the first week implement a bath time and home space. The second week add a snack time and a reading space. Continue adding until you are all set.
  • Don’t give up. As you may already be expecting, this is going to be difficult. Go into it with a clear understanding of how much value your child with gain from it. It also doesn’t hurt to say that you will be a less stressed-out parent.
  • Stick to your guns. If you say that homework is 10 minutes and you give 20 minutes, that’s a mistake on you.


Last tip: “You are an awesome parent. Don’t forget it!”