It’s an ongoing discussion, and one that anyone involved in some way with students with autism are familiar with. How do I get my students to concentrate so that they can learn? Can they ever sit still enough at a desk to learn the basics of reading, writing and math? Can I expect my student with autism to sit and attend in class in the same way I expect it of my regular education students? If there are accommodations for my student, how do I know which one is best? And lastly: If I do make seating (or other environmental) accommodations for my students, will it actually help them with attention in the long run, or am I just providing a crutch that will be even harder to remove at a later time?
What Does the Research Say?
Type in “seating AND autism” on any search engine and you’ll get a barrage of options: tactile cushions, wiggle seats, dynamic seating chairs, ball chairs, bean bag chairs and soft rockers, to name just a few. Much research has gone into the field of seating for people with autism, and many of the results point to the effectiveness of some sort of intervention for these individuals.1,2,3 For a group of children with autism presenting with disruptive classroom behaviors but good postural control, therapy balls significantly increased in-seat and on-task behaviors compared to air cushions and regular classroom chairs.1 Similarly, Disc O Sit cushions increased attention to task in a group of 61 second grade students with attention difficulties.2 And yet another study noted that children with autism seeking vestibular-proprioceptive input responded better to ball chairs, whereas those children demonstrating poor postural control required a more stable chair.3 Then, there is the consideration of incorporating seating interventions into a classroom with inclusion in mind. Given the inherently diverse nature of the autism spectrum itself, however, there is no one-size-fits-all intervention for any skill area. Strategies need to be based on the individual and on particular patterns of sensory processing or motor impairment, among other considerations.1,3,4 As Dr. Steven Shore, author, speaker and professor of special education at Adelphi University notes from experience, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”5 I found this applied to so many aspects of the work I did with one such student, from curriculum planning to seating.
Classroom Progress with the Compass Chair
I first met Luke when he arrived at our school’s Preschool program at age four. He was a kid of average build, and initially wouldn’t have stood out in that rambunctious crowd … except for his ceaseless movement (not necessarily perseverative, but definitely constant.) I was tasked with figuring out a program for Luke that would address his needs as well as include him in the classroom with his peers as much as possible. At first it was overwhelming. Luke was only minimally verbal, and his lack of focus on any task gave me little time to assess his skills in different areas. Additionally, whenever his class met at their table, Luke would quickly become restless, turning in his chair, grabbing at materials and other students, making noises, and attempting to get out of his seat. One thing was for sure, I needed to do something about Luke’s inability to sit (at least somewhat) still. Without that skill established, few academic, social, or verbal skills would easily follow.
I shopped around for some ideas: gel cushions, therapy balls, fidgets to attach to chairs, etc. While I understand the value in all these items, I was keen to start with a less noticeable accommodation. That’s when the idea of a compass chair came in. I knew that Luke needed more than visual boundaries. He needed to feel the edge of his space. With a place to rest his hands or arms, and a definite edge to the chair, Luke would be able to physically sense his boundaries at the table. Although our first one was a cobbled together wooden chair with sides and armrests screwed on, it worked—surprisingly well. I soon added a piece of no-slip rubber, and then the learning began. Luke was able to sit for increasingly longer periods with fewer disturbances to the class. At his own desk, I could sit across the table to engage him in learning tasks. While previously that had not been possible because he was constantly turning and getting out of his seat, now I could maintain the necessary eye contact to promote both learning and social skills.
Ultimately, our school was able to acquire a Rifton Compass Chair for Luke, sized precisely for his frame. And the progress continued. Not surprisingly, the skills Luke was acquiring in his intensive teaching sessions began to translate to other settings and circumstances. His vocabulary was exploding, which helped his communication skills, which in turn bolstered his social repertoire. Luke began to engage in meaningful peer interactions, and while he still needed support in a group setting, I could back off and let his peers (and the chair) provide him with boundaries.
Now aged 10, Luke continues to develop in all areas. While his progress certainly cannot be credited to one single approach, accommodation, or therapy, we can surmise that each intervention played (and continues to play) into Luke’s social and educational successes. As he grows, his needs may change, too. The intervention that worked effectively for him in 2nd grade may not fly in 5th grade, and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board. Regardless of the composite of interventions that Luke’s education may require, I feel sure that he will always rely on boundaries to guide him on his path.
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1. Matin SN, Haghgoo H, Samadi SA, Rassafiani M, Bakhshi E, Hassanabadi H. The impact of dynamic seating on classroom behavior of students with autism spectrum disorder. Iran J Child Neurol. 2017; 11(1):29-36.
2. Pfeiffer B, Henry A, Miller S, Witherell S. Effectiveness of disc ‘o’ sit cushions on attention to task in second-grade students with attention difficulties. Am J Occup Ther. 2008; 62:274-81.
3. Bagatell N, Mirigliani G, Patterson G, Reyes Y, Test L. Effectiveness of therapy ball chairs on classroom participation in children with autism spectrum disorders. Am J Occup Ther. 2010; 64:895-903.
4. Bhat AN, Landa RJ, Galloway JC. Current perspectives on motor functioning in infants, children, and adults with autism spectrum disorders. Phys Ther. 2011; 91(7):1116-29.
5. Magro K. Ten Inspiring Quotes from People with Autism. Autism Speaks website. https://www.autismspeaks.org/life-spectrum/10-inspiring-quotes-people-autism. September 4, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2019.