Alternatives to Isolation Rooms for Students with Autism


Due to a grave overuse of isolation rooms in schools many states have adopted stricter laws around how and when they can be used.  While this has caused many educators to think differently on how they can support students when they escalate, it has left some wondering what other options they have, especially when working with students on the autism spectrum.  Here are some tips for “thinking outside of the box” to support students with autism who escalate.

 1.  Ensure staff are trained.  Think of this as more of a prerequisite to even be able to consider alternatives to isolation.  Students who have the potential to escalate must be supported by staff who are formally trained in de-escalation.  There are options for such training in every state.  There should be no reason why staff aren’t properly equipped to do this tremendously difficult and complex job.

2.  Have a solid behavior plan in place.  Again, this is more of a prerequisite, but educators need to be looking at the roots of behavior. What is being done to build up their student’s capacity to tolerate triggers?  How is behavior being reinforced?  What is the data saying?  Having an ongoing discussion about effective behavior change can’t take place unless there is a plan that is being followed.

3.  Avoid getting to last resort.  Despite cases of improper use, isolation rooms are not intended as places of punishment or resting.  Isolation rooms are intended as a LAST RESORT precaution to promote safety during an escalation.  As was noted in my de-escalation series, there are many other individualized strategies that should be used long before we ever get to a last resort option.  De-escalation is not a space, it is a proactive and appropriately reactive way in which we support students who escalate in a safe and ethical manner.  Having a student access such a space should not be in the plan for most, and for those that have it careful attention needs to be paid to using other strategies to avoid getting there.

4.  Identify what you are replacing.  The escalated student is seeking and needing an escape from the overwhelming stressors that they are encountering.  It is believed that the reduction of auditory and visual stimuli paired with the removal of stressors that an isolation room may provide can increase safety and potentially expedite the de-escalation process.  So when we talk about alternatives, we need to recognize that we are talking about other ways in which the student might find a more appropriate escape.  This might mean having them access a quieter part of the school, such as the track or playground.  It might mean providing them with headphones and calming sensory strategies there in the classroom, or it might mean having some of the other students vacate the area for a few minutes.  When we talk about replacing isolation rooms, we are not exclusively talking about the changing of a location.  De-escalation is not a place, it is a process with options.  We will always have the flexibility to switch out which strategies we might use to help a student properly find that escape they seek.

55.  Think of what might comfort the student.  Many students with autism prefer smaller, tighter places at different times of their day or when they become upset.  Here is a great example I found at an alternative school in the Seattle area.  It is just a small 5 sided box with very comfortable carpeting on the inside.  Students are allowed to access it at any point in there day, promoting independence in self-regulation.  Some students are going to want to sprawl out on a beanbag, whereas others will be looking for something more enclosed.  For my high school students, I created what you see below.  We called it the “fort.”  It was a series of partitions making an almost full enclosure, but enough space for the student to get in and out of on their own as they wished.  I used a soft mat to place over the top if the student preferred the dark.  Everything was bolted together for safe stability.  It was placed in my classroom and often times was very successful at providing my students exactly what they needed in a difficult moment without having to resort to something more intrusive.


6.  If you can, give them something to do.  Some students will benefit from having access to stress balls, brushes, or music.  For others, it will cause them to escalate further.  You must know your student, but consider what you can give them to do while they de-escalate.  Consult with your occupational therapist about potential calming strategies to meet the sensory needs of your student.  Here is an example from the Autism Helper with what her de-escalation space looks like fully equipped.



7. 6 Have the student help spruce up their place of de-escalation.  When escalated, students with autism can be destructive and they may be reluctant to go to an area that they only visit when they are not at their best.  Having your student spend some time in this space doing more desired activities or having them decorate it with some of their favorite pictures may aide with their outlook on this area.  This ultimately may help with their willingness to go there when they are escalated.

8.  Remember to reinforce.  I cannot say this one enough.  Students with autism using appropriate de-escalation strategies in a time when their cognitive functioning is limited must not go without reinforcement.  Whether it be a special note home, extra computer time, or praise from the principal, these actions must be supported if we wish to see them again.

In the same way we need to “think different, not less” for our students with autism, when it comes to intrusive de-escalation strategies to support them we must “think different, not more.”  While safety is always going to be the paramount concern, adding more walls and more barriers around our students in the long term will not equate to them being equipped to navigate their life ahead.  Continue the hard work of helping your students do more with less.


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