What is an Autism Unit? An Interview with Mona Kemper, Autism Unit Teacher

I started this blog just over a year ago to support special education teachers.  My passion is truly supporting great teachers so that these deserving students can be allowed the best teachers possible.  I've found that there are very few positions that I can hold in a school district where I can truly support teachers other than being a teacher peer.  I can be empathetic and honest, and I know that most of us need that kind of support.

When I started this blog, I knew that I wanted to speak my mind about issues that face special education teachers.  Yes, there's little money in being bluntly honest in public education, but there's a lot of free therapy and positive energy from the people with whom I respect the most.

After several years of teaching, and many, many meetings and trainings with special education teachers, I started to feel like I was swirling in a cesspool of frustration and negativity.  I understood the frustration first hand, but I wasn't willing to give into the negativity.

So, my main intent with my blog was to feature teachers who are just amazing people doing amazing things.  Their ideas can help other teachers, and none of it is up for argument or debate.

This past year got much busier than I thought it would, not only for myself, but also for the amazing teachers who I wanted to feature.  Far be it from me to pile more work on my peers, but I'm excited to say that the first teacher on my list, the teacher who is right at my back door, was ready to answer a few questions.

I really wanted to feature Mona Kemper because she's an Autism Unit teacher.  This world is fascinating to me (she might laugh hearing me say that).  Yes, as an A.L.E. teacher, I teach many students with Autism.  Still, there's a big difference between an Alternative Learning Environment and an Autism Unit.  Because we are teaching more and more students with Autism every year, I was really curious to find out how these kinds of classrooms work differently from a typical A.L.E./Specialized Support/Life Skills Classroom.

Mona Kemper has 25 years of teaching experience, and 15 of those years are teaching in an Autism Unit.   She has experience working in a variety of instructional arrangements in elementary and secondary levels, from a unit for emotional and behavioral disorders to co-teaching.  She has also been an In-Home Parent and Community Trainer for NEISD school district for 15+ years.  She has provided training to teachers within and outside of the school district.

Mona Kemper is currently in graduate school working on her Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis with emphasis on Autism, and she's planning on becoming a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst).

I asked Mona questions about how she organizes her classroom to best meet the needs of students with Autism, and I think that she beautifully explains how, ultimately, if a teacher is truly focused on individual student needs, then we will be servicing our students to the best of our abilities.

Q:  How is an Autism Unit different from a traditional specialized support or life skills classroom?

In a typical Specialized Support or Life Skills classroom, there tends to be a larger student to staff ratio and more small and large group activities.  Also, students in specialized support or life skills classrooms tend to have students that attend general education classrooms, so the schedule is often set by the general education bell schedule.

In an AU unit, we do not have students that transition to the general education classroom, so we do not follow the bell schedule.  Schedules are more student driven.  Each student has a visual schedule that reflects the amount of time that the particular student can work or amount of break time that is needed for that student (another scheduling nightmare!).  We try to get a student to work with an adult at 15 minute intervals (with 10-15 second breaks if needed) to make scheduling a little easier.  Typically we attempt to transition within the classroom every 15 minutes with the stations being:  break, independent work, 1:1 (I.E.P. work) and 1:1 or small group (usually no greater than 1:2) for general education concepts work.

Q:  How do you prepare for new students who may be coming to your room?

Whenever possible, I look at the student's FIE, IEPs, PLAAFPs, BIP, AU supplement, and deliberations from the last 2-3 ARDs.  I contact the teacher to request pictures of the student's physical structures, schedule, independent work area, break area and any visuals specific to the student that are generally used in the classroom.  Also, any information regarding behaviors, academics, functional routines, independent work materials, break items and Do's and Don'ts when working with the student are requested.  I also request that the student's schedule and transition marker be sent with him or her.

Q:  What kind of considerations are made when setting up the physical structure of an Autism Unit?

Physical structures are individualized as much as possible.  We have some basic structures:  break area, electronics area, group area, independent work areas, snack area, chill zone (for times when a student needs an area away from others), game areas, small group areas and 1:1 teaching areas.

Each year I look at the individual needs of the students and modify the areas.  I may add portable walls, move the areas so that staff can either get to or be able to leave an area easily, look at the lighting for an area (does it need light covers or does the student like more light), noise levels in a particular area, and I ask myself if an area gets too much traffic.  The physical structures may change during the year as the needs of the student or the group changes.

I am also very fortunate to have an additional classroom for a sensory-motor lab.  I have swings, trampolines, large balls, basketball game, kinetic sand and a large variety of fidgets and other items.

Q:  Would you explain how visuals are using in your classroom, not only for academics, but also to provide structure and manage behavior in your room?

Visuals are a critical part of my program.  We have visuals for just about everything.  We use individualized visual schedules to help the students to visually organize their day.  We use visuals in the restroom to remind students of the steps to toileting and washing hands, visuals (mini-schedules) to break tasks down into smaller steps, token boards for the student to "earn money" to purchase break time, reinforcers and snacks.  For behaviors, when a student is struggling with self-regulation, we understand that they do not process language easily.  Visuals are used to tell them what they need to do, the consequences for following the rules and the consequences for not following the rules.

In times of high anxiety or aggression, we try to only provide the visual so that the student can understand what to do.  Spoken language is transitory (once it is said, it is gone).  Visuals allow the student to process, remember and refer back to what they need to do.

Q:  How do you organize work systems for your students in order to foster independence?

Work systems are developed to provide maintenance and generalization of skills.  Each student has their own independent work station with an individualized work system.  The work system is essentially a mini-schedule that tells the student what work they must complete.  Typically I have baskets, buckets or other containers for holding the work.  Depending on the students, there may be as little as one container with one activity, or there may be five containers with several activities in each container.  The students' work systems tells the students the order in which they must do the work.

For example, the system may have the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th tasks with matching labels on the containers.  The student follows the system completing the work in the correct order.  A "finished" basket is provided for the student to place completed work.  The work will then be checked for accuracy to determine if the student is maintaining or generalizing the skill.

Q:  Would you explain how communication instruction works in your classroom?

Communication is a central part of my program.  Most of my students are non-verbal and use AAC for communication.  For the students who are verbal, I still have visuals/picture supports to assist them when they are having difficulty with verbal communication.  My students do not get anything unless they make the request, and that includes the break area, snack and lunch.

For the break area, the student must request their desired item, and then they can take it to the break area.  For snack and lunch, the student is required to request food items.  Nothing is withheld from the student, but the student must request the item.  Cues and prompts are provided for the student to assist with communication, and all attempts at communication are honored.

Q:  Working with students who can become anxious or overstimulated, how do you maintain consistency and best meet their needs during these times?

Keeping to a predictable schedule is critical for individuals in an AU Unit, and using an individualized schedule is an essential part.  Students can become frustrated and anxious when they do not know or understand what is happening and what will be happening next.  We do not allow students to become "rigid," and a regular and predictable routine is calming for students.  We teach flexibility by showing the student (paired with a verbal directive) that schedules are changing.  It is also important to rotate staff so that students become accustomed to working with different staff at all locations.

Providing visual/picture supports for schedules, transitions, behavior expectations and work expectations is critical, especially during times of anxiety and sensory overload.  When a student becomes anxious or is experiencing sensory overload, they are far less likely to process language.  Limiting verbal direction and providing visuals can decrease the anxiety.

Q:  What do you think is one of the most challenging parts of your job?

Paperwork for sure is a challenge!  Data is a critical part of the program, and the time needed to collect and analyze the data can be daunting.  Add to that the district requirements, campus requirements, and preparing for ARDs....there never seems to be enough time.

Other challenges come in making new materials for the students to use &/or modifying the existing materials, balancing behavioral needs, academic needs, functional needs and staffing issues.

I try very hard to individualize the materials so that the materials match the individual needs of each student.  Making individualized materials to meet I.E.P. requirements and address the general education concepts can be overwhelming.

Balancing each student's behavioral needs and academic needs can be extremely challenging.  Often the student will have behavioral issues when presented with academic tasks or activities.  This is sometimes because the student does not see or understand the function of or need for the academic tasks.  Making the activities as functional as possible can help.  However, due to state/federal academic and testing requirements, making some of the concepts functional can be difficult and may not adequately prepare the students for the required testing.

Staffing is always an issue.  I schedule my staff so that they are working directly with students or monitoring students that are on their break or doing independent work.  When a staff member is absent (getting substitutes is difficult, and when we do get one, they do not know the kids), the schedule has to change.  When staff has to take their lunch, the schedule is different, and if we are having behavior challenges, then that can not only be a challenge, but also a safety issue.  Balancing so that all staff are working with kids but are also available to support other staff when behavior challenges occur is very tricky, and staff flexibility is critical.

Q:  What is one of the most satisfying parts of your job?

When students make progress, no matter how seemingly small that progress may appear to others, I feel satisfaction.  For example, when a student states verbally or through AAC that he/she wants or needs something, when a student who was previously unable to sit and work without someone in very close proximity completes the work without an adult next to them, when a student with extreme aggression/SIBs (self-injurious behaviors) goes for a longer period of time without aggressing or engaging in SIBs, this can be huge for my students, and it can bring my staff and myself to tears!  Any skill that a student can acquire that will increase their quality of life for themselves or their family is incredibly satisfying, and that is why I love coming to work.

Q:  What advice would you give to a new teacher who plans to teach students in an Autism Unit?

If at all possible, connect with another teacher that has an Autism Unit so that you can ask questions, visit the classroom, take pictures of different structures, works, visuals, etc.  Skype (or other application) is a great way to make contact with teachers that may be too far away to visit -- just remember that students cannot be involved in any pictures or on Skype.  Take advantage of the internet!!!  There are some amazing examples of AU Units available.  Search TeachersPayTeachers for materials.  Also, check out Pinterest (there are great ideas there).  Research, research, research, and get as much training as possible, both formal and informal.

Remember, individuals with Autism are incredibly complex and unique.  You will learn more each and every day!  Try not to get overwhelmed or defeated.  If something doesn't work, ask yourself WHY?, and try something else.

*Just a note:  I have so many photographs of Mona Kemper's classroom, including visuals, schedules, work systems and more.  I spent a lot of time preparing these photographs to include in this post, but when I included them, I felt that they took away from what was being said.  So, in the future, I plan on posting these pictures to inspire teachers in creating their own learning environment.

I need to give a HUGE thank you to Mona Kemper for setting aside the time to answer my questions.  She is a very busy woman.  Although many teachers list summers as one of the best parts of their job, Mona has been teaching for 25 years, and I don't think she has taken a summer off in 30! :)  She is the biggest champion of FERPA and student confidentiality that I have ever met in my life.  As teachers, we're always conscious of this and very careful, but Mona takes it to a whole new level.  She is truly protective over her students, but she doesn't shelter them to the point that they can't meet their individual potential.

Mona builds strong relationships with her parents, and at this year's 8th grade graduation, it brought tears to my eyes to see what she had prepared for her students and their families.  In special education, our students' families often deal with the struggle of their children not being a part of the natural progression of coming of age milestones and celebrations.  It may not occur to many people that there are so many families out there who have hopes and dreams for their children, just like any other parent, but they don't get to see their child perform in a play, a sporting event, graduation, prom, and all of the other milestones that help parents slowly let go as they see their babies turn into adults.  Parents of students with specials needs are denied these moments of celebration, in many ways, because their students just can't handle the settings in which these events and ceremonies happen.

Mona is a teacher who is well aware of this, and every year she plans an amazing 8th grade graduation, no matter if it's for four students or one student.  The families of the graduating students are reserved a table of honor, and she prepares the room with party food and celebratory cakes.  She presents each student with a plaque that recognizes them for something that they can do that is like no other student.  She gives a speech specific for each student.  She hangs pictures of each student's middle school journey around the room.

This is the kind of teacher that we all can be if we can learn to set aside the frustration of our job and focus on the positivity that we are spreading in the world by being student focused.  I'm very proud to say that I work with Mona Kemper and that I'm able to judiciously pop into her room (because I'm aware that I might be throwing off the schedule :)  to ask if she has anything that will help me with a particular lesson with certain higher need students or something to promote stronger fine motor skills or anything else that I need.

Mona truly works with some of the most difficult students to teach, but she is an inspiration in the way that she recognizes that every student can and will learn.  She is an example of a member of a community of teachers who supports other teachers, and I know for a fact, not only by working with her and seeing the progress that her students make, but also by listening to her parents, that she has changed many lives for the better.


  1. Loving your blog and this post! I am a self contained AS teacher in a middle school. I have some training in ABA and am looking into programs to be more formally trained and certified as a BCBA. I also have a blog where I share information about my classroom! Feel free to check it out! Www.teachloveautism.blogspot.com

    1. First, I wanted to say the I LOVE YOUR BLOG. This summer, right after I left this post, I took a break from blogging to complete several projects that I took on, including teaching workshops across the state, a webinar to train teachers on evidence based practices on teaching students with Down syndrome, and reviewing and updating the Monthly Instructional Guides for Region 3 in Texas. I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to the routine that I have during the school year. That's a big thing to say too, as I have a 2-year old at home and have loved my time with her this summer when I'm not working :)

      I'm excited to hear you love my blog and this post, as I frequently feel like I post in a vacuum. I just talk about things that are important to me, and when I get a reply, it's like getting a letter from a penpal from Michigan when I was in the 4th grade.

      The blog world is heavy in general education, so I'm always excited to meet other special education teachers who are active in sharing and being a part of a community of teachers. I would love to link your button on my left hand column, if that's okay with you. I want information to be as out there and as readily accessible as possible for special education teachers who need ideas, and I think you have some GREAT INFORMATION on your blog.

      Thank you for reaching out to me. I'm looking forward to again blogging and reading your blog and learning from your strategies for teaching students with Autism. This week I built a room in my classroom for students who are visually impaired that will give them a beautiful sensory experience, and as soon as I can, I'll be posting the new pictures.

      If you have any questions about an ABA program, I work with two teachers who are currently pursuing their ABA masters in two different programs, and I know they could provide you with a lot of information if you needed.

      Best of luck in this year's adventure!!!!

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