Montessori education for autism

Action Plan


Montessori and Autism  —  Combined Approaches

There is widespread recognition that the educational model currently used in many public schools for providing services to ASD children is dysfunctional because it is not grounded in the unique ways these students learn.  We should stop pouring resources into a system that is fundamentally flawed.  We should stop going through the motions of superficial IEPs and team meetings to obtain band-aid accommodations and more hours of disjointed special services.  Despite the best efforts of many committed and hard-working special education teachers and therapists, there is little evidence of dramatic improvement or recovery by these children within the constraints of FAPE.

Building on my firsthand experience, I have tried to make a compelling case that many children with autism, as well as children with special needs generally, could dramatically benefit from use of the Montessori educational model.  Montessori methods could be used in different ways to benefit ASD children.  Here I focus mainly on early childhood and the elementary school years, where the Montessori approach and autism therapeutic methods seem to blend particularly well.  I envision the following major scenarios:

A child with ASD will benefit from joining a Montessori classroom only after he has acquired critical pivotal skills (such as the ability to make eye contact, attend, imitate, and follow simple instructions), skills that are intrinsic to typically developing children.  Without these skills in place, students with ASD cannot benefit from an educational environment.  They will be stressed and frustrated, withdrawn or disruptive. A low-functioning autistic child will not really benefit from the classroom setting – with typical or autistic peers – until they learn how to learn.  These pivotal skills can be attained through discrete trials (DT) in a one-on-one setting, with qualified ABA therapists and under the supervision of a BCBA.  For a young child, it is best to receive intense ABA therapy in their own home – familiar, as comfortable as possible, and free of major distractions.  I would like to draw the attention of therapists and BCBAs to didactic and self-correcting Montessori materials which can undoubtedly complement and enrich ABA sessions, as well as speech and occupational therapies.  Intensive, home-based ABA therapy can be implemented in combination with a home-school Montessori program until the child shows readiness to transition to a school environment. A successful example of such program is Exceptional Lives in Canada.
It is my dream that progressive Montessori schools would at some point establish within them a small classroom specifically for lower-functioning ASD children. In that case, the school should incorporate autism professionals in full-time or advisory roles.  With such assistance, the children could receive ABA therapy using didactic and self-regulating Montessori materials, as well as sensory integration, speech therapy, etc.  As the child progresses, he could visit a regular Montessori classroom within the same school for increasingly longer intervals accompanied by an aide/therapist.  Eventually, the child would have the option of attending the regular classroom on a full-time basis, potentially with a one-on-one aide and other accommodations.  Believe me, you would be able to spot their parents right away at the annual “rising” ceremony as those crying their eyes out!
There are already several successful Montessori schools in this country and Canada for students with various developmental disabilities, including ASD.  These schools can serve as leading examples for blending Montessori methods with ASD therapies.

The Lane Montessori School for Autism in Toronto, Canada

Expanded Learning Services, Ontario, Canada 

The Shelton Montessori School in Dallas, Texas

Roads to Recovery in Fairborn, Ohio

Montessori Children’s Garden in Surprise, Arizona

GR Montessori at North Park, Grand Rapids, MI

Hill View Montessori Charter School, Haverhill, Massachusetts

It is striking how the personality of an autistic child gradually emerges with acquisition of pivotal skills.  As these children become more aware of their environment and more capable of engagement in various activities, their behavior starts improving.  I observed on multiple occasions how my son, and other children as well, would stop self-stimulatory behavior when offered an interesting hands-on activity. They also start paying attention to, and imitating, behavior of their typical peers.  Additionally, children with autism come to appreciate praise as the main behavioral reinforcer after a long period of responding mainly to tangible rewards (edibles, tickles, etc).  This is an important transformation which is bound to lead to major improvement.

Please refer to the suggestions in the upcoming section as to how better accommodate a child with autism in a Montessori classroom.  I would like to hear from parents, teachers and therapists alike about their experience with Montessori and autism.  Together we can generate the best practices for using a time-tested Montessori model to address the modern childhood epidemic of autism.



  1. Im so glad I found you! Ive been researching Montessori for children with autism for several years and haven’t found much. My now 12 year old son with HFA attended a Montessori school from Kindergarden until this year, when he asked to do school at home. I believe this is because his school was becoming too overwhelming to his sensory system, as well as not truly following his needs. They became less and less “Montessori”. I found the same for my 7 year old daughter, who had attended the same school since age 3. Im very disappointed, but am trying to gather materials to do Montessori at home. This, of course, is daunting; not just the material gathering but also my lack of teacher training. Any advice would be appreciated!!

    • Vera

      Heather, I feel your pain. Isn’t it sad that some Montessori schools forget about their deep roots in special education? Kids who are stressed out rather nurtured are not going to learn effectively. It’s possible to follow Montessori teachings at home, and there are several good blogs on this subject, as well as some free resources and tips: Also, there are a few good books that could guide you:

  2. I am so thankful for coming across your website while researching HFA/Asperger’s and Montessori. Our oldest is currently in a traditional public school in Kindergarten and is “twice-exceptional” with a diagnosis of ASD and Gifted. We are just now starting meetings with the school to discuss IEPs etc. but I can see it may be a struggle. This AM we will be visiting one of the nations oldest public Montessori programs in Grand Rapids, Mi at North Park Montessori (PreK-12). I wanted to let you know that they do have ASD classrooms here, as well as ASD students in the regular classrooms. I pray that our visit goes well and we are accepted through their lottery system for all 3 of our young children. From everything I am learning about Montessori, I feel it will be the answer to our prayers. Thank you again for all you do.

  3. Vera, thank you for all you do, as an ABA consultant and parent of 4 Montessori kids I feel this combo only makes sense and is the future of education.

    When my eldest started kindergarten at the “good” neighborhood school down the street he was excited. However, very soon after the teacher told me I needed to pick him up for lunch and recess every day to help him manage his anxiety. This was my highly intelligent, kind, loving child needing to be removed from class. Even after specializing in children with autism many years prior to this, it was at this point I came to realize everyone is a “special needs” child or person. This school had no room for a child who had taught himself to read, was well behaved and was naturally eager to learn. While looking for a pre-school for my second born I stumbled across Montessori; after one tour I was convinced this is where my eldest needed to be. After one day at the Montessori school his anxiety was gone and he told me, “Mommy, please never make me go back to a place where I have to wait for everyone to be quiet before I can learn anything and a place that doesn’t have math!” He now just graduated 8th grade from a Montessori school.

    A couple of years ago I started to notice a trend in many of the Montessori schools I worked with. First of all, an unusual number of children with Asperger’s attended, but of course, the children can work at their own pace and social skills are specifically laid out in the curriculum and on every grade report. I also noticed that private Montessori’s typically did not have staff/services to provide children who struggled behaviorally if the standard Montessori approaches did not work. Many schools were placed in the position to tell the families they were not able to service their child. However, one school took a new approach and referred families to me to be able to support the child at home and school by creating a plan of action and training the teachers and parents on how to implement it so the child could feel more successful. This union of ABA and Montessori and at times, Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a natural one for me since it combines 3 passions of mine and has been a successful and satisfying model to follow.

    The standard model of extra support in schools has a relatively untrained paraprofessional wanting to “help” the child. The reality is the staff member is typically not trained well enough to know the difference between doing for the child and teaching the child to do for him/herself. My experience has taught me that this model leads to long term dependency of the child to the support help. I feel this does an injustice to the child. Montessori schools express the exact opposite view and focus on supporting the child where he/ she is at and the belief of focusing on the child’s strengths and independence.

    When I work with schools it is critical to have the parents, teachers and the student collaborate on the plan of action. I have kids as young as 1st graders that are guided on how to set their own behavioral goals and chart them so he/she can see the growth. The key is to have the teacher and student come up with a joint contract, giving the child level appropriate options that are within the parameters laid out by the teacher. It is critical to have the child come up with his own “reward” system and individual goals. I strongly recommend creating a non-verbal cuing system between the student and the teacher as a way to subtly indicate to the child he needs to be checking himself on a behavior that is on the work contract that he carries with him. This should be a flexible, ever evolving plan that meets child’s needs, the teacher’s needs and the overall needs of the classroom environment. All input is not only welcomed, but critical for success. When communication is open and the child is put at the heart, everyone feels more successful.

    Some simple examples are:
    1) A parent is trying to help their child be more independent at home and school has indicated that the child struggles a great deal with order in the classroom. We can start with a simple step that the parent will now start to expect the child to put on his own shoes. When getting ready for school in the morning, if the child is resistant to putting his own shoes on, expecting his parent to do it for him as has always been done before, is now taught how to avoid power struggles. If the child still does not put his shoes on, he will still be taken to school and the teacher will know from the plan of action that the parent is working on this follow through and will not allow the child to participate in school activities until he has put his own shoes on.

    2) Sometimes it is as simple as communicating that the child needs to have a snack of a protein and piece of fruit upon arrival to school to help stabilize her mood. The parents and the teacher work with the child to help her listen to her body and take care of her needs.

    3) A child is having difficulty with stress and anxiety. The team works together to help the child realize what his body looks like and feels like when he is stressed and discover strategies for stress relief. This can mean the child can create a color coded thermometer that indicates what degree of stress he is at and what feels helpful at those levels. He can be taught to chart or graph his successful use of these strategies.

    When my oldest was in 7th grade, his Montessori teacher told him, “Your work this year is to give eye contact and confidently present all the knowledge that you have already. Make us believe you know what you’re talking about, because you do.” This teacher, so wisely knew that academics are secondary to the life skills that are taught at Montessori and that the learning must come from within. These are the principles I use with my own children and with the children I have the honor of servicing, or in these experiences I learn and grow.

    • Vera

      Michelle, sincere thanks for sharing your wisdom and practical experience. I wish there were more practitioners like you who are skilled at both Montessori methodology and therapeutic approaches.

  4. It is amazing that you are able to marry ABA and Montessori. I was an ABA therapist before I became a Montessori trained teacher, now I have been teaching Montessori for almost 10 years. I am running into the problem now of having too many students with ASD and ADHD in my typical classroom who need more support than I can give them, there are 24 students and I have one assistant. I would say 1/3 of my class has special needs. I think Montessori is a great environment for these kids if there is enough adult support. Many of them are not ready to be independent learners and are overloaded sensorially by everything that is going on in the Montessori environment. Can you think of any resources for me?

    • Vera

      It is admirable that your school is true to Montessori roots and so inclusive of children with special needs. I can certainly understand the challenge of not having enough supports and resources. This is something I am trying to change by drawing attention to the power of Montessori in remediating children with a variety of developmental challenges. In terms of resources, I’d highly recommend a thoughtful and comprehensive manual “Montessori-Based Activities for Persons with Dementia“ Volume I and Volume II. It contains a series of programs for the elderly, but can be easily and successfully adapted to children with autism. Notably, the programs fully incorporate ABA principles, although not directly referring to them. Also, take a look at the curriculum materials developed by Shelton School, which is widely recognized for its work with children with special needs. These materials, “help Montessorians understand the specific needs of children at risk for learning differences and provide specific strategies for matching the Montessori educational method to those needs”: In addition, you would benefit from a remarkable book, which is full of wisdom, compassion and progressive ideas, and has received high praise from Montessori educators, psychologists, and parents: “Children who are not yet peaceful”

  5. Thank you for referencing Exceptional Lives Support Services in your website. I have been working with children with autism in their homes using the Montessori Method and the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). From my experience, the method has had great success not only with children 2-6 years old but also older children with ASD who are early learners. When I work in the child’s home, I usually bring the Montessori materials. The family provides a space for me with a suitable table and chair and a shelf to put the Montessori materials. I’ve had families who also found it beneficial to purchase their own Montessori materials so that the parents can also work with the child. I use the Montessori Method as my teaching method. I use the principles of ABA in modifying behavior, developing language and communication, the way I do my observations and how I gather my data.

    For some families, I work alone. When this happens, I stress to the family that we are the team. When the child is able to work with a Montessori material correctly and independently, indicating that they have acquired the concept and skills that are learned from the materials, I give the parents suggestions on how to move that skill or concept forward so the child can generalize these to his natural environment. Our work is not complete until we are sure that the child is able to use the concepts and skills in his environment. For families who have their own Montessori materials, I show the parents how to use the materials with their child. I have received feedback from parents that they like using the Montessori materials when they spend time with their child because the steps are very specific. The child also has less negative behaviour when working with the Montessori materials because the nature of the materials have a calming effect on the child. For other families, I work with a team. Usually a team includes the parents, a behaviour consultant/supervisor, senior therapist, instructor therapists and in some cases, an occupational therapist, pysiotherapist and a speech and language pathologist. During team meetings, we discuss the goals for the child. I then think about how I would be able to meet these goals using the Montessori Method. In lots of instances, I do a presentation during team meetings so that I can show this to the team. I’ve also had experiences where I let the team know what Montessori materials the child has mastered so that the other members of the team would be able to work with the child using these materials and hence, the child is able to generalize the concepts and skills with different people.

    As I have said, I see lots of benefits in using the Montessori method with children with ASD. One thing that immediately is seen is because the Montessori method encourages independence and choice, the confidence of the children that I work with goes up. Their self esteem develop as they are able to decide for themselves what work they want to do and get the work themselves. Once their confidence and self-esteem develop in a trusting environment, they acquire the pivotal skills that are needed in order for them to learn how to learn.

    I find fulfillment in what I do especially when I get feedback from families that their child has improved dramatically because of what I do or when I am able to remove doubts from other professionals in my field and let them see for themselves that the approach realy does work.

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