Education, support and research for early years autism

Early Intervention at Puzzle

The term ‘Early Intervention’ is used to refer to a wide range of different approaches and programmes which aim to foster and enhance development in very young children.

At Puzzle, we refer to the importance of early intervention in terms of a very specific, targeted approach to teaching young children with significant communication difficulties, particularly autistic spectrum disorders.

There is no single best treatment package for all children with ASD.  One point that most professionals agree on is that early intervention is important; another is that most individuals with ASD respond well to highly structured, specialised programmes

Puzzle Centre provides early intensive intervention for very young children (aged 2-5 years) with autism spectrum disorders and similar communication needs. We use the SCERTS educational model as a framework to assess and plan for our children.

There is a Speech and Language Therapist and Specialist Teacher at every session and each child receives one to one adult support and teaching throughout the sessions.

The Specialist Teachers and the Speech and Language Therapists plan each child’s individual plans, as well as the nursery curriculum, together with the Nursery Coordinators and the Occupational Therapists.

In addition to the nursery sessions, Puzzle provides training workshops and outreach support and guidance to both parents and professionals.

National Autism Plan for Children (NAPC) NAS (2003) states that educational programs that have tended to be most effective for young children with autism are those that:


  • Build on a child’s interest
  • Offer a predictable schedule
  • Develop joint attention, communication and social understanding
  • Teach tasks as a series of simple steps
  • Reinforce appropriate behaviors
  • Make use of visual strategies to help understanding
  • Involve parents


The Puzzle Centre uses all of the above strategies to help children to learn.

The report also states that targeted interventions should begin as early as possible. Puzzle is committed to providing the earliest possible specialist intervention for children with social and communication difficulties.

At the same time, Puzzle is committed to enabling children with autism spectrum disorders and other communication difficulties to access all aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum.

The sessions at Puzzle nursery are planned and designed with the specific needs of very young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and similar difficulties in mind. This means that the following specialist approaches are used consistently at each session:

Visual structure
Each child uses a visual time table which enables them to understand what is happening now, when it has finished and what will happen next. This helps to reduce the anxiety which children with ASDs can feel in a less structured environment where there may be an overwhelming array of choices and options. In our experience, many children who attend a mainstream nursery setting can become confused and anxious by a vast array of different activities and options to choose from at any one time as well as a visually cluttered, busy environment.

Low arousal environment
The lay out and organisation of the physical spaces and rooms at Puzzle is presented in a way in which children will not be overtly distracted by visual, auditory or sensory stimuli. Activities and toys are set out in a visually clear and organised way to help to facilitate children’s attention and learning. Walls are kept clutter free and adult – talk is kept to a minimum. This is often the opposite of the environment experienced in busy mainstream settings.

There is a clear and consistent routine which is reinforced by the visual structure and repetitive use of simple language and activities.

Teaching tasks in simple steps
Each child has a detailed individual education plan (IEP) which is written by the Specialist Teacher and the Speech and Language Therapist in conjunction with the parent(s). An Occupational Therapist also has input when appropriate. At every session, each child has a ‘work’ time which involves careful one to one teaching of tasks which are specially planned by the Speech and Language Therapist or the Specialist Teacher, using the child’s IEP targets and breaking each target down further, so that the child can learn skills which lead towards achieving that target, usually by the end of one term.

Small group work
Puzzle Centre is organised to help young children with ASDs and similar communication difficulties learn to interact and communicate with both adults and other children. No more than 8 children attend at any one time. This helps children to become familiar with each other and to join and attend to our group circle and story times. Each group time is planned and led by our Speech and Language Therapists or our Specialist Teacher and focuses on developing children’s joint attention, communication and social understanding. In addition, children are taught specific attention, communication, interaction and play skills in a planned and deliberate way in both small groups and one to one directed teaching times.

Picture Exchange Communication System
Many children at Puzzle are taught to use this system of communicating their needs and staff are highly trained and experienced in the delivery of this programme.

Using clear, simple language with signing of key words and the use of a core vocabulary to match curriculum activities
The Speech and Language Therapists and Specialist Teacher together agree on a core vocabulary of key words that are focused upon each few weeks. In addition, all adult spoken language is kept to an appropriate level of complexity with the use of signs, symbols and other visual aids to assist the child’s understanding of spoken words.

Using a child’s interests
Each child’s needs are assessed in detail when they first start at Puzzle and an approach which builds on the child’s interests in order to teach play, communication and social skills is used. Both behaviourist and more interactive approaches are used at Puzzle. We aim to incorporate best practice from the fields of special education and knowledge of the unique needs of children on the autism spectrum.

Sensory needs
Many children on the autism spectrum have additional sensory sensitivities or difficulties. Our Occupational Therapist helps to design a programme that addresses these difficulties for individual children. In addition, our afternoon sessions have a specific group time which is a movement and relaxation session.

The Specialist Teachers and Speech and Language Therapists at Puzzle have particular qualifications, experience and skills in meeting the needs of children with autism and other communication difficulties. All other staff under take both in house and outside training in autism and early years.

Training and support for parents
Puzzle Centre delivers about 8 training workshops per year for parents covering a variety of areas of relevance to children with communication difficulties/ASDs – for example: visual structure, play and language, managing behaviour, sensory difficulties, PECS etc. In addition, each family receives home visits and regular parental consultations and support with their child’s entitlement to special educational provision.

Training for professionals
Courses or workshops for outside organisations or agencies and support for children who attend a mainstream setting in addition to Puzzle.

Puzzle Centre is providing a specialist environment with educational/therapeutic approaches which are ‘autism specific’. It is staffed by professionals with specific expertise in this field and is developing its reputation as a centre of excellence and resource base with regard to early intervention for children with autism/communication difficulties.

Children may attend a minimum of two, and a maximum of six, sessions per week. Each family receives a home visit or consultation each term in addition to a meeting each term to review their child’s individual education plan.

Children may stay for lunch and an afternoon session on one day a week. The afternoon curriculum includes a specific music session and a sensory/relaxation session.

Three main teaching rooms are used – the main classroom, the messy play room and the specially designed soft play/sensory room. The garden has a sensory area, a soft tarmac area and a large trampoline and outdoor toys and games. There is also a parent’s area with books and other resources which parents and staff can borrow.

Puzzle Centre has developed a large number of specialist resources and materials which enhance our ability to teach and deliver the foundation stage curriculum, adapted and differentiated to meet the particular needs of very young children with significant communication and interaction difficulties.