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The Ziggurat Model – Making a Plan for Autism & Sensory Processing

The Development of the Ziggurat Model

The Ziggurat Model is becoming the go-to intervention approach for tackling Autism, Asperger’s, and other sensory processing disorders.

For years, it has been difficult for therapists and doctors to nail down a best practice for treating Autism since every child reacts differently to stimuli and treatment options.  Ruth Aspy and Barry Grossman, both licensed psychologists, developed a 5 tiered approach to treating those with sensory processing issues.

The model begins with a learning curve for the therapists and educators so they can understand the child’s behavior and their strengths.  Then they learn their weaknesses and what triggers negative stimuli.  As they work through this, the therapists can gradually work up the 5 steps of the Ziggurat (an old Mesopotamian term for rectangular stepped tower or temple) with the individual and gradually teach them new skills.

The Ziggurat Group

The Ziggurat Group is a company based out of Dallas, Texas that specializes in Autism evaluation, diagnosis, intervention, education, and treatment.  The Ziggurat team consists of several licensed psychologists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and educational diagnosticians.  Their services are highly specialized and unique in that they use a trans-disciplinary model, meaning they view and analyze their clients from multiple viewpoints and perspectives in order to truly understand this multifaceted disorder.

Ruth Aspy

Ruth Aspy is the co-founder of the Ziggurat Model.  Dr. Aspy’s specialty is in the diagnosis, intervention, and assessment of Autism.

Aspy speaks and lectures internationally and has authored several books during her career.

Barry Grossman

Barry Grossman is also a licensed psychologist alongside Dr. Aspy. Grossman who co-authored the Ziggurat Model with Aspy and he travels nationally to present the book and Model.

The Ziggurat Model Explained

Grossman and Aspy began to notice that there was a serious void in the diagnosis and treatment of ASD.  For years, doctors and therapists tried to pave a standard treatment method in order to further teach students and individuals new skills.  Basic, everyday skills, that is.  Individuals were having a tough time progressing and learning these skills, but the therapists continued to push through the obstacles in order to see some kind of progress.

Grossman and Aspy came to the realization that they must understand the individual first before teaching them new skills.  Why do they act a certain way?  Where is this stemming from?  What triggers an episode or tantrum?  Why are they frightened?  How can we avoid that?

This is really where the Ziggurat Model all started.  The doctors started to focus more on the behavior of the student and understand their thought process first and foremost before even attempting to teach them new skills.  And so the 5 tier pyramid was developed so educators and therapists could start at the bottom with understanding the individual on various levels and then working up through the steps over time in order to develop a plan of action for the individual.

The five tiers of the Ziggurat Intervention Model should be addressed in the following order below.  Note that when you visually look at the Ziggurat Pyramid, you start at the bottom and work your way up.

  • Sensory and Biological Needs
  • Reinforcement
  • Structure and Visual Supports
  • Task Demands
  • Skills to Teach

Sensory and Biological Needs – Level 1 of the Ziggurat Model

This is the first step of the Ziggurat Model – addressing the biological and sensory needs of the individual.  What stimulates them vs. what causes distress?

Sensory activities

and toys are perfect for identifying one’s sensory needs.  Squishy balls, balance beams, lighted lava lamps, weighted blankets, and headphones are all great activities that should be used in order to see how the individual responds to their senses.

As for the biology needs – this could range from physical needs like being handicapped and needing a wheelchair to how they deal with pain.  Or perhaps they have an underlying hearing problem and the reason they can’t communicate is that they can’t hear you.  What impact does hunger or lack of sleep have on them?  These biological needs or issues need to be addressed and understood.

This is the stage where all of these biological and sensory needs are examined.  Without looking into this, moving up the pyramid is impossible.  Therapists need to know as much about the individual as possible in order to develop and tailor the program to their needs.

Reinforcement – Level 2 of the Ziggurat Model

The reinforcement level works towards your long-term treatment goal.  For example, if one of your main focuses is to socialize the individual more without being aggressive towards themselves or others, then this needs to be reinforced throughout the process.  Introducing group activities or verbally discussing aggression and scenarios is an example of reinforcement.

Structure and Visual Supports – Level 3 of the Ziggurat Model

This level of the model focuses on providing visual or tactile supports to the student so they have an alternate method of communicating.  For example, if you are reading a book and discussing the characters afterward, you can give paddles that list different emotions on them.  Then when you are asking comprehensive questions, the child can raise the paddle showing how the character felt during a certain event in the book.

Other visual supports that are structured and tactile are calendars on a bulletin board.  The students can see the day of the week and the month and can move a pin from day to day as the week progresses.  This reinforces structure in a visual way.

Task Demands – Level 4 of the Ziggurat Model

Task demands help to set and achieve milestones for activities.  The important thing to remember in this level is to create tasks that the individual can actually do themselves or with some assistance from a teacher or therapist.  The actual achievement of completing something or finishing a project is a huge milestone for some children.  Working towards a task may be challenging, but breaking it down into smaller more achievable subprojects may be the best way to go with certain individuals.

This level is also key for the educator or therapist because they are the ones creating the tasks and deciding whether or not they are doable.  For example, can the individual arrange the colorful blocks in the same order as you have them displayed at the front of the classroom?  Or will they be able to work nicely with others on a group activity?

Set the task up so it can be achieved by the individual and talk through the activity.

Skills to Teach – Level 5 of the Ziggurat Model

It’s possible that while completing the other 4 levels, skills have been taught to the individual along the way.  However, if not, the final level of the Ziggurat Model is to do so.  Here you should address faulty skills or deficits while incorporating the use of the other levels while you teach the skills.

Assessments and Checklists

There are several assessments that need to be completed and discussed regarding the individual and their abilities.  A professional performs the assessments throughout the 5 stages and uses them as a measuring tool in order to tailor the treatment path for the individual.

  • Underlying Characteristics Checklist
  • Individual Strengths and Skills Inventory
  • ABC Iceberg
  • Intervention Ziggurat Worksheet
  • CAPS – The comprehensive Autism planning system

Is the Ziggurat Model Long Term?

Because Autism is a lifelong disorder, the Ziggurat Model can be used and applied long term.  Many believe that the model should not be used to determine a diagnosis of Autism, but rather a structured form of treatment for an already diagnosed individual.


  • Establishes a structure to follow with hierarchal parameters
  • Provides a positive approach to treatment
  • Involves assessments along the way to gauge improvement
  • It will change the way educators and therapists work with Autistic individuals


  • It’s not meant to be used as a diagnosis tool
  • Ongoing studies need to take place to determine success rates
  • The Model is becoming more well known but still needs to make its way into mainstream education practices

The Ziggurat Model is a multi-faceted way of approaching Autism.  This model was clearly designed with the individual in mind and truly understanding their behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, habits, and routines.  If the therapists and medical professionals don’t fully understand the individual, they can’t give them proper treatment.  Aspy & Grossman have taken the standard of patient care to the next level and this may become the new Universal treatment for Autism and sensory processing disorders.


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