The ASD Nest Egg

strategies to support kids on the autism spectrum

Month: September 2017

Big Thinking Requires [Consistent] Visuals

by Aaron Lanou



Teachers regularly ask students to do big thinking: infer what this character is thinking; synthesize what you’ve learned from these various sources; provide relevant evidence for your claim.

We may take for granted that students have a clear understanding of these higher-order concepts. For students with autism spectrum disorders in particular, we may need to make these potentially abstract concepts more concrete. Visual supports are a terrific way to do this.



According to educator and author Oliver Caviglioli, summarizing the work of Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons, visuals help to:

  • icon of blue head profile with an anvil on its headminimize cognitive load, allowing students to hold on to more information
  • icon of cog with one central circle and 8 outer circlesbuild mental models, creating new memories in long-term storage
  • red arrow pointing to the right above blue arrow pointing to the leftsupport transfer of learning, making new information easier to retrieve


Researcher Richard Mayer states, “People learn better from graphics and words than from words alone… You can help people learn better if you include appropriately designed graphics in instructional presentations.”

Here’s one way to do that:

  1. Identify the “big thinking” skill
  2. Create (or find) a visual that represents that skill
  3. Incorporate the visual in lessons and materials


  1. Identify the “big thinking” skill

When asking students to do higher-order thinking, be clear about what phrase you’re using, and what the skill entails.

As an example, let’s look at the idea of claims and evidence, something that is expected across grades as a part of the Common Core State Standards. It can be a complex concept for students to grasp, particularly the connection between the claim and relevant evidence that supports the claim.


  1. Create a visual that represents that skill

Here’s one that I created that highlights the connection between claim and evidence:

blue speech bubble that says "Claim: What you are stating as true" on top of a brick rectangle that says "Evidence: Quotes from the text that support your claim"

The idea is that a claim is something that is being stated, so the speech bubble represents that statement being “said.” Evidence forms the foundation for that claim, so the bricks symbolize the support for the claim.


There are many ways to create a visual like this one:

  • Google Drawings is a great way to create simple drawings using pre-made shapes and text boxes
  • AutoDraw is a great tool from Google that lets you sketch a rough picture and then select one of their polished drawings based on your sketch:

Like magic:  sketch of a book with blue lines becomes  icon of a book with blue lines.


You can, of course, also create a visual using free and available online images:


  1. Incorporate the visual in lessons and materials

Incorporating the visual signals to students, “This is another one of those times when we’re going to be thinking about this big idea.” With a more concrete understanding of the concept through the visual model, students may be better able to transfer learning from one context to another.

Complex abstract concepts like claims and evidence are used in a variety of subjects, from ELA to history to math and science. Teachers can incorporate the visual in multiple ways:

  • Put the visual on student worksheets
  • Paste the visual into PowerPoint or Google Slides lessons
  • Hang the visual up on the wall while it’s a focus of a unit
  • Sketch (or print) the visual onto sticky notes and stick them strategically in students’ books
  • Use the visuals repeatedly across subjects, throughout the year, whenever a student is expected to apply this concept
  • Make a simple graphic organizer version for students to write into:

outline of speech bubble on top of a brick wall outline


A visual can support recall of complex ideas better than verbal language alone. This is particularly true for students with ASD. Autistic author, presenter, and blogger, Judy Endow, explains:


“Using visual supports are powerful in establishing a working external organization”


Want to learn more? Check out Teaching Channel or more from Oliver Caviglioli.


Multilingualism & Autism Spectrum Disorders

School, la escuela, l’école, 学校. These words all have the same meaning, but are written in different languages. Students who speak a language other than English at home make up 43.3% of students in the New York City Department of Education (2013-2014). When students come from homes that do not speak English, using their home language provides a number of social, cultural, and cognitive benefits, which may be especially advantageous for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.


Individuals with ASD have many strengths, including creativity, attention to detail, vast knowledge about special interests, and an ability to see the world from a different perspective. Along with these strengths, students experience social difficulties and difficulties with executive functions (Eylen et. al., 2011). Executive functions include skills that relate to organization, planning, self-regulation, and flexibility. Therefore, it’s particularly promising not only that  “bilingual exposure does not delay acquisition” (Hambly and Fombonne, 2012, as cited in Fahim & Nedwick, 2014), but “the mastery of two languages provides bilingual speakers with cognitive benefits over monolinguals, particularly on cognitive flexibility and selective attention” (Crivello, 2016).


In the classroom & beyond

When working with multilingual students, there are several best practices to keep in mind, and these supports often overlap with best practices for students with ASD. Below are some guidelines for working with this ever-increasing population of multilingual students with ASD:


  • Speak with families about what languages are used at home, in what environments, and with which important people in the student’s life. This will help you gain a better understanding of the child’s linguistic and potentially cultural experiences, which will necessarily influence their social expectations and competencies (for example, in some cultures it is not polite to make eye contact, make contact with other genders, speak to the elderly, etc.). This can also help you learn more about your student’s special interests.
  • Learn a few words in your student’s home language(s) to use when communicating with the student and his/her family. This signals respect to the child’s identity and their culture. Use of these words may also support comprehension and support children’s background knowledge.
  • Work closely with translators or interpreters to ensure that families understand information you are sending home about the student’s progress and the Nest philosophy. Whenever possible, translate material that is being sent home.
  • Use visual supports to complement spoken directions and as labels. This supports all children with ASD, but particularly those that are still mastering English.
  • Support learning with relevant, hands-on materials in instruction. Once again, this engages all students in Nest classrooms, but will also help support students whose English language skills are still developing.

Together in Difference: Embracing Neurodiversity

by Allison Graham Brown


“It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential.” -Dr. Hans Aspergers


Neurodiversity is a buzz word right now, but what does it really mean?


Well, neurodiversity, at its core, means there are many kinds of human minds. This is a simple fact of human biology. The Neurodiversity Paradigm takes it a step further stating that neurological differences are as common as any other human variation and that they enrich society.


In his book, The Power of Neurodiversity, Dr. Thomas Armstrong breaks down this paradigm into eight principles of Neurodiversity. Dr. Armstrong states that human beings, and human brains, exist along continuums of competence and ability. This means we are connected to one another other, not separated into categories of normal or disabled. Moreover, depending on the category (social motivation, academic ability, artistic ability, professional accomplishment, etc.), we will fall at different points on the continuum. This is a powerful message to convey in your classroom to both highlight individuals and build community.

Here are two key principles of Neurodiversity to consider and apply in your practice:


location icon (circle with upside down teardrop around it)Location, Location, Location

What does this mean?

According to Thomas Armstrong, the fourth principle of Neurodiversity is that human competence is context-specific and is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong. This principle highlights that diagnostic categories are not solely scientifically-based, but reflect deep societal biases. For example, Dyslexia is based upon the social value that everyone should be able to read.  However, in rural farming villages in other countries, Dyslexia doesn’t appear to exist because the society relies on other skill sets.


What do these principles mean for us?

It is important for us to be aware of the cultural and societal biases that exist and impact the message we send to our students. In our current education climate, it has become increasingly difficult to value differences in neurology. In education, our society has placed such a high value on literacy, often eliminating arts programs, and applauds skills associated with the Common Core. However, in your classroom you can create a community who values the neurology and talents that each individual contributes.


What can I do in my classroom?

Highlight neurodivergent role models. Showing students that many famous historical figures, field leaders, and innovators are neurodivergent demonstrates the value that all types of thinkers bring to our society. This can help build students’ self-confidence and encourage them to work hard in order to further their talents. There are a myriad of content-specific neurodivergent role models that you can highlight throughout your curriculum including: Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, and Pablo Picasso. So, as you create your curriculum, be sure to highlight some unique and influential thinkers who contributed to the field.


magnifying glass icon with arrow inside circle Finding Your Niche

What does this mean?

According to Thomas Armstrong, the seventh principle of Neurodiversity is that finding a community and environment that builds on your strengths and interests enhances your happiness. Research shows that a more complex network of neuronal connections develops in the brain when you are in an enriching environment. Therefore, seeking out people who validate your abilities and environments which rely on and celebrate your strengths support your success.


What do these principles mean for us?

We need to expand our definition of success and of strengths–not everyone has to be, can be, nor should be at the same level of achievement in every area. Success for one individual may be vastly different than success for another and that helps our society thrive because we need all kinds of contributions and professions. Not only do we need to recognize and capitalize on the strengths of our students, but we need to teach them to recognize, celebrate and make choices based on their strengths and interests as well.


What can I do in my classroom?

Provide options that capitalize on different strengths. As you develop your curriculum, provide choices for lessons, assignments and projects that work toward different strengths and skill sets. This will enable students to showcase their understanding of your content while also building on their strengths. To inform your development, consider giving learning style surveys to get to know your students’ needs and strengths better.


For more information about Neurodiversity read autism self-advocate Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn For Us .

For more information about Neurodiversity and practical strategies to implement in the classroom read Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom

The Hidden Curriculum

by Brandy Stanfill

There are unspoken rules and expectations in every environment.  Dr. Brenda Smith Myles dubbed these unspoken rules “the hidden curriculum.”  The hidden curriculum includes the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students across the school day.  Most neuro-typical people pick up on the hidden curriculum automatically.  People on the autism spectrum generally do not.   The hidden curriculum includes those unstated rules or customs that, if not understood, can make the world a confusing place and cause people who are not neurologically wired to automatically “get it” feel isolated and “out of it”.

Generally, when you think or say things like “I shouldn’t have to tell you, but…,” “everybody knows…,” “common sense tells you…,” “it is obvious that…,” you’ve stumbled onto the hidden curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum in Action

The hidden curriculum can indicate how close you may stand to someone in the elevator or whether or not you are encouraged to chat with people seated nearby or if you should sit quietly.  It can also include essential information like police officers expect you to remain in your car if they pull you over for a traffic violation, or that you should expect to wait for hours in an emergency room despite the fact that you feel that your injury or illness constitutes an emergency.  If you violate these rules of the hidden curriculum by getting out of your car and approaching the police officer, or loudly complaining and demanding to see a doctor, your health and well-being may be in jeopardy.  Therefore, it is essential that educators and therapists actively teach aspects of the hidden curriculum.  To begin consider:

  • What environments are challenging for your student?
  • Who are the other people in this environment and what are their expectations?
  • What activities happen in this location, with these people?  What are the roles, rules, or expectations for completing the task?
  • And which of these pieces of information does your student know?  Which do they need to be explicitly taught?

yellow tic tacs in a container with faces drown onto several of them

Image source

Once you’ve identified what your student doesn’t know, it’s time to come up with a plan to teach them the info.  How you’ll go about this depends on the age and developmental level of your student.  You can experiment with a social tip of the day shared during homeroom or morning meeting, guided partner discussions of social expectations in advisory, one-to-one conferences to introduce hidden curriculum rules and prime students for new experiences, social stories or articles that lay out the hidden curriculum in a given situation, or highlighting social expectations in read alouds or just right books and connecting them to a student’s real-life experiences.  

Whatever method you choose it’s essential that you provide the hidden curriculum information that your student needs to be safe and successful.

To read more about the Hidden Curriculum, look at the Hidden Curriculum collection by Brenda Smith Myles.

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