The ASD Nest Egg

strategies to support kids on the autism spectrum

Author: Aaron Lanou (page 1 of 2)

Preserve Student Dignity: Give ‘em an out

Preserve Student Dignity: Give ‘em an out

Aaron Lanou


How often has it happened that you called on a student and she didn’t know the answer? There’s that awkward few seconds when you and all the other students are waiting for a response, and she just can’t find the words.

When a student doesn’t know the answer, the last thing you want is for her to feel embarrassed or humiliated. Though teachers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking “catching” an unprepared student will teach them to be prepared, the reality is they’re made to feel uncomfortable and angry. And this can be even harder for students with ASD who have challenges with flexibility and perfectionism. Even if the student “should know” the answer, you’ve got to give ’em an out.

The next time a student is struggling to answer, try one of these responses:

  • “Do you want to call on someone else for help?” Let them choose a peer to help them answer the question.
  • “I’ll give you another couple minutes and come back to you.” Then really give them some time, and circle back later to ensure they understand.
  • “It’s OK to say ‘I’m not sure.’” Allow them to say they don’t know. Reinforce that this is ok and part of the process of learning. This is often hard for autistic students, but an important idea to encourage and support.

Even better, make a proactive plan to avoid these stuck moments in the first place. A couple of ideas:

  • Provide wait time: Pose a question, and then wait for at least ten seconds before calling on anyone for a response. Tell students to take the time to form an answer, so everyone can feel more prepared. This is an important approach for students with ASD, many of whom have slower language processing. Read more on our Wait Time post.
  • Prime students for when you will call on them: Avoid cold-calling to catch students. Instead say, “Keisha, I’ll be coming to you for a response next.” This will give her time to be prepared.
  • Teach students a get-unstuck strategy: Early in the school year, teach students explicit strategies for moments like these. For example, encourage them by saying, “It’s ok if you don’t know an answer to a question I ask. When you’re stuck, you can either ask for another minute, ask to look at your notes, or ask me to rephrase the question.”

All of these approaches can help preserve students’ dignity in the classroom, and help students save face. This reduces the likelihood that students feel embarrassed—and embarrassed students do not volunteer to participate. Send the message to the whole class that it’s safe to try, and you’re likely to get much more participation.

For more helpful insight into the dangers of embarrassing students, see Cult of Pedagogy’s post, Is humiliation part of your teaching toolbox?


How to Do the Do Now

How to Do the Do Now

by Aaron Lanou


In middle and high school classrooms, the “Do Now” is ubiquitous. It is a necessary element of the lesson, with a dual purpose: 1) it gives students something to do during the start-of-class transition, and 2) it prepares them for the upcoming lesson.


Too often, the Do Now falls into some predictable traps:

  • The task takes students too long, and it becomes the Do Forever…
  • The directions aren’t clear, and it becomes the Do Wha?
  • It’s not posted when students arrive, and it becomes the Do dee do (the sound students make while twiddling their thumbs waiting for directions)


To get the most out of the Do Now—and to structure it in a helpful, predictable way for students with ASD—it’s best to make it:

Short – Active – Ready – Relevant


an icon of a timerShort

The Do Now should only take between 3 and 5 minutes. Any longer, and it cuts into valuable teaching time. Provide students with a task that gets them ready for the upcoming lesson, but doesn’t bleed into the lesson—there will be more opportunities for independent work later in the period.


Do this: Usually have a Do Now that takes longer? Identify a short 3- to 5-minute chunk of the task that students can complete as the Do Now, and find a place in your lesson to continue or expand on it.


an icon of a hand squeezing a bar, showing strengthActive

The Do Now should require students to do something active, and directions should state concretely what is is they should do. A Do Now like, “What were the primary causes of the American Revolution” doesn’t communicate to students that they should do anything, besides sit there and think. Always start the directions with a verb, and consider what you want to see students doing for these first 3–5 minutes. For students with ASD, the more concrete we can be with directions, the easier the directions are to follow.


Do this: Brainstorm a list of a half dozen verbs that you will use to start the directions of every Do Now. Some good possibilities: write, complete, annotate, solve, jot, etc.

Image of do now: write a paragraph answering this question. What were the primary causes of the American Revolution? Cite evidence from your reading packet from last night's homework.

an icon of a projector screenReady

The Do Now should be prepared and posted before students enter. Students should always know where to look to figure out what to do the second they step foot into the classroom. The Do Now also shouldn’t require an explanation—you want them to Do… NOW! The teaching comes later, when the lesson begins.


Do this: Post the directions for your Do Now in the same place every day. This could be on the chalkboard, whiteboard, projected on an interactive whiteboard, or even on a sheet of paper they pick up as they enter—so long as it’s always the same. This predictability is helpful for all students, particularly those on the autism spectrum.

an example of a do now. Text says: Do Now. Read the passage at the top of your guided notes packet. Annotate the passage using the four symbols we have been practicing. Annotation symbols: star icon= this seems important. Question mark= This makes me wonder. Checkmark icon= This confirms something i thought. X icon= this is different than what I thought.

icon of a link or chainRelevant

The Do Now should be connected to the content you’re teaching. It can either be a preview or a review. A preview prepares them for what they’ll be learning in the upcoming lesson, such as a reading about a historical topic that they’ll be debating. A review helps them practice something from the previous day’s lesson or homework. This can be good for math classes, to give students another opportunity to try their hand at a recent algorithm a couple more times. Since the Do Now should be quick and doable without directions, be careful not to present brand new, potentially challenging material in the Do Now—this may cause unhelpful frustration or anxiety right at the start of the period.


Do this: Decide for each lesson, what is the best way to link to what we’re doing today? Is it more helpful to review something we did yesterday, or preview something we’ll be discussing next?

an example of an algebra do now that says: Solve the following two equations. When finished, write an explanation of the order of operations you used to solve each. 5x-10=45; y/2+7=13. Explanation example: First, I used addition because...

So, do this… Now!

icon of a timeran icon of a hand squeezing a bar, showing strengthan icon of a projector screenicon of a link or chain

Make your Do Now:

  • Short. Plan it taking no more than 3–5 minutes.
  • Active. Tell students what to do, starting directions with a verb.
  • Ready. Have it posted when students enter, in the same place every day.
  • Relevant. Connect the task to the previous or upcoming lesson.


For more about the Do Now, see this post from Teach Like a Champion.


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.


The Most Important Three-Word Phrase

The following is the text from a speech delivered by NYU Professor Kristie Patten Koenig at the Doctoral Convocation Speech for NYU Steinhardt, May 11, 2017

First, on behalf of the faculty I would like to congratulate each of you for your accomplishments that we mark today. We celebrate your achievements, we welcome and thank your families and friends for their support, and recognize the perseverance and passion that brought you to this day. This is a moment, one of many moments over the course of your careers as researchers, educators, performers and professionals that you can look back and claim as part of your journey.

I am sure that each faculty member sitting behind me can remember this very same moment in their career and if asked could share other defining moments in their lives as a scholar as they examined their content area more deeply, engaged in a research project that yielded surprising findings, produced a musical piece or a work of art that took their own breath away, or questioned existing paradigms that foster oppression, sometimes revealing that their own work may have been supporting these paradigms.

If you will indulge me, I want to share one of my defining moments that falls into the last category. The message from this moment can be summed up in a three-word phrase that has served me well since my own graduation with a PhD in Educational Psychology. My hope is that it will be of some benefit to you as you enter the next chapter in your academic and professional lives. It is a three-word phrase that is rarely said these days. It is a three-word phrase that turned me in a different direction as an occupational therapist, as an educator, as a researcher and quite frankly as a human being. It is a three-word phrase that once you say it, if you reflect and then act, your work and focus must change. It has too. It is a three-word phrase that one rarely hears anymore, especially in the echo chamber of our current discourse. It is quite simply, I was wrong, and I hope you get a chance to be wrong too.

[ face palm emoji ]

Now I know this message may not resonate right now, after successful defense of your dissertation, or successful clinical placements, so let me explain.

As a practitioner I worked on the myriad of deficits that individuals with autism display. As a researcher, I began my career studying deficits and examined the efficacy of interventions on outcomes associated with these deficits. I was on my way as a confident newly minted PhD!

Early on I received a small training grant to develop materials to train behavioral health providers. By chance and inspiration we decided to interview adults with autism long before people were talking to adults with autism. We had no idea what information we would be able to gather as we traveled throughout the state, recruiting adults for interviews to help guide our materials that we were developing for children. My colleagues and I had the incredible fortune to interview several individuals who typed independently to communicate but were non-speaking. Each of these individuals demonstrated atypical behaviors associated with the core features of autism, flapping, aggression, self-injurious behavior, lack of eye contact, and often covered their ears when we arrived and rocked back and forth prior to the interview. I knew these weaknesses, I spent most of my professional life either remediating these weaknesses or studying interventions to remediate these weaknesses. I knew these behaviors. These were familiar deficits.

As each interviewee sat down at their keyboard and began to painstakingly type out their answers, their deficits were present but quickly overshadowed by their messages. I listened as the first college graduate in the state that was non-speaking typed out “I would like to write a book about disability and my experience using Foucault’s frame of normal.” I listened as a young woman typed that she wanted to be a “regular girl,” and before I could ask my follow up as to what she meant, watched as she encircled her left ring finger signifying a wedding or at least an engagement. I listened and watched as a young man, one who has deficits in empathy and perspective taking according to us experts, saw his mother grieving after her father, his grandfather had died, type out, “mom don’t bear you sadness on your shoulder, bear it in your heart where remembering can turn the pain into love.” A profoundly empathetic statement. I realized our simple communication systems we used were wrong. I realized that our IQ testing would not only get the cognitive capacity of these individuals wrong, but then our educational systems would program to that arbitrary number. I realized that by every professional focusing on their deficits, these individuals could not identify what their own strengths were. The system, and I as a part of that system had framed a language of deficit, a language of weaknesses, that was reinforced by society over and over again.

[ icon of strong person ]By listening, I realized I was wrong. We do not build our lives on remediated weakness, why are we expecting those we serve to build their lives on remediated weaknesses? We define and study lack of empathy in autistic individuals without even examining our own lack of empathy towards the autistic way of being. We focus primarily on a deficit-based model while giving lip service to a person’s strengths. How was I perpetuating this? Why was I studying all that was wrong versus what was right? How is society complicit in perpetuating a deficit narrative, and what is my role in not only challenging that paradigm, but overturning it. This is my frame now, it is essential to who I am as a human being, what I care about in research, and who I listen to. All because I was wrong.[ maya angelou quote: do the best you can until you know better. when you know better, do better. ]

So listen to those you have the privilege to serve and hear their voice. Challenge systems. Question from within. Partner with versus simply studying people. Disseminate your work to communities where it matters most. Listen and hear and listen some more. Change your mind. Go in a different direction. To paraphrase Maya Angelou when you know different, please, please do different! I look forward to each of you having those moments, moments that matter, moments that define you. Moments that you will look back and say because I was wrong, it made all the difference. Thank you and congratulations!!


Kristie Patten Koenig, PhD, OT/L, FAOTA, is Associate Professor at New York University, and Chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. She is also Principal Investigator of NYU Steinhardt’s ASD Nest Support Project.

Directions: Say it in three

Teachers like to talk! When we lead a lesson, support a student, and give class directions, we tend to use lots and lots of language.

say it in three

Seriously. Lots of language.

The irony is, much of what we are saying in the classroom is not truly being heard! Due to language processing challenges, many students with ASD cannot fully hear, process or completely understand all the verbal information we bombard them with. Dr. Ken Rowe explains the problem of too much teacher language this way:


“There is too much information going through the students’ auditory gate. Either nothing goes through or what goes through is garbled.” (in Doherty 2004)


But everything we have to say is so important! How can we possibly reduce our verbal language?


There are many ways to reduce the amount of language we use in the classroom. One way is to say it in three. Replace your long list of directions with a total of three words. Yes, just 3!


Try this: When giving directions, start by giving your long list of steps as you usually would. Then, repeat your directions, but slightly shorter. Finally, repeat your directions using only the three most important words. For example:


OK, class. Please hang up your coats and put away anything you had at lunch. Then get your writer’s notebook and meet the me at the rug.

(That’s you giving the full directions)


That’s: coats away, writer’s notebook, go to the rug.

(That’s slightly shorter)


Coats – notebook – rug

(That’s it! Three words!)


Think about a funnel: our verbal rich directions get slowly more and more concise until we end by just giving a three-word direction.


Try it out! Look to see if your students follow directions more easily, more quickly, or more completely.


For more information, check out: The Power of Our Words, a terrific book on classroom language from Responsive Classroom.



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