The ASD Nest Egg

strategies to support kids on the autism spectrum

Category: classroom set up

Using Roles and Building Self-Awareness

School is social and for autistic kids, this can be tricky to navigate. Social situations– essentially any situations where space is shared with others– can be difficult because the expectations are not consistently explicit and clear. Throughout the day, students are expected to take on a number of different roles: if a teacher is speaking to the whole class, maybe the student will act as a listener, but in the lunchroom the student may be expected to be a more active participant.


Roles help us know what to expect and what is expected of us. Imagine if you walked into a new school and you didn’t know who the principal was, who the custodian was, or who the other teachers were!


Group work

Group work can be challenging because people don’t always verbalize the roles that they take on. You can support this in the classroom by making explicit all the jobs that need to be taken on: Who will organize the timeline? Who will find pictures? Who will do the research?


Help students build their self-awareness by modeling your own strengths and interests. Label what you see as their strengths, too, but remember to include students in the process of role selection. Encourage students to try roles that they may not be drawn to since this can always lead to a new interest or strength.



Classroom jobs can be a great way to have students take on explicitly defined roles. These jobs can be used strategically (e.g. students who like to move around can get a job of “delivery person” and students who like numbers can be “calendar helper”), but they are also a great way of modeling how to use strengths to influence roles.


In older grades, jobs can take students outside of the classroom; maybe they intern for a coach, or go out into the community to learn while helping others. Recognizing that we all play various roles depending on the context is a useful lesson for everyone, but can be particularly powerful for autistic students, for whom “context” sometimes needs to be highlighted externally.

outline of a person in front of 3 doors


Whenever possible, allow students to incorporate their interests into activities. Have a student who loves dinosaurs? Let them write dinosaur math problems in math class, and allow them to write a story about a dinosaur (perhaps from a dinosaur’s perspective) in a creative writing ELA unit. Sharing interests are the foundation for friendships, and the more students are encouraged to recognize their own strengths and interests, the more likely they may be to recognize connections between themselves and others. Choices are an excellent way of providing for Multiple Means of Engagement, a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guideline. The goal of UDL is to give “all individuals equal opportunities to learn,” and the engagement guidelines, in particularly, help provide students with a sense of belonging.


By middle and high school, students can use this insight to form clubs based on their interests and to inform the courses they choose. Eventually, this practice of self-reflection can help them transition into adulthood and a career that not only helps them apply their skills and strategies, but which they also find fulfilling.


Interested in learning more?

Read about ideas for classroom helpers & jobs

See examples of role cards here for elementary school and here for middle/high school, and here for a variety of grades

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.

Developing Positive Relationships with Families

by: Christina Annunziata

As a teacher, I loved planning the first weeks of school. Establishing tone and building a sense of community was a priority and I put a lot of thought and effort into building connections with my students. Building that community also meant forging a connection with students’ families. Establishing rapport with families is a crucial step to launch a successful year.  

To establish positive communication with families consider:

  • Make a plan for communication before school starts. Decide how you will communicate with parents-notes home, email, calls- and present options for how parents can communicate with you. Are they open to using apps like Remind or do they prefer a phone call or email?  Set clear expectations about when you are available and how quickly you will respond to parent communication.  
  • Make several positive connections early. I had a rule to have 6 positive exchanges within the first month. Depending on the size of your class, this may not be realistic so decide what makes sense for you. My first communication was always a phone call or email within the first week to let parents know how the child was adjusting.  Remember, a positive exchange can be as simple as thumbs up or quick mention (“We had a great day!”) at dismissal.
  • Ask them about their child. In general, parents have the best firsthand knowledge of their children. A family survey sent home in the first week of school is a nice way to start this conversation. Ask about children’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Use this information to weave connections into your teaching.  A child who struggles with math but loves Pokémon may respond differently if Pikachu shows up in the lesson.  Demonstrate that you really know the child.
  • Build family communication into your weekly planning.  Set aside time to communicate and jot it down. This will help you keep track of who you have been in touch with and may identify students who need a few extra minutes of attention. You may realize you have less interactions with some students and can make an effort to check in with them. 

Making an early effort can establish a good parent-teacher relationship that supports two-way communication for the whole year. You may need to invest a little more time and energy initially, but it may make any bumps down the road easier and quicker to resolve.

circle with three arrows that is labeled parents, teacher, students, with connect in the middle

Top 3 Tips for setting up your classroom in the fall

Summer’s winding down, and it’s time to start thinking about setting up your classroom!

Yes, think about desk arrangements.

Yes count your book bins.

Definitely break out your label-maker, but let’s not start there.  

Instead, let’s step back and look at three tips to kick off your classroom set-up:


  • Create a calm and consistent classroom environment through COLOR


You want to create a warm and inviting classroom environment where your students can learn, so let’s not set them up to be distracted!  So much of the bulletin board and border paper on the market is, itself, distracting — too bright, too shiny, too patterned. Stick with the basics. Choose 2-3 consistent colors for your classroom, and use them across all of your bulletin boards to create a cohesive and calming environment. Get some ideas HERE and HERE! Want to learn more about how color affects mood- HERE’s some research!)


  • Think about FLOW and how students will be moving around your room


Imagine that you will be laying down walkways for all of the paths your students will be walking most frequently. Are these pathways:

  • Clear of obstacles (if they have to walk around the projector cart, will the projector get bumped and disconnected daily)?
  • Clear of distractors (will the students touch the computers and every time they go to gather their writing materials)?
  • Clear of traffic jams (are all of the students’ reading bins lined up on one shelf, setting the stage for pushing and chatting)?

Check out THIS great video on classroom choreography! Plan ahead, considering travel paths, to maximize efficiency, minimize distractions, and optimize classroom space.


  • Take your students’ VISUAL PERSPECTIVE


Sit on your rug. Sit in every desk. Look back at the board from where your students hand their backpacks. See what your students will see.  When you are on the rug looking up at where the lesson charts will be, what distractions are up there? What is competing with your students’ attention (teacher materials? computer screensavers? window to the playground outside?).As you set up your classroom, help your students focus by taking down anything unnecessary.

Not every student will have the same view from his/her desk, so think about your most distractible students.  What will she be looking at? Can she easily see the board, rather than turning around (which has the potential to lead to wandering eyes)? Is he looking up across all of the other students’ desks — potential for peer distraction rather than focus on work!  Can he see what he needs to pack for HW from his cubby? Strategic planning of classroom environment and layout can help set even our most vulnerable students up for success.

Setting up your classroom is about more than flashy posters and laminated charts. It’s about seeing around corners, sometimes literally, to help your students feel calm, successful, and independent in their new classroom. Get more ideas about setting up your classroom HERE and you can also even set up a virtual classroom!


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