The ASD Nest Egg

strategies to support kids on the autism spectrum

Category: classroom (page 1 of 2)

Talk Less, Draw More

Talk Less, Draw More

By Brandy Stanfill


The mainstream classroom is full of language processing demands that can be challenging for a wide array of students.  Strategies to support comprehension while reducing language processing can benefit English language learners, students with ADHD, autistic students, and students with auditory processing disorders.  Here are a few tricks to try in your classroom:


Quick Sketch

During your next read aloud, mini lesson, unit review, or group discussion draw a quick sketch of the contents.  A stick figure labeled Christopher Columbus, a half circle and triangle to represent a boat, and 1492 written beside it can help students hold onto who is under discussion, what the action was, and when the events occurred.  No drawing skill needed!


Visual Priming

The next time you are introducing a new activity or procedure show the group pics of the materials they will be using with simple one or two words labels.  These images and labels can help students learn new vocabulary and remember the difference between a beaker and graduated cylinder.  Google images are a teacher’s best friend!

drawing of a thought bubble


Thought Bubbles

When discussing characters from books or historical figures thought bubbles with simple phrases or quick sketches in them can help a student to understand the character’s experiences, emotions, goals, and perspective.  A stick figure of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with a thought bubble that says, “curious about Boo Radley” and a line from stick figure Scout’s eyes to a stick figure of Boo can help a student understand the motivation for Scout’s behavior.  Perspective taking is harder when characters and historical figures are far removed from a student’s life experience.  Use visual supports to highlight universal experiences and motivations like nosiness!




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?


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

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.

Teacher Prompts—Reminders for Teachers

by Laurie DuBos

As we begin the new school year and think about working with new or returning students, teachers are often considering how they can better encourage students to remember to follow routines, complete tasks, or wait their turn–usually through prompts and classroom visuals.  In “The Power of Our Words,” Paula Denton refers to “reminding language,” a strategy that could also help teachers in supporting students and ultimately communicating that “students are competent learners and have good intentions” (p.112).  As teachers, we can use reminding language through visual prompts in our classrooms for ourselves–to demonstrate our best teaching intentions towards students.


Most teachers are list-makers, and everyone has their unique method for making their lists. Only you can decide what works best for you in your classroom, but you might want to discuss a mutual strategy that would work with your co-teaching partner as well.  Would a post-it on your computer or desk be the best place to remind you to review classroom rules daily or should you place a colorful note on your bulletin board to prompt you to use less language when giving directions. What’s most important is that reminders work for you during your daily teaching.


In “The Power of Words,” there are excellent examples of the language that teachers often use when frustrated, busy, and/or tired, particularly when working with students who have limited attention, impulsive behaviors, or difficulty processing information quickly.  An example might be:

How many times do I have to tell you to stop talking?”

(to listen, to stop doing that, to put that away, etc.)

When you really meant to say:  “It’s time to ______ (listen, open your book, etc.).”


Using a photo of a child that reminds you to look for students who are following directions or that prompts you to use brief, more proactive words when starting an activity or lesson is an excellent strategy for teachers to prompt themselves:

young child with finger in front of mouth to indicate quiet

Look for quiet voices.
“It’s time to LISTEN.”

Another example of using a visual reminder is when you realize that you are talking too much or repeating yourself at some point in a school day.  If you think that this is happening to you, consider asking your co-teacher to tally how many times you are giving a direction, reminding a child about a behavior or activity, or repeating a prompt. This will help you to see whether you are using language strategically to prompt students or does it just sound like you are “nagging” them.  With ASD students who have language processing difficulties as well as attention issues, teachers have to be very careful not to get stuck using the same language over and over again or using too much language.  If a student does not respond to the first or second prompt that you’ve given, he/she will likely not respond to the fifth or sixth prompt either.  Often in these situations, what is needed are fewer words not more.

cartoon teacher with speech bubble that says bla bla bla

How many times have I said this?
Try saying it in a DIFFERENT way.

Finally, we have to remember that language is one of the most powerful tools that  have as teachers.  As Denton notes in “The Power of Language,” teachers’ words impact how students “think and act, and ultimately how they learn” (p. 1).  Teachers’ language, including body language and voice tone, convey respect and trust to a student. So, think about using reminding language that will prompt you in your interactions with students (and humor always helps):

mug with "Keep calm or I will use a teacher voice" and blue poster with crown and words "Keep calm and just breathe"

Am I using a CALM voice?

Teacher prompts can be particularly useful as you start the new school year.  As a teacher, you know that prompts and reminders help students stay organized, on-task, and independent.  Why not consider using the same strategy to support your own teaching?

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