The ASD Nest Egg

strategies to support kids on the autism spectrum

Category: motivation

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

Say something nice!



All day, every day, we send people positive or negative vibes, positive or negative energy that either draws people to us or warns them away. Smiles and words of agreement, affection and appreciation, affect people in a positive way and encourage our students to pay attention to what we say. Complaints and criticism push people away and cause our students to tune out our teaching and directions.

In the same way that we can train ourselves to catch our students being good, we can build the habit of thinking about and talking to them positively, and complimenting them to others.  Challenge yourself- say something nice about a student each day.  Turn to your co-teacher or colleague as the class is putting away materials or lining up and say one thing that you noticed.  “Raven made a great point about Reverend Dimmesdale’s motivation,” or “Winter was getting his subtraction facts so quickly today.”  It will positively impact your colleague’s mood (and possibly their perception of that student) and communicate to the child that you see them, hear them, and value them.  


Learn more about Haim Ginott herehg2

or check out his book Teacher and Child.


This post is by special guest author Dolores Troy-Quinn.  

As a former principal of an ASD Nest school, I had the opportunity  to hire numerous staff members as the program expanded. In my twelve-year tenure as principal I interviewed hundreds of people. Hiring the right people was the most important job I had!  I learned one important trait of a good special educator.


2000px-Heart_corazónThe work of a teacher is incredibly hard. Working with special needs youngsters is extremely hard.  Not everyone who has a special education license is a true special educator. Dual certification (SE/GE) makes it difficult for hiring committees to tease out the person who has the “true heart of a special educator.”  I always asked teaching candidates, “Why special education?” I
wanted to delve into their intrinsic motivation to work with this population of students.  This question was meant to separate the true special educator from the teacher who was looking for a job-any job!  A true special educator is tenacious in his/her ability to keep looking for answers to support a student’s growth.  A person who does not have a special education “calling”, may become frustrated, and ultimately, blame the student for his/her inability to learn.  I found a compelling
why story important in my selection process.

I’m not suggesting that every teaching candidate have all the answers.  What I suggest is that a few well placed questions about a candidate’s motivation may help separate the true special educator from the person who has the license, but not necessarily, the heart of a special educator.  Finding this type of special educator will reap untold benefits not only for your special needs students, but all of your students.

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