Finding the intersection between interest, ability, and autism!


I have been repeating the ‘presume competence’ mantra all year and, as a result, I have been working to create lessons that are:

  1. high interest
  2. relevant to the student
  3. accessible to the student
  4. age-appropriate
  5. related to the general education curriculum (adapted from books/materials/topic that the general education classes use or addresses an essential element of the standards)

This is not easy. It takes a lot of creativity, time and effort to develop meaningful lessons that meet the criteria. Sometimes I can’t meet all of the criteria, but I think students benefit from the attempt even if I fall a bit short.

One of my students this year is both very smart and very autistic. He doesn’t perform well with academic or communication tasks unless he is motivated and interested in the material. I allowed him to choose a book to study out of a field of 5-6 high interest teen novels. He chose J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I have been working to develop visuals/summaries for the student to use alongside the book, along with worksheets that target the student’s IEP goals. I will include examples of both to download below. The student listens to the book using Learning Ally while following along with the text. Occasionally, I will read a chapter to him. I also supplement the chapters with clips from the movie.

hp ch 2

Sample summary, including spelling/AAC words and visuals of the characters.

I have been pleased with the student’s reactions to the novel study so far. He continues to show interest in the book–if he sees me working on the summaries or worksheets, he will often pace behind me to monitor what I am doing!

If you would like to include adapted books in your curriculum for students with disabilities, you don’t have to recreate the wheel like I am doing. There are websites available that offer adapted books in a variety of formats. One such website is through the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities and can be found here: . Make sure you preview the books before you assign them, since some are better than others.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

HP worksheets

HP summary


Happy Holidays!


Happy Holidays, everyone! Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Feliz Navidad, Happy Festivus, Happy New Year and Super Solstice! I haven’t written as much as I would have liked this semester due to a variety of (good) reasons, but I do want to share the way we wrote a class holiday letter!

First, I had everyone in the class complete an ‘About Me’ page… and I mean everyone! I had students, peers, and classroom staff complete them. I offered picture supported choices for students who needed the extra help, but others I only handed the template to.

After we completed the sheets, each student presented theirs to the class. We simplified some of the sentences for students who use AAC devices. For example, ‘One holiday tradition my family has…’ became ‘My family…’.

Lastly, I typed everyone’s blurb up and added it to a holiday letter! I wrote a little blurb and added a picture in the middle to tie it together. I am happy with how it turned out and I am glad that everyone was able to participate!

Holiday letter





Students with significant needs require that the teacher focus on functional life skills, communication, and self-advocacy. In order to practice these skills as authentically as possible, the teacher will occasionally have to create stressful situations that require student action to correct.

Listen all of y’all it’s a SABOTAGE!!!

-Beastie Boys (duh.)

Today’s sabotage is brought to you by those people who insist that sitting at work will kill you.

While students were out sensory-breaking, bathroom-ing, and otherwise occupied, I collected the classroom chairs and put them in a storage closet. When students returned, there were mixed reactions. Some seemed not to notice any difference. Others seemed amused. Still others started looking around the room as if they were searching for the missing furniture.

Not one student commented that the chairs were gone.

Not one student asked for a chair.

The rest of the day was simultaneously hilarious and sad. It was funny to watch the students try their best to follow their schedules without chairs to sit in.

photo 5

It was sad that the students were not able to find the words to ask for the object when it was out of sight.

photo 3photo 4

The students were without their chairs for five hours of the school day yesterday.

photo 1

This morning, the chairs were still gone but I primed the language by projecting several pictures (including chair) with labels on the SmartBoard. With varying amounts of prompting, all students finally asked for their chairs within the first three hours of school.

This was eye-opening for me. All students had the capacity to ask for their chair. The vocabulary was in their devices if they used one and all students had demonstrated the knowledge of the vocabulary. All students had even asked for their chairs if someone else was using it. As soon as the chairs were out of sight, however, it was a different ball game.

These two days have reminded me that I need to be sabotaging more often in order to stimulate functional communication and provide students an opportunity to advocate for what they need. Typical adults and caregivers throughout their lives should not have to be in the business of mind-reading!

A Group Activity Flop


Lately, I have taught group activities that have fallen flat. My district uses the Unique Learning System and we were doing a lesson straight from the curriculum on the SmartBoard. In a nutshell, the lesson required the students to check boxes indicating whether certain items did or did not use electricity. There were three pages containing items from home, from school, and in the kitchen.

I multi-modally laid out the ways to tell if something uses electricity. I had actual objects on hand when possible. I talked, I sang, I basically tap-danced in front of the room to keep everyone’s attention.

The activity was a disaster. Everyone, students and assistants, tried to race through the lesson. People were talking over each other. Students did not engage with the actual lesson or material—they pointed to answers until an assistant or I gave them an ‘ok.’

I took a step back and just watched. Some students were sitting and stimming. Others were loudly talking or whining. Still others were pointing at answers and trying to read staff members’ faces until they thought they landed on a correct answer.

It wasn’t a group lesson at all. It had morphed into a carousel of staff members working 1:1 with students in a poorly designed lesson, with too much wait time and not enough student engagement.

I typically do three whole-class activities per week and I had the formula down pat last year. This year, the population has shifted—the attention span and ability level of my students has definitely increased. Additionally, fewer of my students have a formal diagnosis of autism.

As a result, I have rightly moved away from super-highly structured group lessons (technical term), but I have over-corrected. I need to re-establish some middle ground so that all students can engage meaningfully with the material, even if they are working on different skills.

I also need to make sure that I make my expectations for each student clear to the other staff in the classroom so they know what to focus on. Part of the reason the lessons have been failing is because the assistants and I are falling over each other trying to ‘fix’ it. If the design of the lesson isn’t any good, no amount of staff can right the ship during the lesson!

Finally Finished Administering the Dynamic Learning Map!


I finally finished administering the Dynamic Learning Maps ™ (DLM) test! Well, I found out that I was finished. I actually finished on Thursday last week. It just wasn’t clear that I was done because the interface doesn’t tell you. You just stop receiving tests in your KITE inbox. This made the end of the testing process rather anticlimactic.

The DLM project is pioneered by researchers from the University of Kansas. According to the form letter they wanted us to send home (and have signed by our building principal), the DLM is an “exciting process” with assessments that are “revolutionary and important to the future of educating students with cognitive disabilities.”

According to their website ( , the DLM project is a research-based “innovative way for all students with significant cognitive disabilities to demonstrate their learning. “ Interestingly, exploring the website revealed only three ‘research papers’: One was basically a 9-page definition of text complexity, the second was an attempt to simplify their learning nodes,

You know...Simplify.

You know…Simplify.

and the third was an evaluation of a pilot conducted by the good people at the DLM from which they concluded that everything was awesome.

It seems like the DLM researchers glossed over the teacher evaluation portion of their pilot evaluation. Most teachers (68%!) rated the assessment system a C, D, or F. Apparently, teachers only know how to rank things by grades. This poor response from teachers would indicate to me that another pilot is necessary before implementation.

The researchers used other comments, such as teachers asking for more symbol-supported text, as an opportunity to suggest that teachers simply need to be educated on what the DLM was all about rather than seriously considering that symbol supports might help students to perform on the assessments. In other words, teacher complaints were due to their own ignorance of testing strategies rather than due to the deficiency of test items.

My own experience with the tests was similar to those teachers’ who participated in the pilot. I know that different students received different testlets, so my own reflections will be short and sweet! I administered the tests to a young man with classic autism who uses an AAC device for expressive communication.

Inauthentic—My student understands the difference between pipe cleaners and band-aids. He knows that they are different, could sort them easily, and use the correct item functionally when necessary (when was the last time you used a pipe cleaner functionally?). He was awfully confused when I asked him to hand me one or the other due to his difficulty with auditory processing. The system likely logged that he does not know those items or the concepts of same/different, when this is not a fair or accurate conclusion of his abilities.

Frustrating—My student learns best with errorless learning. He gets frustrated when he does not know the answer and can sometimes demonstrate that frustration with aggression. Thanks, DLM! Luckily, we have been working on using calming breaks and I had a huge bag of Froot Loops on hand. Unluckily, he has learned, correctly, to ask for help when he doesn’t understand something. It broke my heart that I couldn’t help him. Instead, I praised the heck out of him whenever he gave me any sort of answer–correct, incorrect, building a tower out of the band-aids and pipe cleaners, didn’t matter!

Poorly Designed—When will these companies who make tests for students with significant disabilities, especially Autism, learn that you cannot list answer items from top to bottom, or left to right, and expect students to thoughtfully choose what they think is the correct answer? These students will usually choose the last answer when they are presented linearly! The answer choices need to be presented in a circle of sorts. To make matters worse, the DLM did not even off-set the answer choices and the questions were often embedded within a text. This made it extremely confusing—the student could not even guess at what the answer might be because he couldn’t visually discern which items on the screen were supposed to be the choices.

Just off-setting the questions from the rest of the text like this would have been an improvement to the on-screen presentation.

Good intentions with accessibility options, still falls short—The testing interface seemed to offer a variety of accessibility options for students. All students are expected to interact directly with the computer. I administered the test on an iPad and didn’t have trouble with accessibility. A coworker had a student who needed enlarged text and, as a result, only a very small part of the screen could be viewed at one time. The teacher eventually gave up, unchecked the visual impairment box on the student profile, and then presented the test items on the SmartBoard to allow for a larger view of the whole screen.

To conclude, I found that the DLM fell short of its own description of being “exciting” or an “innovative way for all students with significant cognitive disabilities to demonstrate their learning.” In the DLM’s defense, however, I don’t have a better alternative for a standardized assessment for our students with the most significant disabilities. The Illinois Alternative Assessment (IAA) fell short in its own way as well. I only hope that this is another stop on the way to the design of a minimally intrusive test that will highlight a student’s abilities in a meaningful way.

But What Else Could You Say? Part II


A Look at How to Teach Staff Members to Better Understand Students with Autism

After I spent time trying to reframe the way Bill was using language in his head in my previous post, I started to notice ways staff members and I were using language when interacting with the students.

Many of my students have classic autism. My coworkers and I have experience and training regarding autism spectrum disorder. And yet, we continue to fail them in many ways.

I strongly feel that we need to act as translators between our students and the world. There is a marked difference between an autistic view of the world and a typical view of the world. If you love someone with autism, you have a twofold responsibility: First, work to teach the person with autism how to make sense of the typical world. Second, work to teach the typical world strategies to better relate to neuro-diverse populations. When there is conflict between the ‘worlds,’ I liken it to a cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When a student with autism repeatedly pushes to the front of the line in the cafeteria : Misunderstanding.

When a student with autism hits someone who questions him about his day: Misunderstanding.

You get the idea.

I have to take a quick paragraph to make a confession. Sometimes, I see something that I don’t like or that I don’t agree with and, instead of intervening, I observe to see what happens. I observe while pretending that I do not see or hear the negative interactions. The reason is this: I know I can’t control everything and I am curious about how different students might react to different, unplanned situations that somehow rock their autistic worlds. I use the information garnered from these situations to create structured lessons to teach students or staff members how we can all improve.

Ok, confession over.

Through clandestine ‘observations’ in the classroom, I have gathered some unofficial data. Over 90% of students’ negative behavior in the classroom is a result of cross-cultural misunderstandings. A big part of this is our response to behaviors/incidences that were happening OVER and OVER again and we are continually misunderstanding. Just like my student Bill, the language we are using to process events in the classroom is causing us to behave in an inappropriate (or at least ineffective) manner.

I observed a paraprofessional demand that a student ask for help in a store before allowing him to search for the item on his own. After he didn’t immediately construct a proper question on his AAC device, she commandeered the iPad. Then, frustrated with the software, she instead required him to spell the words she couldn’t find without giving him the chance to hold his own device and search through his vocabulary. The student shouted, swung his arms, and eventually almost struck her. He had to leave the store without making his purchase. When I asked the staff member what happened, she said, “_______ didn’t want to buy it so he freaked out.”

I saw a student picking his nose. A staff member practically pounced on him with a tissue and hand sanitizer from his periphery while shouting ‘No!”. The student shrieked and bit his hand firmly. When I asked what happened, the staff said, “I don’t want to get sick. He needs to use a tissue.”

I saw a student grab and pinch the arm of a staff member who snuck up behind her and pushed her in until her chest was pressed against the edge of the table. Apparently she wasn’t close enough to the table previously for the staff member’s taste. This was during ‘down time’ in the classroom.

This is just a taste of cross-cultural misunderstandings that I observed in the last week or two. I feel frustrated and confused about the disparity between the situations I observed and the staff members’ explanations of what happened. I realized that they are honestly perceiving the situations in the way they describe them to me.

Our speech pathologist often explains that everyone uses verbal scripts, internalized in our heads, in order to complete basic routines and respond in situations. I need to access those scripts in the heads of people who work with these students and make adjustments. I need to do this without accusing anyone of wrongdoing or making anyone feel wrong or mean. Again, these are cross-cultural misunderstandings born out of ignorance. I need to work to educate and make sense of why behaviors are happening.

Perhaps it would help if I made a similar visual like I made for my student Bill. Again, I am using a fictional student, Bill, to illustrate the point.

What I think: The student feels: I Should think:
I told Bill what we were going to do, and Bill acted out. It is obvious that Bill doesn’t want to participate in this activity. I don’t understand what I am supposed to do .I am so confused and now you are trying to rush me, which is making me feel even more anxious. And you won’t stop TALKING and pointing. Maybe if I hit you, you will give me some space and quiet. I have to assume the student would complete the task if he was able. What could be going on? Maybe he doesn’t understand the task or the expectation, or he is confused about what will happen next. I will clarify expectations (visually, if possible, with pictures or modeling) and review a mini-schedule of the current expectation with the student. If I am also confused by the task or expectation, I should clarify with the classroom teacher.
Bill walked in to the bathroom, pulled his pants down and started to use the toilet while I was in there grooming with another student! I am shocked! How could a student act like this? This is so inappropriate. He could be ARRESTED. I need to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I am allowed to use the bathroom when other people are in there. Sometimes I am not allowed to do this. Sometimes I am corrected if I wait in the hallway instead of entering the bathroom. I don’t understand the rules and right now I REALLY need to go, so that’s what I’m going to do. I know I think this would be shocking behavior for a neuro-typical student. However, Bill doesn’t have the same boundaries or understandings about social norms. Why might he be confused about the expectation in this circumstance? How can we teach him how to respond appropriately in future situations? Could I predict this happening in the future and use pre-alerts to help the student process it differently next time?
Bill has his fingers in his nose AGAIN. That is so disgusting. I have told him a thousand times! I am going to rush over, shout at him to use a tissue, pull his chair out, and demand he wash his hands immediately. I am trying to work on the computer but…something in my nose is uncomfortable. I will take care of that while continuing to work on the computer. I am supposed to follow the computer directions and I am doing awesome on this…WHAT THE HELL? Bill may have been taught the rule, but he hasn’t generalized it. It is also obvious that he has difficulty focusing on more than one thing at a time and he places much less value on conforming to social norms. I will use visuals and gentle verbal cues to remind him that he needs to use a tissue and wash his hands. If he is learning something new or especially challenging, I will ignore the socially ‘disgusting’ behavior in order to allow Bill to focus on his new skill. I understand that we need to try to teach one thing at a time and we can’t practically address everything all of the time!

These viewpoints are slightly exaggerated but I don’t think they are exaggerated by much. Now that I have processed this idea more clearly, I think I could put together a staff training/activity and leave either the middle or right columns blank—or both! I could add in some fictional situations as well and collaborate with other teachers to make the examples more applicable to life in different classrooms.

But What Else Could You Say? Part 1


I was working with a student today who asks a lot of questions. Let’s call him Bill. I estimate that approximately 80% of Bill’s utterances are in a question form and he is quite the talker, so do the math. One day, I had a headache and I gave Bill three ‘tickets’ that he had to turn in in order to get an actual answer to his questions, hoping he would prioritize them a bit.

Bill spent his tickets in 1 minute and 46 seconds. I’m pretty sure he would have spent them even more quickly, but I had to leave the room momentarily in order to re-enter and re-assess a strange odor that I detected in the classroom. Ah, the glamorous life of a special educator.

Well, in weeks since the failed ‘ticket’ strategy, I have been brainstorming other strategies to use in order to help Bill use his language more functionally. He repeats questions quite often and usually asks questions to which he already knows the answer. I posted a “Questions Bill Knows the Answer To” poster on the wall in order to gather feedback from other members of the team.

After a week or two, I had quite the list of questions that Bill ‘knew the answer to’. The questions were easy to categorize and it seemed obvious from looking at them that he was asking them because he was either anxious or trying to socialize and didn’t have anything else to say. Previous IEP goals showed evidence of speech goals centered on asking relevant questions. It seemed that he learned that questions are the ‘right’ things to say!

Today, I sat with him and we dissected some of the questions, trying to tease out what he actually felt and meant when he said them, and what he could do/say instead. Part of the chart we created looked like this:

questions visual

He was amused when I repeated the questions to him and had him prompt me to do or say something else. Later, I tried to catch him in the act of asking the repeated questions and show him the chart, but he was preoccupied with singing the theme to Spiderman and trying to wink. You can’t win them all.

Stay tuned for a revelation I had about how staff, too, can re-frame what they are saying in order to best serve students!