1. Autism: Effective Strategies for Teachers & Specialists
B. J. Zagorac, Educational Specialist
2. Topic Overview
• Essential Question
What are effective strategies for teaching students with Autism
Spectrum Disorder in the elementary grades?
• Guiding Question w/ Specific Focus
What are research-based strategies for improving reading
instruction for students with ASD?
3. Chronology of Presentation
• Presentation Preview
1. Defining Characteristics of Autism
2. General Research-Based Strategies
3. Academic Strategies
4. Special Considerations in Teaching Reading to Children with
5. Literacy Strategies for General Education Teachers
6. Specific Literacy Strategies: Before, During, and After Reading
7. Future Research on Autism
4. Definition/Criteria for Autism
• To receive a diagnosis of autism, a child must meet
each of the following criteria:
1. Deficits in social communication within multiple contexts.
2. Limited and repeated patterns of behavior.
3. Symptoms must be present in early childhood.
4. Symptoms must cause significant impairment in life
5. Symptoms cannot be explained by any intellectual disability.
5. General Research-Based Strategies
Capitalize on the student’s strengths and specific interests.
Explicitly teach and model social expectations for the student.
Provide a predictable environment and daily schedule for the
Design the classroom space in an organized manner so that
clutter is kept to a minimum.
6. Academic Strategies
• When considering any academic strategy for a child with autism, it
is important to focus on his/her special interests and strengths.
• Teachers can follow 4 easy steps when developing a strategy:
1. List as many strengths, talents, and special interests of the student as
2. Identify the specific academic need of the child.
3. Investigate research-supported strategies from scholarly journals (e.g.,
Intervention in School and Clinic, Remedial and Special Education, and
Teaching Exceptional Children).
4. Pair the strategy with one of the student’s strengths, interests, or talents.
Creativity is important, and the special interest of the student must be a
primary part of the strategy.
7. Special Considerations in Teaching Reading
to Children with Autism
o Children with autism are typically very focused on the explicit
and literal meaning of texts.
o Making inferences beyond what is stated in the text is
challenging for students with autism.
o Students with autism will often struggle to make predictions
or answer questions from the teacher about predictions.
o Identifying emotional states of individuals and characters is
very difficult as students with autism have “theory of mind”
8. Literacy Strategies for General Education
Read aloud to students and remind them that reading is
always about making meaning and not on reading words.
Use visual aids and supports whenever possible during
reading. Simple graphic organizers are highly effective.
Incorporate reading topics of personal interests to students
Use nonfiction texts because it is easier to comprehend for
students with ASD.
9. Strategies Before Reading
Priming This strategy involves the teaching of essential skills
prior to a reading activity.
• Children with ASD often lack of background knowledge or have
inaccurate background knowledge on many topics.
• Any necessary background information is directly taught to the
student so that he/she will be able to make connections while
reading the text.
• Priming sessions should be short, provide positive reinforcement,
and the tasks should be easy for the student to complete.
10. Strategies Before Reading
Picture Walk This strategy is somewhat nontraditional when
used with students with autism in that much more structure is
• The only pictures selected pictures selected are those that will
provide an accurate and clear understanding of the events in the
• The specialist immediately corrects any misunderstandings for the
student so that he/she knows exactly what to expect in the story.
11. Strategies During Reading
Think-Alouds w/ Reciprocal Teaching This method is a
combination of a think-aloud with the goal of teaching
important comprehension strategies to students with ASD.
• Teacher directly models the strategies of predicting, questioning,
clarifying, and summarizing.
• Teacher stops at specific places in the story and shows students
with exact words that trigger his/her (teacher’s) thinking.
• Colored post-it notes are recommended because students with
ASD can separate the different thoughts that the teacher has
written down. For example, the teacher can assign a certain color
to each one of the 4 strategies of reciprocal teaching.
12. Strategies During Reading
Emotional Thermometers This strategy is used to help
students understand the emotions and feelings of characters.
• Shades of colors are used in a spectrum to help students
understand the different degrees of an emotion someone can feel.
• One color is used for a single emotion but in different shades.
• Green should be used for happy feelings and good ideas whereas
red should be used for angry feeling and bad ideas.
• The student can also be asked to rate his/her own emotions on the
13. Strategies After Reading
Goal Structure Mapping This strategy helps children with
autism see how events in a story are interrelated and
dependent on the characters.
• In a visual or graphic format, the teacher lists the main characters
of the story and creates a simple statement about each one.
• Another graphic organizer is used to list the main characters and
events in the story, however lines, arrows, and shapes are included
to clarify interrelations among characters and events.
• Teacher should stress how characters can influence the actions of
14. Strategies After Reading
Social Story Analogies This strategy helps students with
autism consider the perspective of characters in stories and
others in social situations.
• Teacher develops a simple story based on what students are
reading to help explain a character’s actions and feelings.
• The story is typically told orally and must make some connection
to information the students already understand.
• Social stories can also be used to help explain certain language in
the text that may seem contradictory to the character’s actions.
15. Future Research on Autism
Research in the area of early instruction in reading comprehension
strategies is important because it may help children with ASD focus more
on the content of what they are reading instead of word decoding.
Longitudinal studies investigating reading comprehension and its effects
on linguistic, cognitive, and social skill development would help improve
our knowledge of how the multiple components of comprehension
advance over time.
Larger studies are needed so methods and techniques can be generalized
to a broader range of students with autism. To date, most research has
taken the form of case studies using qualitative measures.
Children with autism will need support from both the general and special
education teachers in order to become successful learners who are part
of the school community.
Visual aids should be utilized consistently as this is the primary modality
through which children with ASD are able to learn.
The learning environment should be kept simple with limited amounts of
stimuli so that the child’s focus is optimized.
The reading strategies designed for children with autism can benefit all
students, but the teacher must ensure that ample modeling is provided
and that responsibility is gradually released to students.
Autism Speaks, Inc. (2014). DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. Autism speaks.
Retrieved February 5, 2014, from
Gately, S. E. (2008). Facilitating reading comprehension for students
on the autism spectrum. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(3), 40-
Hart, J.E. (2012-2013) Navigating autism’s swirling waters. Phi Delta
Kappan, 94(4), 24-27.
Hart, J.E. & Whalon, K. J. (2008). 20 ways to promote academic
engagement and communication of children with autism
spectrum disorder in inclusive settings. Intervention in School and
Clinic, 44(2), 116-120.
Lanou, A., Hough, L., & Powell, E. (2011). Case studies on using
strengths and interests to address the needs of students with
autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 47,
175-182. doi: 10.1177/1053451211423819
18. References – cont.
Minahan, J., & Rappaport, N. (2012-2013). Anxiety in students: A
hidden culprit in behavior issues. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(4), 34-39.
Palm, M. (2012-2013). First, do no harm. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(4), 13-
Styslinger, M. E. (2012-2013). Making meaning: Strategies for literacy
learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(4), 40-45.
Whalon, K. J. & Hart, J. E. (2010). Children with autism spectrum
disorder and literacy instruction: An exploratory study of
elementary inclusive settings. Remedial and Special Education, 32,
243-255. doi: 10.1177/0741932510362174
Williamson, P., Carnahan, C. R., & Jacobs, J. A. (2012). Reading
comprehension profiles of high-functioning students on the
autism spectrum: A grounded theory. Exceptional Children, 78(4),