“Writing that Scrapes the Heart”


In class, we read Ralph Fletcher’s Chapter 9 in A Writer’s Notebook. He encourages his reader to use sometimes use the writer’s notebook as a personal journal. “[A] place to be completely honest with yourself. But being honest with yourself isn’t easy” (p. 98).

I’ve been thinking lately about social skills – my social skills.

I don’t think I’m very good at being around other people.

I know that I get so excited around other adults that I cut people off when they are talking – hungry to share and connect.

I want to be a calm listener, not someone who never lets others get a word into the conversation.

We don’t get invited over to other family’s houses. Even when we do the inviting, we are not taken up on our offer.

We aren’t invited to parties or weddings…. anymore.

It would be easy to blame my family – we are quiet and prefer nights in.

It would make me feel less awkward to say, I don’t get to practice my social skills enough, with a family who doesn’t read cues well.

A family who doesn’t help me keep these skills honed.

But maybe that’s just an excuse. A lame one at that.

Maybe, it’s me, not them – my would be friends – who I’ve made to feel awkward in my presence.

Just maybe, I’m the one who isn’t savvy enough to sit at the cool kids’ table.

If so, have I been giving Liam awful advice for how to make friends?

Have I been leading Kieran down the wrong path in how to handle situations where he needs to know what to say or how to act?

Maybe Mea is rolling her eyes because she’s the one who “gets it” when I am clueless.

I head out each day: to work, to volunteer, to teach.

How can I be sure that I’m not missing the cues my colleagues, other parents, or my students are sending?

How can I learn what to say, what to do, how to act?

Will I forever be trapped in my world of social awkwardness?


A Musical Family


Fifth grade found more music entering our home. Liam was playing the clarinet and Kieran was playing the trumpet.

Kieran found himself frustrated throughout fourth grade with playing the trumpet. While many kids have trouble when they first start learning an instrument, Kieran was especially so.

He tends to put less work into something when it is not immediately easy for him to accomplish (something that is still true).

When we thought he would quit playing after fourth grade, he asked to be able to rent his instrument over the summer.

We insisted that he practice every day (almost) for 10 minutes. He generally complied.

As a result, he started fifth grade “ahead” of some of his classmates because he had gotten through the hard parts of his music over the summer. While it was rough going some days, we were able to point out that “slow and steady wins the race.”

Fifth grade also allowed him to join the chorus.

Kieran has always had a great voice, but would never sing. He was “too embarrassed.”

Fifth grade provided him the perfect opportunity to sing in a group – not drawing too much attention to himself. It didn’t hurt that I rewarded him for taking the risk of joining either.

We secretly listened to him practicing and enjoyed the various sounds of music that filled our home.

Graphic Organizers to Scaffold Thinking

When students gain the capability of discriminating the main idea from a detail, they can use a three column system that categorizes “topic,” “details,” and “responses.” Alternatively, they could use an FQR worksheet.

These scaffolds explicitly categorize the information contained in the book and allow the student to reflect on the information being presented in the text. This supports executive functioning as well, in that there is a support system for noticing various aspects of a text and organizing them for the student to analyze.

Additionally, graphic organizers support a student on the autism spectrum’s ability to filter out extraneous information.

They “teach children to give the main topic more weight than secondary themes and secondary themes more weight than details” (Fein & Dunn, 2007, p. 178).

Graphic organizers support a student’s central coherence, as they lead the student away from unimportant details, to highlight what the main or essential ideas were in the reading.

Some graphic organizers that seem to work especially well are ones that scaffold students’ understanding of the difference between the main idea and the details that support it.


When I use this with students, I first read the “definition” of the terms: main idea and details. I share the “Ask Yourself” box next to help students know what questions we will answer by the end of our steps. I also draw their attention to the “Look for these Words” box, so that when we start to follow the steps, they can be on the lookout for any of those words.

Then we “Follow These Steps.” In a book that the students can write in, we use highlighters. In a regular book, we used highlighter tape. I think aloud as I notice words we were looking for and text that connects to our prediction.

At the end, I record our evidence from the highlighted parts of the book. Then, we return to the “Ask Yourself” questions to determine the main idea.

Most importantly, I explain that the topic (or title) of a book is not its main idea. It can be part of it, but the main idea is going to share more about why the author wrote the text.

With each practice, especially with other types of thinkers in our small group, I release more of the responsibility of noticing and answering to the students.

Finally, I have them practice “independently,” in strategically grouped pairs, then truly independently, by themselves.

Depending on the difficulty of the text, I might have to re-support a student in figuring out which portions of a text are key details versus just interesting information (see above), or re-model how to take the details and synthesize them into the main idea.

This type of protocol supports students in taking steps toward understanding how to identify the main idea.

What’s Important versus What’s Interesting


Another scaffolded strategy that supports this type of thinking involves having students read a text, and record what is important, what is interesting, and then their thoughts about why the details fell into each of the categories.

Once, when working with a third-grade student, he initially recorded the first sentence he read on the page into the “what is important” category.

His rationale was, it comes first on the page, so it must be important. The book was about the Blue Morpho Butterfly.

The sentence read, “Did you see that flash of blue in the forest?”

Through a think-aloud conversation, the small guided reading group was able to show this student that the sentence neither provided important information nor was an interesting fact.

We wrote in the reflection column, “the author wrote the first sentence to grab the reader’s attention.”

This conversation was a powerful model to the student about how to track the types of sentences an author includes in a text.

Then, through an analysis of the important facts, putting the interesting ideas in their own column, we were able to discern the central idea of the text.

Previewing Guided Practice


Students benefit from guided instruction in how to differentiate between and less significant material in a text.

Previewing is an excellent strategy to support students’ understanding of the difference between primary and secondary details.

First, ask students to look at the pictures, and predict what each seems to be about, and well as why they are included in the section.

Second, have students review photographs within the text. With the latter, draw students’ attention to what additional information the caption provides. Ask students if the pictures (and captions) support, or alter their initial prediction.

Third, have students look at any other text features or chapter titles/headings. Lead the small group in a discussion of what information these details provide them as a reader. Ask them why they think the author may have included the features in the text.

Fourth, provide students with a list of important vocabulary (may be bolded in an informational text). Determine which words they know, which words need to be defined (or redefined if their current definition does not fit the context of this text), and what clues the words might give about the main or central idea of the text.

Fifth, ask students to read the first paragraph (introduction) and the last paragraph (conclusion) of the text (or first chapter).

Guide students to notice what the focus of the text/chapter seems to be. List any key ideas that emerge. Have students confirm or adjust their initial prediction in light of the reading. Invite students to share what they are thinking and why they are thinking it.

The teacher will need to model this protocol a few times (I Do) with the entire class and discuss how the students can use the strategy in their own reading. Guided practice would be the next step (We Do) before allowing students to work independently (You Do).



There have been many times when Kieran’s willful disposition has gotten the best of me.

One time occurred yesterday.

He made a point to step over a cricket carcass, announce its existence (and grossness) to the family, and walk away from it.

In the spirit of finders clean up “the mess,” I asked Kieran to pick up the cricket and throw it in the trash.

This is when his willfulness set in.

An hour later, I noticed that the cricket was still lying at the bottom of the step.

I called out, “Kieran, that cricket is still where you left him. I asked you to clean him up. Please do that now.”

About 20 minutes later, that cricket was unmoved, untouched.

“Kieran, can I see you please?”


“Why is that cricket still on the floor?”

“Oh, I’m not touching that thing.”

“I asked you to clean it up.”

“I know, but I don’t touch bugs, dead or alive.”

“Clean it up now!”

“I’m not going to. You can take my iPod away from me for a month. I’m not doing it.”


Finally, “It’s going to be worse for you than a lost iPod. Clean it up!”

After five more minutes of this type of conversation and my walking away, I glimpsed him emerge from the kitchen with an oven mitt and a roll of paper towels.

“Great! Clean up the cricket.”

He got a half a flight of steps closer to it and stopped.

“I can’t touch it.”

“You won’t feel anything through the oven mitt and a roll of paper towels. Clean it up!”

“I can’t. I won’t. You cannot make me,” said my twelve-year-old son.

I was beaten. I couldn’t make him. I was infuriated and defeated by the lost battle. I didn’t know what else to say.

All of a sudden, Liam, who is more afraid of bugs that Kieran, said, “Mom if it’s that important to you, I’ll do it.”

(As an aside, Liam dropped the cricket on the way to the trash can, due to not being able to feel or grasp it through the mitten and wad of paper towels).

Sometimes, a compliant child is a breath of fresh air.


Ideas for How to Teach Main Idea and Detail to a Student with ASD


The first strategy that I would like to share to support a student’s understanding of main idea and the key details came from observing second graders.

The strategy involved highlighting the most important detail on a page to arrive at the main idea of a text. This strategy works with text that is in guided reading levels C through L.

Michelle Hartlaub, a reading specialist in my district, modeled (I Do) for the students how to look for and highlight one key word on a page.

The small group was reading a text about duct tape. The text started with the history of duct tape. The teacher modeled for students how to find what she thought was a key word from each page she was reading, highlight it, then explain through a think-aloud technique why it was important. Then, she had students read a page of text, highlight what they thought was the most important word, and discuss why each student chose the word he did.

The teacher kept track of the words students highlighted on a portable whiteboard, and then discussed how all of the words fit together, to support students’ understanding of how to “find” the main idea.

This strategy can be approached through a bottom-up method (as described) or a top-down method, starting from the title and seeing how “key words” support the title as a topic, then answering the question, What does the author suggest is important about this topic? to arrive at the main idea.

Teaching Main Idea and Detail

In the Common Core Standards, the first two standards under ELA-Literacy, within both the literature and informational text reading, address learning “Key Ideas and Details.” (I will discuss ELA-Literacy Standard 3 under Inferencing).

Identifying key ideas and details skill can prove difficult for a student with ASD due to weak central coherence not facilitating the recognition of main ideas versus details in a text.

Teachers can support high functioning autistic students’ abilities to strengthen central coherence by teaching these students how the details relate to a larger whole.

It again requires explicit practice with the teacher, in learning how authors leave “clues” about the main idea in the details about which they write.

Guided reading is probably the best vehicle for this type of instruction.

Not only is the teacher, as a more knowledgeable other, guiding students where they need direct instruction, there is power in peers modeling for the student with ASD the type of thinking and responding that needs to take place in order to successfully identify main/central idea versus details within a text.

This is true of all types of comprehension instruction.

There is a great deal of power in having the teacher target a student’s specific instructional needs in a small group setting while including peers who bring a diverse comprehension skill set to the conversation.


Technology to Support Vocabulary Learning

Digital tools can also support vocabulary acquisition.

Some tools will support students’ ability to perceive relationships between words through visual means. Websites such as Visuwords™, Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus, and Miriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary Online offer students a visual representation of a word and its potential, multiple meanings.

Likewise, a site like Wordle can analyze the vocabulary used across a text, to highlight words that the author used the most so that the teacher can guide a student through an analysis of why these words were prominent in the text, as well as why the author used them.

Additionally, the class can discuss the importance of synonyms and antonyms and how they are related to the central idea or theme of the text.

Sometimes, students simply do not have experience with a vocabulary word. Many students with ASD have specific interests and preoccupations, and may not have enough background knowledge to activate, in order to determine a word’s meaning.

For example, one second grader with whom I worked had no knowledge of butterflies, other than to know what they looked like. He would have shown a great deal more comprehension of what he was reading had he had the opportunity to view a short video about this topic, instead of relying exclusively on the text to provide him with the topic-specific vocabulary that was used in this non-fiction text.

Many websites can offer students an understanding of a word through a video. Some are National Geographic Kids, Discovery Education, PBS Kids, and TrueFlix. Just like with a student learning English or a general education student who has a limited background on a certain topic, videos that work to establish some background on a topic prove helpful.

Also useful is technology that supports vocabulary learning with reference support. Many online books feature embedded word reference tools that provide students with a possible definition of a word right at one’s fingertip. Students are more likely to “look up a word,” if they can do so at the touch of that word on their device.

Finally, there are a number of excellent picture and chapter books that talk about words or characters having a love of words. These texts can support students’ understanding that words having multiple meanings, given the context in which they are used.

The picture books are Miss Alaineus. A Vocabulary Disaster (2000), by Debra Fraiser, The Boy Who Loved Words (2006), by Roni Schotter, and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (2014), by Jen Bryant, among many other titles.

Two chapter books that highlight vocabulary words are Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (2014) and Booked (2016). Mr. Alexander introduces vocabulary words as a part of the storyline, which creates an authentic and embedded exposure to vocabulary. Reign Rain (2014), by Ann M. Martin, tells the story of a girl who is on the autism spectrum and finds comfort and order in recording homonyms.

Regardless of the strategy or activity, ensure that there is time provided to teach words and expectations for word learning. This will go a long way to supporting a student with ASD’s interaction with and retention of vocabulary.


How to Handle Multiple Meanings

Starting after second grade, authors make use of words can have more than one meaning, in their writing.

Authors write with these multiple-meaning words or use literary devices, and figurative language to express the more complex thoughts in advanced texts.

For the student on the autism spectrum, this beautiful diction can be a minefield of misunderstanding, without the proper supports. Because of issues with weak central coherence and prosody, understanding the semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (social meaning) of language can be cumbersome. However, many strategies can support students’ comprehension of figurative language.

First, Vocabularians (2015) recommends using word gradient charts (p. 98) to support a student’ learning that there are multiple ways of expressing a concept, chosen specific to the context in which the vocabulary word is located. The example below can be found at: http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/semantic_gradients


Many students, but especially those with ASD do not realize that a word such as “walk” connotes different things, depending upon the context of how it is used.

If I walk slowly, I could more accurately describe it as lumbered or trudged. These more precise verbs carry a stronger, clearer meaning. Likewise, having learners practice with analogy types and examples will explicitly reveal to students how words can be used in different ways, which will affect their meaning.

Many teachers have explicit lessons for teaching similes, metaphors, allusions and other literary devices. Recognizing and understanding why an author uses each of these devices to communicate their meaning requires repeated, guided practice. In earlier grades, idiom practice is popular.

Children’s books like Denise Brennan-Nelson’s My Momma Likes to Say (2003) and My Teacher Likes to Say (2004), by Denise Brennan-Nelson, and In a Pickle: and Other Funny Idioms (1983), by Marvin Terban explain the meaning of the phrase, as well as a history of how the phrase came into being.

These books can support students’ learning and understanding of idioms commonly used in language and writing.