The Start of a Tough Year

Dog park

Third grade for Mea was definitely when we saw her behaviors change.

She started to argue more with the boys.

She started to act differently when adults that knew her were not around.

For example, one day when her teacher was absent, she and classmates went into the bathroom and splashed water on the mirrors repeatedly until they were caught.

We didn’t always know how to create an appropriate consequence for her actions.

Of course, we had her apologize.

We implemented a consequence at home.

But she didn’t seem too upset by what she had done or the result at home.

We were stuck between not wanting to treat something silly too seriously but had never had one of the boys act this way before.

We started to talk with school counselors and others who could help us understand what was going on.

We felt like we were failing her because we didn’t understand what was causing her to act this way or how to help her stop.

We are still in this place, although we better understand some things…. the situation goes on.

Bumpy Start to MS


Since we moved when Kieran was in first grade, things for Kieran, socially, had drastically changed.

He never found a new best friend and felt that the “popular,” aka sporty boys in his grade, especially in fourth and fifth grade, didn’t like him because he liked math and music, and didn’t play football.

He was ready for a new group of friends and was looking forward to starting middle school.

Yet, middle school didn’t start quite the way he had hoped.

The sixth graders kept asking him if that tall WEB leader was his brother.

Teachers would occasionally (which to hear him tell it, constantly) called him Little Hower or Liam’s brother.

While Liam was having a great final year of middle school, Kieran was struggling.

Within the first few weeks of school Kieran “lost” his lunch table because the group of girls he was sitting with were making fun of one of their peers who had been asking for their left-overs. Kieran told the girls to stop and was uninvited from the table.

We encouraged Kieran to find activities that Liam had not done: student council, for example, with the potential for new friends.

Yet, as he tried to help at the first StuCo dance, he actually had a meltdown. He was overwhelmed and confused.

I am happy to report that things settled down and he started to find his way, even having a kid that seemed especially intent on giving him a hard time at the start of the year, back off right before the holidays.

He found a new best friend and a table to sit at during lunch.

He found more activities, like Minecraft Club, to get involved with and started to develop his own identity within the building.

This year, his teachers who knew him last year shared that they thought Liam being at the HS has improved Kieran’s experience at the middle school.

While I will talk about Kieran in seventh grade soon, sixth grade was a long, but eventually positive year with new friends and experiences that encouraged Kieran to be himself once again.

Stretched by WEB


At the end of seventh grade, Liam found out that he would be a WEB leader throughout his 8th grade year.

Of all of Liam’s math and TSA awards, his accomplishments as a musician, and his perseverance as a runner, I was especially proud of his being chosen for WEB.

WEB leaders are 8th graders who mentor 6th graders.

While Liam chose “academic” mentoring, he was still required to do a lot of “social” interaction.

He had to make phone calls to students who were not able to attend the first day of 6th grade (before school started).

We planned out what he would say, in Sheldon-like fashion:

At other times, he would ask his guidance counselor for advice about when to “follow” up to see how his students were doing, what he could talk with them about, or how to offer advice.

We all had to admit that he took his responsibility seriously and had a great time being a part of a “popular” group of his peers while helping guide the youngest members of the building in the best way he knew how.

Creative Vocabulary Activity in Geometry


I recently spoke at the SAS Institute in Hershey, PA about technology tools that can support exceptional learners.

It helped me remember one more of Liam’s experiences from 7th grade: one from the beginning of the year in Geometry.

His teacher tasked them to find examples of various geometry terms throughout the school.

Liam created this video using Animoto to show his understandings:

It started the year of exceptionally well, knowing that his teacher was creative and open to various ways to complete “common” assignments.

More Visualization

For some students, they may not create a visual image while reading. This might be something they need to be taught how to do. Like teaching a student how to read, which according to Marianne Wolf (2007), is not something the brain would do naturally (like talking or walking); we have to give the student some external scaffold and processes to internalize, practice, to become a good reading habit.

First, it is important to tune students into their five senses. Have them practice calling to mind a sight, a smell, a touch, a taste, and even a sound from common words or phrases: ice cream (taste/smell/feel), laughter (hear/see/feel), bunny (feel/see/smell), summer (all), nighttime (all).


After we practiced with a memory, we moved to reading a book. There are so many children’s books that can help with this activity, such as Owl Moon (1987) by Jane Yolen. The book should be about a topic that is in the student’s background knowledge. For instance, I worked with students in Pittsburgh once and brought a book about the ocean. Only two of the 20 students had even been to the ocean. It was not possible for them to bring up the “smells” of the ocean, even if they had seen a video that could help with the sights and sounds. I brought shells, but that was no match for the real ocean.

For older students, or for students who are ready to move to the next level in visualizing, the following activity uses specific words and phrases from a non-picture book, for them to record what they are seeing (among the other senses):


It supports a student specifically connecting words with visualizing. Then, students can work to understand that their picture might not always be the same as a peer’s.


Finally, teachers can show students that they can adjust the picture in their mind’s eye, to better match the information being provided by the text.


Our goal in this stage is to have the students know that the picture is there and what it can be used for. I once heard that a good indicator of comprehension being lost, and needing to reread, is when the picture in one’s mind disappears or becomes too fuzzy to hold meaning. This is the work that we are doing above – making sure students know why it is important to have a picture of what they are reading.

When wanting a student to inference more specifically through visualization, we can have them act on what they see to make predictions, discuss characters’ feelings and motives, identify the author’s purpose, and explain the theme(s) of the text. In nonfiction, a clever activity that I saw Steph King, a third grade teacher, use was to cover up the caption of a photograph and ask the students, based on what they saw (external visualizing), write a caption for the picture and explain why the author needed it in the text to create or further meaning.


Harvey and Goudvis’ Strategies That Work (2007), list visualizing and inferring in the same chapter. These authors share that visualizing strengthens one’s inferential thinking. This is a strategy to note with students with ASD because, according to Harvey and Goudvis, when we visualize, we are inferring with images instead of words.

Unfortunately, I have found through my work with many students that students with ASD are not always aware that there is supposed to be a picture in their head or if there is one, why it is there. Below, I will outline some strategies to support the teacher explicitly introducing their students to the need for and use of a picture in their mind’s eye of what they are reading.

An initial routine that students can learn is to stop and jot method, with the jot being to draw a quick sketch. This can be done through the I Do, We Do, You Do method, especially if students initially do not know what to jot at first. It can then be extended to include writing, once the teacher formatively assesses that the students understand how to engage with that picture in their mind of what they are reading.


Stopping and jotting, or stopping, thinking, and jotting, allows students to realize that they do not always have to write what they are thinking. If it works for them to share that information visually, they can do so. This helps them understand how to act and interact with the visual that is already in their mind when they read.

Summer: Sand and Science


The summer of 2016 found the kids having new (and old) experiences.

We went to North Carolina for our summer vacation.

We had tried a beach vacation on three other occasions.

This one was the best.

I think it had to do with the weather and temperature of the water.

The kids had a great time.

We didn’t have any major meltdowns.

We all tolerated the sand.

Mea played more softball.

Kieran attended a technology camp that he enjoyed, but which took him out of his comfort zone (being in a new place with new people).

Liam attended his first of two years in a Summer Science Training Program.

The program hosts different college professors teaching half or full day lessons on a topic on which they are an expert, for a total of eight days.

He was one of the youngest students in the program.

One afternoon, he came home and said, “Mom, today I extracted DNA from a cow’s spleen.”

One whole day was devoted to computer programming.

The rest of the time was devoted to topics that were new to Liam.

While he’s still not a biology-science guy, he learned about different sciences and how they were related to math, expanding his horizons beyond just math.

He stretched himself by making new acquaintances and being in a new environment.

He looked forward to going back for part 2 the next summer.

SAS 2017

I would love to visit your school to talk with teachers &/or parents about exceptional learners and/or using digital tools.

Here is a link to the handout: SAS2017

Here is the link to the presentation:

Here is the link to the Padlet where we shared ideas:


Understanding a character’s traits and motivation can be tricky business. It requires some theory of mind – working to know what another is thinking, that is not the same as what I am thinking. There are very few novels written where the author comes right out to say, “He was a tall boy with hazel eyes. He was often shy when around strangers, but had a natural gift with animals.” And when they do, they often draw criticism. Therefore, it is our job to provide students who do not always pick up the clues about a character that the author has left for his or her reader, a means through which to track down this information, for later inferencing.

In fact, I once met with a rising sixth grade student, who was “accelerated” in reading, but struggled to answer one of his summer reading blog prompts: How does a character in your book change from the beginning to the end of the story? He was extremely frustrated and had come to me saying, “I looked in the book for the answer. I cannot find it. How am I supposed to know how the character changed, if the author doesn’t tell me?” First, I shared the type of question it was (Author and Me), so searching in one or more parts of the book would not be enough to answer the question. I believe, had I been aware of the strategy below, I would have calmed the frustration of this student more effectively than I did (although I was able to do so with some explanation about what question was asking and how to go about answering it).

Arianna Good, a learning support teacher who works with middle school students shared a tool that works with students on the autism spectrum because it calls for students to record explicitly the following information to facilitate “understanding” a character about whom they are reading. It requires the students to remember the acronym STEAL, and then track through textual evidence the following pieces of information.


Speech – What does the character say? How does the character speak?

Thoughts – What is revealed through the character’s private thoughts and feelings?

Effect – What is revealed through the character’s effect on other people? How do other characters feel or behave in reaction to the character?

Actions – What does the character do? How does the character behave?

Looks – What does the character look like? How does the character dress?

She and I have found it successful because there was a clear expectation for students to answer each of the questions about the character, all of which revealed important information about the character’s traits and whether or not he or she would change throughout the course of the text.

Ultimately, we want to guide readers to posit theories about characters and work to back up these ideas with evidence from the text. It can be helpful to have students look for patterns in characters, which is similar to the idea of knowing common themes in a text. For instance, in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, there is often a character that plays the role of mentor (which aligns to Beers and Probst’s (2012) signpost of “Words of the Wiser”): a tempter, a sidekick, a skeptic, an emotional character, and a logical character. It is also important to teach students that characters are complex and can cross over into more than one category (like human beings). Knowing these archetypes for characters in novels can guide a student into understanding why they act the way they do in the story.



In fiction, the goal is to be able to identify the theme of a text. Students who need support with central coherence can rely upon information about what themes tend to occur in text. This is an example of a support that can be used with students, provided by Scholastic:


This resource supports students reading chapter books (second grade and above), to be able to look for evidence to support one of these common themes. A teacher would not hesitate to offer a student who was in need with a word bank from which to pull key content words during an assessment. This resource offers the same assistance to a student with ASD while reading.