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.

Additional Scaffolds for Thinking

Structured thinking/graphic organizers support weak central coherence because they build upon the strength in visual memory that many students on the autism spectrum have. They show students what material to attend to, and which to suppress.

The following “Inference Equation” chart can be used with students in fourth through eighth grades. I have seen reading specialists use this technique with their students, after modeling how to fill out the information with a familiar text (I Do), having students work in pair to analyze a current text (We Do), and then having them work individually on their independent reading text (You Do).

Inference Equation

Evidence from text


What I already know . . .

(Background Knowledge)

I can infer . . .
Example: She looks at her feet when she speaks in her paper voice, and her cheekbones get pink. I’ve seen people who are shy, scared, or embarrassed look at the ground and blush when they talk quietly to others. I can infer that this character is shy, possibly embarrassed about something and might be afraid to speak to the other person.


Evidence from text

(Physical Appearance)

What I already know . . .

(Background Knowledge)

I can infer . . .


Evidence from text


What I already know . . .

(Background Knowledge)

I can infer . . .




I appreciate how this support has students provide textual evidence for their thinking. This connects in the student’s mind, what the author wrote, and how they thought about it (through their own experiences) to create an inference.


National Donut Day 2016

I have written previously about how Liam enjoys helping others with math.

Kieran’s fifth-grade year was a great year to see that help in action.

Kieran does well in math, but when he doesn’t initially understand a concept, he shuts down.

Liam was consistently able to “bring him back” to an understanding and calmness so that he could finish his nightly homework.

He is still doing so to this day.

Around the end of second grade, we asked him to help Mea, at least to check her work.

She understanding math in a very different way. There were many times that her dad could not help her understand the “new math.”

Liam has always been able to.

Now he’s been helping both Kieran and Mea with their instruments, although different from his own.

He will play a song for Kieran so that he can hear the notes and rhythm.

Now, he is actually helping Mea play two instruments that are different from his own.

Last night, he held her music for bells for her, and kept time, humming along as she played. She actually practices for about 40 minutes with his help, replaying a song until she gets it right (she just picked up bells, so is about six weeks behind her peers).

While he once said that he thought that teaching was too hard a profession to pursue, I see him having the heart of a teacher, nevertheless.

Then there was track…


Track was not as successful an experience for Liam.

First, it was extremely cold.

He did not like that.

Then, there was a lot of downtimes.

He wound up trying to talk with the coaches during the meet.

He also wandered around where he shouldn’t go, not having a group to hang out with.

Finally, while he likes running long distances, he is not fast.

In one race, runners were passing him on their way to the finish line.

Afterward, I overheard a student say, Liam, run much? then laugh.


Thankfully, he noticed that track was not an overly positive experience and decided that he didn’t want to participate in the future.

We were proud of him for taking a risk but also knowing what wasn’t working for him.

15 seconds…

In seventh grade, Liam performed well in his local MathCounts competition. He even made the newspaper:


He was the first place seventh grader and second place finisher overall.

“Top 10 individual, after the written exam: 1. Cassidy Bolio, Southern Middle School; 2. Liam Hower, Emory H. Markle Intermediate School” – his 15 seconds of fame.

He seemed calm and excited about his work. He prepared diligently for regionals…

Where he came in 11th place.

One place out of the top ten, where competitors go on to compete in the countdown round.

In his quiet, humble way, he noted how he had done so much better than the year before locally and was up three places from regionals from the previous year.

He said he enjoyed his first try at countdown round (locally), which he had not been able to the prior year.

He was proud of his team. He congratulated them all, as his arms were full of awards.

And that was it.

Time to turn his attention to track.

He replaced the previous year’s medals and certificates hanging in his room with the new ones and was happy.

He taught us a lesson about how to be content with hard work and effort too, despite the results (which were much to be proud of).

Make Inferencing Steps Accessible

Another graphic organizer that I have seen teachers use is the one below:


This is why showing a student how to activate their schema is essential to teach before inferencing skills can be imparted.

The teacher needs to walk the student through the steps of using this type of scaffold, followed by a gradual release of responsibility, through an I Do, We Do, You Do process.

I introduce to all students that making an inference means analyzing the picture for what it shows, adding what we already know about the topic in our mind to equal an inference.

I would start the I Do with a previously read text, familiar to all of the students, to show how to make an inference—probably an inference that was made before with the students, during the teaching of that text.

In the instance of the butterfly text I used with the second grader, I showed him the diagram of the life cycle of the butterfly and then list the different things that I knew about the topic: eggs are “baby” animals before they are born; arrows tell me which way to go in a diagram; if the arrow keeps going, it means that the pattern repeats itself, and so on. Then, I said that I think the circle is important to the butterfly’s life because it starts all over again, as an egg, and has no end, just like a circle.

During the We Do portion, I would use a text that is also familiar and do much less of the talking so that students can lead the process. I do not forget the You Do part of the process because this is how I would formatively assess if the student understands the steps and how to inference on a straightforward text. If not, we go back to the previous steps. I can extend their practice by introducing more texts that will help the student problem solve (the issue of inferencing) in a text.

Making inferences will be a skill that students on the autism spectrum will need to practice consistently each school year. This is true of many of our young learners. Students will learn to acquire the skill of inferencing; it will take consistent guided practice as texts grow in complexity, to internalize the process.