Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Scaffolding Communications Skills for Elementary Students with Autism

When I decided to teach elementary Autistic children, my first task was to query many teachers as to their students’ learning styles. One size doesn’t fit all. Some students with autism learn visually, others need to listen intently, some draw, and others need to write things out. In most cases, I’m there to help them develop their own style of learning.

Joan Ramirez

Joan Ramirez

I would like to preface this article by stating it will be concise. Why? For the practitioners, teachers, and parents reading this piece, just the facts that can be applied in a user-friendly fashion will bring quicker results. Teachers don’t have the “luxury” of time to wade through a ton of content to find a solution to a student’s learning difficulty. After pouring over lesson plans that have been refined to a fine-tooth comb, in many instances, to conform to curriculum demands, teachers must go back to the drawing board to accommodate the needs of a few students who have been mainstreamed but require individual time and attention. I pause to insert an overlooked but critical teaching element: Students with autism can only learn in an environment where the teacher’s main objective is to see that the entire class is on point. What worked in the past might need to be massaged for a student who needs one aspect of a lesson introduced in a new way. Often the only method that works is the teacher’s willingness to work one on one with said student(s) until he/she/they are up to speed. Whatever it takes, that is what must be done.

When I first started teaching students with autism in mainstreamed and special classes, I would often create individual plans for each child. In theory this is a great idea. In practice, taking time constraints, behavior issues, and daily changes in schedules into consideration, this isn’t always feasible. The best thing a newly minted or veteran teacher can do for his or her class is to have a solid set of lesson plans that have built-in options for all learning exigencies.

So, here we go, straight from my heart and my compendium of acquired knowledge.

Visual Scaffolding

Problem: A second-grade student is sitting in the last row of the class. She is frustrated and about to have a meltdown because she wasn’t given a set of counters. She’s having trouble adding five plus six. To exacerbate her anxiety, the student has to write the answer in words on a timed test. She’s still not finished when her other classmates have handed in their papers.

Solution: Remember pick-up sticks? What I’ve done to scaffold this student is bring in a box of pencils, erasers, or any easy-to- manipulate counters. The student will use these “visual” tools to count out five pencils and six erasers, add them together, and then, with a review of the words needed to write the numbers, compose a sentence. Obviously, this solution has to be done in adequate time to take the test with a passing grade. REMEMBER: For the student with autism who is visual and worried about failing, emphasis should be placed on the quality and not quantity of answers. The student must build up his/her written communications skills. To facilitate the child’s writing ability, a verbal presentation, depending on the level of comfort in talking to his/her peers, might be beneficial. As the child becomes more comfortable with basic addition and subtraction operations and presenting the problem in words, he/she should be encouraged to “teach” the class. For a very shy child, this can be accomplished through board work that doesn’t involve direct eye contact with peers. He/she can also call on a partner to help explain the problem. For those who like/enjoy eye contact, a dialogue with classmates should be encouraged. Both of these methods should be used at the beginning of the semester to give all students time to find their written and verbal communications comfort zones.

Auditory Scaffolding for English Language Learners

Problem: An English as a Second Language student is afraid the class will make fun of him because of his accent. He wants to read the first chapter of the new book club selection. He is too shy to stand up in front of the class.

Solution: The student can sit in the teacher’s chair surrounded by classmates in a more informal atmosphere as he reads Chapter One. To alleviate the anxiety about his accent, prior to the reading the teacher should consult with the ESL teacher as to the student’s progress to date and building upon what he/she has learned, and have the student read into a tape recorder. This will serve two purposes. As the child reads, the teacher can circle words/passages where the student has faltered so that these words can be reinforced through corrected pronunciation and practice through defining and using problem words in sentences. Again, preparation before presentation is a must. For children who are used to participating in extracurricular activities, this can be an exciting reward. IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Shy children need to be drawn out slowly. This exercise should not be used with students who have behavior issues that aren’t under control or those who fear speaking in front of their peers. It is up to the informed teacher to gauge the child’s readiness for such an exercise through a review of his/her learning history. Again, I would like to stress the importance of the teacher’s ability to modify lesson plans. While reference material can be helpful, in many instances, as previously stated, it might not suit the student(s) learning curve.

Tactile Scaffolding

Problem: The student spent a lot of time in pre-school helping the teacher at clean-up time. Now, she feels lost because other than playtime cleanup, Kindergarten doesn’t offer many opportunities for her to be teacher’s helper. The student is gifted at art.

Solution: In addition to handing out art paper and supplies when drawing is incorporated into the lesson, the teacher can add a new category, Art Helper, to the Helper Chart next to the bulletin board. This will help the child to learn because as she distributes papers and supplies, the teacher can think of math exercises that the child can use by solving the math problem with her hands. Next, the teacher can ask the student to go around the room, after she completes her own classwork, to help her peers. This will accomplish two goals – make the student feel more purposeful and help her to learn with tactile responses.

One final piece of advice: While I respect the established learning styles of Autistic academics, the best thing a teacher can do for students with autism is test modified lesson plans to see if they make sense before using them with any student. Give the students a stake in their learning by having them form a small try-out group. It will make them feel they have a vested interest in learning.

There you have it: Three methods sure to gain results as I have done – with time, patience, and effort.

Joan is currently working with elementary special needs students as well as doing final edits on a picture book on kindness and a YA mystery novel. Information on her background can be found on her website: Inquiries should be addressed to her at


Interactive Visual Supports for Children with Autism; G. Hayes, S. Hirano; Per Ubiquit Comput, 14: 663-680, April 2010.

Scaffolding – A Term for Instructional Delivery, J. Webster; March 6, 2017; Downloaded:

Scaffolding Instruction for English Language Learners: A Conceptual Framework; A. Walqui; International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Vol. 9, #2, 2006.

Scaffolding Instructions for English Language Learners: Resource Guide for English Language Arts; D. August, D. Staehr; Center for English Language Learners at the American Institute for Research, copyright 2014.

Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive Settings: Rethinking Instruction and Design; C.B. Denning, A.K. Moody; Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2013.

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