Planning Morning Meetings for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Planning Morning Meetings for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.When Elizabeth Powell and I co-taught in an inclusion program for students on the autism spectrum, we discovered that Morning Meeting offered an excellent opportunity to address these students’ needs and to help them connect to their classmates by using two of their often overlooked strengths: humor and a passionate interest in specific topics. I described our strength-based approach in “Playing to Strengths: Morning Meetings Designed for Students with Autism.”

Carefully planning each component of our Morning Meetings allowed us to craft meetings that supported students who were on the spectrum without diminishing the pleasures and benefits of the meetings for the class as a whole. We made some minor changes, but honored the structure and intent of Morning Meeting and kept our meetings within the recommended 20- to 30-minute time frame. Here’s how we did it.

Starting Off With a Visual Welcome

Students with ASD often have difficulties with language processing, so seeing as well as hearing information helps them focus. With this in mind, we always posted a list of our Morning Meeting steps and referenced it throughout the meeting. (In the following list, Step 4, “Schedule & News,” is an element we added to our Morning Meetings to support students on the spectrum.)

Morning Meeting
  1. Greeting
    Say hello to each other and ask a question
  2. Sharing/Check-In
    Quickly share how we’re doing this morning
  3. Group Activity
    Do something fun together
  4. Schedule & News
    Review today’s schedule and news
  5. Morning Message
    Reflect on what we’re learning together

Greeting: Adding a Question

A typical greeting in our classroom went like this: “Good morning, Alexandria. What’s your favorite line from a poem?” Alexandria would answer the question and greet the next student the same way.

Adding a question to the greeting not only encouraged lengthier interaction, but also gave students many opportunities to know their classmates a bit better. In planning the day’s question, we not only highlighted academic content and asked about current events but also encouraged creative, humorous responses and incorporated students’ special interests. For example:

  • Would you rather fly like an owl or swim like a fish?
    Some of our students on the spectrum would smile as they planned their witty responses. Creative answers often led to high fives and further conversations at lunch—terrific ways for students with ASD to connect with their peers.
  • If you could transform into any mode of transportation, what would it be?
    For our student who knew everything about Transformers (the animated series about giant robots who can transform into vehicles), answering this question was the week’s highlight. Incorporating special interests meant more participation and excitement. It also let classmates see students with ASD as the knowledgeable, passionate people they are.

Sharing: Checking in With Feelings

Students with ASD often have a hard time explaining their feelings as well as understanding complex emotions in others. Morning Meeting sharing is a great time to ask all students to “check in,” or share how they’re feeling, and why. Explicitly discussing emotions using common feeling words (happy, sad) and less frequently used ones (ecstatic, conflicted) expands students’ awareness of feelings and their emotional lexicon. Hearing the why of other students’ feelings also helps students on the spectrum connect emotion to experience.

When we did check-ins around the circle during Morning Meeting, each student would pass the spotlight to the next student with a nonverbal nod. Students with ASD may not instinctually consider nonverbal communication, including gestures and body language, in their interactions. Passing with a nod provided an opportunity to practice this skill.

We encouraged students to ask their classmates about their sharing later in the day—another good opportunity for using shared knowledge to connect with peers.

Group Activity: Highlighting Humor

Besides using many community-building activities from The Morning Meeting Book and its companion DVD, Morning Meeting Activities in a Responsive Classroom, we created activities that highlighted humor and fostered social development for all students, but particularly those with ASD. Two favorites:

Pass the Face: A student makes an expression and then turns to show the next student in the circle. That student copies the expression, covers her face, and creates a new expression to pass to the next student.

Students with ASD often struggle with noticing facial expressions. This activity lets them practice in a relaxed and enjoyable setting.

Pass the What? In this twist on the classic Telephone game, one student whispers a word to his neighbor. That student then changes the word to reflect something that comes to mind from that word and whispers the new word to the next student. After everyone has had a turn, all students share their words.

Students with ASD may struggle to consider ideas and perspectives different from their own. With this activity, we actively explored how people make different connections—while enjoying the humorous or whimsical phrases that would emerge. Once, when “peanut butter” became “Revolutionary War,” Don, a student with ASD, was asked, “How could you possibly make that connection?” He explained his train of thought: peanut butter → peanuts → George Washington Carver → George Washington → Revolutionary War.

An Added Component: Schedule and News

Elizabeth and I added a component to the traditional four Morning Meeting components (Greeting, Sharing, Activity, and Morning Message). For students on the spectrum, briefly reviewing the day’s schedule during Morning Meeting provided a needed sense of predictability. Elizabeth and I would take a minute or two to tell the whole class about the day’s events, often giving quick explanations of what each lesson would cover so that students would have context when the lessons began. Because unexpected change can be difficult and even scary for students with ASD, we would highlight any changes to our typical schedule—such as assemblies or fire drills—and also indicate these on the visual schedule.

Keeping this added “announcements” component very brief meant that it was helpful to students on the spectrum without disrupting the Morning Meeting experience for other students.

Morning Message: Looking Forward—and Back

Because students with ASD may not attach strong emotions to experiences, they can have trouble recalling and participating in a group’s excitement about a shared experience. To meet this challenge, we’d write messages that not only looked forward to the current day’s learning, but also reminded students of an event, a lesson, or a happening from the day before. Then we’d invite students to create humorous, memorable phrases by which to remember that shared class experience. One phrase created by a student with ASD was “the long-division debacle,” which whimsically described an early long-division lesson in which both teaching and learning went hilariously off-track.

The Same—But Different

Morning Meeting, with its daily, structured routine focused on both social and academic learning, is an excellent tool for supporting students with autism, who do their best learning in orderly, predictable situations. The small, practical changes we made to the Morning Meeting components welcomed and supported these students, while keeping the integrity of each component intact. The end result: Morning Meetings that became a highpoint of the day for all of our students—and for us.

Aaron Lanou taught at a public school in the ASD Nest program, an inclusion program for higher-functioning students on the autism spectrum. He’s now a consultant supporting ASD Nest schools across New York City.

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Tags: Autism, Special Needs