Simple Strategies for Supporting Students with Autism During Inquiry Learning

There are many characteristics of inquiry learning that appeal to students with autism. For instance, having the freedom to narrow in on a subject that interests them and create a meaningful project about it would certainly sound appealing. However, there are other aspects – collaboration, organization, and reciprocal feedback – that might be daunting to students with autism. This article provides some strategies to use in the classroom to support these students to make inquiry learning fun and meaningful for them.

Autistic Characteristics in Relation to Inquiry Learning:

Some characteristics of autism directly impact whether or not a student will be successful with inquiry learning:

1. Lack of interest in other subjects:

Students with autism can sometimes have an insistence on sameness and are resistant to change. They often have one or two specific interests that they focus on intensely and repetitively. In extreme cases, some students can exhibit challenging behaviours when they are encouraged to pursue topics they aren’t interested in. This is where inquiry learning can shine as a way for students to pursue their own interests. It enables teachers to broaden their students’ interests by encouraging them to pursue similar or related topics and questions. Read more about teaching students how to ask better inquiry questions.

Ways to support:

  • Support students’ interests, but channel their passion into creating something meaningful; whether through simply raising awareness or encouraging a call to action
  • Expand students’ interests slowly and in natural, non-intimidating ways by incorporating them into lessons and increasing student engagement
  • Provide opportunities for students with autism to develop further expertise in the areas they are already interested in
  • Come prepared to inquiry brainstorming sessions with questions, ideas, and topics that the student might enjoy exploring; show enthusiasm and give praise when they show signs of broadening their interests and pursuing new opportunities
  • Use reinforcers when students with autism show interest in a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t interest them
The student pictured above channeled her passion for horses into an informative and entertaining stop-motion video about taking care of horses and to raise awareness about animal abuse.

2. Impairment in social interaction:

While they may be eager to relate to others, students with autism sometimes lack the skills to engage socially with others. This can show up as a lack of understanding of social customs, misinterpretation of social cues, and general social awkwardness. This can affect inquiry learning because there is a big focus on collaboration, discussion, and feedback that students with autism often find difficult and stressful to navigate. For example, a student with autism giving feedback might have trouble articulating their thoughts in an appropriate way. They may also come across as robotic in the way they speak.

Ways to support:

  • Build in time throughout the inquiry to allow students with autism to practice giving feedback that is helpful, kind, and relevant. This can be done through 1:1 or small group role-play and structured play opportunities. It can also be done using formal and informal social exchanges throughout the day
  • Use things like cue cards, prompts, or even a script for the student to follow until he or she gets more comfortable with giving feedback. Provide a selection of appropriate responses that, with practice, they can choose to respond with when providing feedback
  • Show videos or cartoons depicting social situations and discuss appropriate responses, facial expressions, and gestures, and spend time modelling these
  • Provide quick, discreet explanations about things like appropriate facial expressions, gestures, and body language as and when they happen so students can understand how to react appropriately in any given situation
  • Spend time discussing the unwritten rules of social interactions. For example, what cues to look for if someone wants to end the discussion or change the subject

3. Difficulty organizing themselves:

Students with autism can sometimes struggle to organize themselves, especially during group work. A disorganized learning environment and lack of structure can be difficult for a student with autism to deal with. Being confronted with the task of breaking down their inquiry question and finding answers can trigger anxiety and shut-down. Factor in the overwhelming difficulty of organizing their tasks, and this can render them immobile moving forward.

Ways to support:

  • Use visual supports such as graphic organizers, templates, and schedules to help students organize themselves and their inquiry work; provide frequent reminders of these
  • Help explain the relationships between key concepts they find in their inquiry, especially when they encounter new additional material. Tools like webs, timelines, cause and effect graphs can be helpful in showing these relationships
  • Establish specific areas of the classroom that are associated with certain kinds of activities and stick to these labels as often as possible
  • Utilize and encourage students with autism to use colour-coordination, labelling, other tools to organize their inquiry notes and research
  • Break down the steps of inquiry into manageable tasks within a set schedule, discussed and agreed with the student, and enforced regularly

4. Lack of flexibility:

A common characteristic of students with autism is a lack of flexibility in their understanding of concepts and in their everyday routines (no matter how nonfunctional or illogical their routines might appear to be). They often think rigidly and have difficulty with change of any kind. It can also be difficult for students with autism to learn from their mistakes or re-learn new habits. Read about some strategies for managing conflict in inquiry learning.

Ways to support:

  • Frequently model flexibility, cooperation, and sharing skills by breaking down the steps involved in teamwork and problem-solving and practicing these
  • Provide praise during and after each positive social interaction (privately or publicly), explaining why the steps taken resulted in a positive interaction
  • Frequently normalize change as part of the inquiry cycle – tweaking questions or putting an unhelpful book back and replacing it with another source – and praise students when they can adapt to these changes 
  • Use pictures, calendars, and social stories to indicate impending changes and provide plenty of time for students with autism to internalize and accept these changes
  • Provide experiences where students with autism can make choices, and use peer supports to help them cope with difficult situations and the stresses caused by them

5. Problems with motor coordination and sensitivities:

Finally, students with autism struggle with locomotion, balance, rapid movements, and rhythm. In addition, they often experience difficulty with manual dexterity (the ability to make coordinated hand and finger movements) which can make handwriting, using scissors, creating 3D artwork, and other activities extremely difficult. It is estimated that approximately 60-90% of students with autism have issues with motor coordination. This can affect many steps in the inquiry process if structures are not in place to support students who struggle with this.

Ways to support:

  • Acknowledge that problems with motor coordination are sometimes a result of anxiety and the social demands of school life. This anxiety can manifest itself as hypersensitivity, overstimulation, and distressing noises, sounds, or colours
  • Use fidget toys to relieve stress and anxiety. Two students of mine with autism used these fidget toys that are less than $10 whenever they felt anxious and overwhelmed
  • Consider the use of assistive technology for inquiry work, and take slower writing speed into account when giving students their next steps
  • Model the use of relaxation strategies and use diversions when appropriate to calm and reduce anxious thoughts and actions
  • Allow the use of sensory-free workspaces, ear plugs, headphones, and calming music to camouflage certain sounds and keep the levels of stimulation low while students work on their inquiry project


  • There are many characteristics of inquiry learning that appeal to students with autism
  • A lack of interest in other subjects, impairment in social interaction, difficulty organizing themselves, a lack of flexibility, and problems with motor coordination and sensitivities can all contribute to feelings of anxiety and anger in students with autism
  • Providing structure, modeling and encouraging positive social interactions, and using assistive technology and fidget toys can help ease some of the anxiety associated with a big inquiry project
  • Building strong and reciprocal ties with parents of students with autism and communicating frequently with them is helpful in providing security and transparency to students
  • Inquiry learning can be a great way to encourage and broaden students’ interests

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