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Often students on the autism spectrum think there is a right answer to everything. If you ask them an opinion question, they’ll look at you, trying to figure out what the right answer is. Teaching them to form their own opinions can be a challenge due to the abstract nature of the concept, but it is vital that students with autism learn it in order to have full self-expression and advance their critical thinking skills.
Do you ever ask a student on the autism spectrum an opinion question and get a blank look back? Are innocent questions like “What’s better, cats or dogs?” causing tears?
If any of that sounds familiar you are probably dealing with a child who either does not know how to form or express their own opinion.
I remember being very confused by this issue for a long time. I asked a student, with autism, verbal but with delays, what his favorite color was. There was a long pause. Then he said, “I don’t know. What’s my favorite color?”
I was shocked. He didn’t know but he thought I did?
That was when it hit me. He thought there had to be a right answer to every question.
In this post, we’re going to go over the plan I made to teach him to form opinions, and how I guided him and my other students to understanding that not every question has a correct answer.
Make sure to join my email list to stay up to date on my latest posts on teaching students with severe or multiple special needs! You’ll also get access to my free resource library, which includes a goal tracking sheet to help you monitor your students’ progress!
Don’t Start By asking for their opinion
In the story above, I made a mistake. I jumped right to the end, by asking my student for his opinion. Even if it was on something very basic like his favorite color.
Before demonstrating forming their own opinions our students with autism need to learn basic vocabulary and definitions for what things are.
I started by teaching what an opinion is, and how to tell the difference between a fact or an opinion.
Ask any of your kids what the difference is, before the lesson, and they’ll probably say that a fact is right and an opinion is wrong.
Some of my kids believed this so fervently that unlearning it was an emotional process. They didn’t want to be wrong.
We went over the differences and examples for a long time and then did sorting practice with facts versus opinions for about a week.
If you aren’t interested in creating your own lesson, you can purchase the one I used here.
You can also purchase the bundle, to get my sorting practice exercises for less!
Next up is Agree or Disagree
Now you can finally ask them to start forming their own opinions, but nothing that requires original thoughts just yet.
It is easier for students to simply hear an opinion and decide if they agree or disagree with it. This is less cognitively challenging than requiring them to come up with their own thoughts.
I made sure to include a variety of statements that I knew each of my kids would agree and disagree with. I treated both with equal levels of enthusiasm to make sure they didn’t associate one with being good and the other with being bad.
Some examples include,
- “Cats are better than dogs.”
- “Math is boring.”
- “Batman could beat Superman in a fight.”
- “Purple is the best color.”
You can purchase my digital sorting activity that allows students to read the statement and practice agreeing or disagreeing. Editable text boxes will allow you to customize the statement to your students.
A print version is also available, though does not include the same customizable features.
Would you Rather?
I probably spent a week playing “would you rather” with various students for at least fifteen minutes a day.
This one was a lot of fun and is the next step up from agreeing or disagreeing. Students have to hear two options and decide which is best.
As they get more comfortable make sure to ask them to explain their reasoning. You might learn some interesting things about your students and how they think.
Once they’ve really mastered it and are motivated by the game you can even ask them to come up with one or both of the options themselves.
Writing Opinions for Kids with Autism
As we reach the end of the would you rather stage, I start to slip in more questions that require my students with autism to completely form their own opinion without me providing the language.
Include open-ended questions. Ask for their favorite movie, book, sport, season, and so on. If they tell you they did something new, ask them what they thought of it.
Once it’s clear they can do this verbally, transition to having them write paragraphs. You can also have them write their explanations for would you rather as well.
My ultimate goal was to always get them to start writing their opinions because reading and writing require more opinion work than any other subject. It’s important to not skip the writing step.
As they get more and more comfortable with this, start asking for their least favorite as well. Always make sure they include their reasoning and that it makes sense and is connected to the topic.
Final Thoughts on teahing kid with autism opinions
Obviously, that is not where the work ends. You need to keep building and building to get them to form more complex opinions about more complex topics than just their favorite things.
This however takes time and most general education students don’t truly master it until high school.
These are just the basic steps to help our students with autism learn the fundamentals of forming opinions, which is a skill many people take for granted. Teachers sometimes forget that students with special needs might need explicit instruction to master the concept.
As you provide that explicit instruction, make sure to join my email list! You’ll get access to my free resource library, which includes a goal tracking sheet that will allow you to measure your students’ progress towards learning opinions!
And don’t forget to check out this blog post on teaching Five Paragraph Essays to students with autism.