Inquiry based learning is a key teaching methodology in the science classroom. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) the inquiry process can cause more stress and produce significantly decreased success due to their unique personalities.  However, these same students are now in demand in many scientific careers that require them to perform in inquiry settings. There for it is imperative that we as teachers learn how to develop these skills in ASD students while providing them the learning environments that they need to succeed. The goal of this project was to help provide some methodology and insights into achieving success for these students by altering the approach and classroom to meet their needs.

How we developed the framework

With the help of the board ASD team we met with our identified ASD students in the school in interviewed them about their experiences in different classes and where they achieved success and failures.  These interviews were conducted with the student’s knowledge of this project and became part of their weekly lunch meeting in which I would come and meet with them twice a month at these social skills meetings.  This was a key part of this project as at these meeting they are paired with a non ASD student as part of their social network.  These students were not part of their normal social circle but were part of their day and had expressed a willingness to work with each of the students as they moved thorough their academics. These students were taught behavioural strategies as part of this process.

Through the interviews, working with the ASD team, and literatures searches we looked for best practices that could help develop some strategies to employ with inquiry-based learning. 

What we found

Most students were afraid of inquiry classes due to the anxiety and stress that results from the open ended and flexible environment. Most students loved that they could build and explore things that they like, just they felt so lost in the process.

This was the areas that students identified as areas of stress

Lack of trust in partners or social awkwardness in groups

Uncertainty in using or handling materials

Lack of feedback on progress



Poor Co-Ordination when using tools

Sense of being Wrong

Inability to leave if stressed (i.e. using flames)

Feeling of being wrong


What we did

We broke the stressors from this process in three parts introduction/induction, environment, and assessment. What we looked for was areas that we could alter the environment or task to still fit the inquiry model but reduce the stress.  The biggest one that kept coming up was providing them consistent time cues through the process and areas to provide reassurance.

Here are the suggestions

  Environmental changes

  • Declutter walls, lab station, decrease choices
  • Label all cupboards/pics of glassware
  • Locate their station so I could monitor stress and provide some feedback, or provide timing prompts

Behavioral Routines

  • Create consistent starts, middles and end routines to labs.
  • Provide task time breakdowns
  • Provide jobs, or opportunities to exit while still participating i.e. computer work
  • Provide a consistent empathetic partner while changing other parts of the group

Warning Prompts

  • Prepare for loud noises
  • Prepare for smell and sensation overloads
  • Prepare them for safety equipment by providing choices i.e. different goggle types

Teacher assessment and behaviour

  • Provide a consistent empathetic partner


  • Talk in calm manner
  • Provide opportunities to reinforce their insecurities
  • Rude comments may be a sign of stress, remain calm and address them when the lab is complete
  • Keep instructions clear and short.
  • Chunk assessments or include more detailed completion instruction if lab did not go as planned.

Example solar cooker task modifications

  • Students were limited to a set of culled designs that used less materials or assembly
  • Students completed google forms paginated lab assignment which told them their progress
  • Materials were sorted, culled and presented by the teacher in order of use and measurements and cutting were supervised
  • Students were grouped with one partner and then partners were paired.
  • Students were encouraged to bring assembled pieces for “stability check”
  • Students asked to provide reflection on lab and it was in interview style with prompts by the teacher
  • Students were given check in times and approximate completion times
  • Lab was decluttered with distinct areas for work (glue, cut, assemble)

The results

Although the inquiry process was still stressful students were able to develop and execute projects with more and more release.  The process was carried over one full year and it developed more resiliency in our students. We noted that the students completed all tasks, reduced exit card use, were more open to new partners.  What was especially apparent was the acceptance of my students in new peer groups and their willingness to participate outside of the normal friend circles.  We still had stress, we still had our moments but they were much reduced with increased academic success.  Also my room was a whole lot cleaner!


Resources and Links




Ackerman, Alonna. “Making Scientific Inquiry Activities Accessible to Students with Autism.” Learning To Teach, University of Toledo, 2016,

Courtade, Ginerva R., et al. “Training Teachers to Use an Inquiry-Based Task Analysis to Teach Science to Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities.” Training Teachers to Use an Inquiry-Based Task Analysis to Teach Science to Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, Apr. 2010,

Hudson, Diana. “How to Support Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Education in Chemistry, Royal Society of Chemists, 28 Nov. 2017,

“Inquiry-Based Science Instruction for Students With Disabilities.” Edited by National Science Teachers Association - NSTA, Inquiry-Based Science Instruction for Students with Disabilities, National Science Teachers Association, 1 Jan. 2008,

Knight, Victoria & Mckissick, Bethany & Spooner, Fred & Browder, Diane. (2011). Using Explicit Instruction to Teach Science Descriptors to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders. 42. 378-89. 10.1007/s10803-011-1258-1.

Taylor, Shanon S., and Amanda Urqhart. “A Is for App: Using IPads with Students with Autism.” A Is for App: Using IPads with Students with Autism, Council for Exceptional Children, 2013,



racquel carlow's picture

The activity description is great.  However, you have attached the ScienceWorks presentation.  Please attach relevant information.