Teaching Words as Symbols Works for Students with Autism

Indiana Public Schools

After one semester, Daniel decided to take a risk and replace each picture symbol in his classroom with a word. After one semester, all the pictures were gone and in their place were words. Students recognized the words and their meaning and used word prediction to support their writing.  Download full case study (PDF)

Indiana Public School teacher smiles in front of blurred background

Keeping Students on Task

Daniel McNulty is the Northeast Coordinator for the Indiana PATINS Project. This statewide assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) program works to improve access to general curriculum materials and to move toward a UDL educational environment within the Indiana public school system.


“After one semester, all the pictures were gone and in their place were words. Students recognized the words and their meaning. What a breakthrough!” —Daniel McNulty


Throughout his vocation, Daniel has learned firsthand the challenges of teaching children with disabilities and particularly those with autism. He worked as a paraprofessional, then a behavioral consultant and therapist in private practice. His teaching career began with young children with autism spectrum disorders. He took what he learned in his clinical practice into his classroom for his first teaching assignment with K-6 graders in a small rural public school.

Gavin with his teacher, smiling

This rural school had few computers and fewer teachers who used computers. Some teachers deemed Daniel’s class of students a big challenge. They told Daniel that these students would likely never become readers or writers. They suggested that Daniel teach communication with pictures and not much more. They said that pictures were the only way to teach students with severe disabilities because they could not phonetically decode words or recognize letters.


Daniel had other plans for his students and what he accomplished was more than anyone anticipated. “Words are symbols” said Daniel. “I knew from past experience that these students were capable of reading and of expressing themselves in written form. I kept thinking, how can I get them to recognize that a word is a symbol? I wondered how to help my students make connections from words as symbols to the written word.” Daniel had 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who had never written more than one or two words on their own.


In a given week, students would see 30 to 120 new words (symbols) on their schedule. As students began to recognize that some words started with the same letters, Daniel tried word prediction software to see if students would be receptive to using a computer and seeing the letters, words and symbols on screen. For the first time, some students were writing sentences and paragraphs using word prediction. Skeptical at first, Daniel thought word prediction might be a crutch. More than anything he wanted his students to be independent. What he realized was, that without the word prediction assistive technology tool, many of his students would never have written their first word

Creating Independent Learners Using Word Prediction

Young girl works happily on laptop in classroom

Word prediction changed how Daniel approached instruction materials for students with disabilities. Soon after the introduction of word prediction, he tried an experiment. “I used word prediction for a semester and then took it away” he said. “I found that students had retained some words and knew how to write them. They were not dependent on the technology, but rather were learning to spell.”


Prior to using word prediction, students who could not spell became frustrated with writing and gave up. Daniel realized that word prediction removed students’ frustration associated with spelling. Students now had a tool that allowed them to partially overcome the barrier of spelling in their written content. “The word prediction tool kept my students writing” Daniel said. “They didn’t get hung up on spelling. When students can express their thoughts they improve in other areas including behavior, social interactions, and confidence.”


Students who had spelling difficulties were exhibiting a new-found expression that increased their ability to participate with their general education peers in meaningful ways. They approached their classes in writing, research, and history with more enthusiasm and involvement. These youngsters behaved differently in social interactions.

Advancing Assistive Technology Use in Schools

Three students interact with a teacher in a classroom

Through this experience, teachers in this rural school gradually started to use more technology and advocate for UDL (Universal Design for Learning), where each student benefits from different kinds of learning approaches based on learning styles and individual strengths. Daniel said, “The coolest thing that happened was that one of my students, Johnny, would demonstrate what he learned on the computer for other general education teachers. I’d pull them aside and ask them to observe Johnny writing on the computer, using interactive whiteboards, podcasting, and blogging tools. Teachers started to call my room and ask for him to come to their room for his help. My students became leaders in the school. They rarely, if ever, experienced being in a leadership role for others.”


Daniel believes that taking a risk in his classroom to use words as symbols paid off. He hopes to encourage other teachers to use sight words as symbols and make progress in using assistive technology tools, like word prediction. In the end, Daniel’s students achieved higher results than what had been expected. Being open to new approaches is something Daniel will remember throughout his teaching career.


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