Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Inquiry Science and Special Needs


Children experience the world in all different ways. While some will not think twice about getting soaked during water exploration, another child may become overwhelmed by a drop of water on his hand or spilled spilling on his shirt. April has been coined “Autism Awareness Month”, as a reminder to support and celebrate children (and adults) who have a heightened experience of the world, whether they are on the Autism spectrum, have sensory processing disorder, or general anxiety.

Teaching the inquiry process to children in Special Education classes should look very similar to General Education classes. It is important to continue the model of Open and Focused Exploration, and using Science Talks for reflection. To help young children with disabilities succeed in inquiry learning, there are some tools that can be used, or given an added emphasis.

Science Talks

Science Talks are an amazing way to connect with students to introduce, reflect, or challenge them with a new task. You may already use a visual schedule to help students be prepared for what to expect during the day. Using a visual schedule can help introduce students to what they should expect during their explorations. A visual schedule can also be broken down to be used to teach one Science topic, such as Light and Shadows. You can use a timeline with pictures to show students in a dark room, then using a light source (such as a flashlight), then seeing a shadow,then manipulating the shadow. Slowly breaking down the task in this way can help students process the concept and become less overwhelmed.

Another tool that can be used during Science Talks is a Social Story. This can be a simple book created with the child, or even a few index cards on binder rings in which the teacher tells a story about the science topic, and what to expect. On our Field Trip page, we created an example of a “Social Story” to prepare students to come to the Air and Space Museum. You could create a social story for a science topic to leave at your science center for children to explore on their own. Because this tool is used as a guide for the child, it is best to use it before the beginning of the activity and during the activity to remind the child of what they can continue to expect.


Science Talks can be a great time for Reflection for verbal and non-verbal students. If you have students that have more difficulty verbalizing what they are learning, there are some other ways to help them reflect. Creating a quiet corner in the classroom, perhaps with small stuffed animals or other manipulatives, is a great way to offer students who become overwhelmed to take a moment with a teacher, or even practice with another student, to talk about what the student has learned.

Drawing or building is another way for students to communicate what they are learning, especially for students that have limited vocabularies. For example, students could draw what they observed at the water table. They can point to the different parts of their drawings as you talk through it with them. Remember, the drawings may not look like anything to you – so give gentle guidance to encourage and acknowledge their work and attempt. For students that may have a difficult time remember what they observed, you could use step by step visuals as a guide or perhaps stand next to the water table and point to the different parts of the table.

Technology is also an important aid for students to use to reflect. White boards or tablets can be used to help students communicate their ideas or look at what they have learned in a different way.


Fortunately, schools are becoming much better equipped at supporting children on the spectrum and enriching their experiences. I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Instructional Coach and Special Education Autism Specialist, Shauna Goldman, from DC Public Schools, about her insight into introducing and teaching young children with disabilities.

Q:  How do you introduce new topics, like science, to children with special needs? 

A: Concepts in science should be introduced to children with disabilities in a systematic and simplified way. For example, if you would like to teach children about ‘sink and float’ they first need to explore the elements of water and various materials that they can used. Each part of this activity may take a week or more to introduce and grasp. These skills also should be done in the most natural way and environment as possible. Therefore, this process make take up to 6 or more weeks before the concept is mastered or the children are able to generalize the skill.

Q: What are some strategies you use to cope with anxiety or discomfort students may have when exploring unusual objects (loud noises, water or sticky substances, flashlights and the dark, for example)

A: Using lots of visuals, social stories, verbal reminders, talking about what will happen/or about to happen, have the child do the tasks in steps. For example, touching something sticky. The child can first stand next to the table where the item is, then next maybe touch it with one finger, then two fingers, etc. Teachers also need to be prepared with plan B and plan C - in the event that the child does not respond to any of the above steps).

Q: What are some tools you use to help student reflect on what they are learning, especially if there are less verbal? 

A: For PK children the best way to get them to demonstrate understanding is by drawing or creating something to represent what was learned. You can also check for understanding by observing the child during play as they engage and explore materials that we used in the lesson. Teachers can also create documentation panels for reflection on the children’s work. Panels can be used all year long for children to add ideas and pictures as the year progresses. This is a great tool to use to see the growth of children within the setting as they learn more about various science concepts. This can be used for verbal and non-verbal children.

Q: What is some general advice you can offer teachers while they implent science lessons in the classroom?

A: Plenty of preparation, allowing lots of time for children to be comfortable with the introduction of a new concept, and having patience. She reminds me that every child is different and will have different needs. It is important for teachers to be in tune with the child to be sure she understands certain strengths, triggers and accommodations that need to be made. In addition, make the classroom feel as safe and predictable as possible.

The world can be a confusing place, especially for children on the spectrum. Inquiry science offers explanations and opportunities for questioning and exploration of the world, from a child’s perspective. All children, regardless of ability, deserve this kind of education.

What ways do you teach science to your Special Education students?