How Does Autism Affect Learning?
Having autism, particularly as a young child, poses difficulties with comprehension and acquiring learning. Autism Spectrum Condition is a neurodevelopment condition that can cause differences in learning at the pace of neurotypicals - those of us without autism. Children with autism often have narrow focus, language development issues, poor non-verbal skills, narrow interests, and attention issues. While children with autism may be very excited to learn, they may only be interested in one subject and reluctant to learn another. For example, one child may be extremely interested in learning about history, but then hate learning about historical fiction in literacy.
Children are sometimes unable to express their emotions, which can make it difficult for neurotypicals who are trying to teach as they don’t know how to decipher the child’s actions and thoughts. For this reason, we should be mindful of how and what a child with autism is learning, and how interested they seem to be; we should avoid increasing the anxiety in these children if possible.
The Autism Spectrum
A child with autism has their own timeline regarding their learning development. Some autistic children might start to use a few single words around 12 months of age and then develop their language at a different rate from typically developing children as they get older. Or they might be able to recite the alphabet or count beyond 20 but might not be able to use language to make requests or start a conversation.
Each autistic child also has a unique timeline in terms of communication development. Some may not respond to their own names, smile when someone smiles at them, or notice facial expressions. So, paying attention to the child’s needs and development, as well as recognising each child’s mind is unique and wonderful, is crucial to effective learning development.
Learning styles are important to keep in mind. Each of us has a style of learning that helps us comprehend information in the best way for us; visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic. Autistic children tend to rely on only one style of learning. If the child enjoys looking at pictures and reading books, they are likely to be visual learners. If they like listening to music or like speaking to people, they have an auditory learning style. If they enjoy hands-on activities, dismantling and putting things back together they’re kinaesthetic learners. Once the autistic child’s learning style has been established, it is possible to pinpoint the area of excitement, or the area of anxiety.
Ways Autism Can Affect Learning
Many children with Autism Spectrum Condition have average or above-average intelligence, yet autism can still affect learning in several ways. Others who are on the spectrum have one or more learning disabilities and other academic challenges. Some of these learning difficulties can be effectively addressed with early interventions. For school-aged children, individualised learning can be established to support academic achievement.
For those who work with children who have autism, it is important that they are aware of the learning challenges that they face and how to best address them. Whilst having a disability such as autism can negatively impact learning, it can also be accompanied by unique strengths and abilities. Learning development and classroom experiences may look different, but there are strategies that may be helpful for those with Autism Spectrum Condition. The following are learning-related areas that can be affected in children with autism:
Non-verbal Skill Deficits
People who are unable to communicate verbally tend to rely on non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, this may not be an option for some children with autism who might struggle with this. Actions such as eye-contact and gestures are difficult for those with autism. Non-verbal communication is broad and covers everything from facial expressions, body language, movement, touch, space, and voice, eye contact and gestures. Non-verbal communication makes up a considerable part of how we successfully communicate with others.
When individuals struggle with understanding non-verbal cues, how to communicate effectively can be a challenge. Staff should be trained in how to support children who have communication difficulties. Working on communication skills, along with encouraging social interaction enables staff to model these important skills in a fun and engaging way. Children with poor non-verbal skills can be successful academically and socially in the classroom and language development can be acquired in school, at home, and out in the community. Using visual aids or a visual schedule can be a helpful strategy.
Most children lack focus at times and find it difficult to concentrate. Children with ASC, ADD (Attendance Deficiency Disorder) and ADHD (Attendance Hyperactivity Deficiency Disorder) are likely to find it difficult to focus on information that is outside their range of interest. Attention quickly wanes in activities that don’t interest children with autism.
Focusing during a lesson can be complicated due to the sensory issues that many children with autism face. They can be easily distracted by stimulants that don’t register with neurotypicals, ranging from the texture of clothing, bright lights and sounds. Experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations of a classroom while a child with autism is trying to focus on one task can be overwhelming. Noisy environments can make learning experiences extremely challenging.
Children with autism may be able to focus acutely on details but may lack the ability to see the 'bigger picture'. This might manifest in remembering the details of a story shared but not the main plot. They may struggle to summarize their own ideas or those of others. Some ways to help are:
Immerse students in high-interest activities
Increase engagement level of educational activities
Give clear and concise directions
Minimise distractions around the classroom
Use modelling methods
Set goals and add in reinforcement
From: Behavioural Analysis, December 2021