How Kids with Autism Think and Learn: A Guide for Parents
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How Kids with Autism Think and Learn: A Guide for Parents

  • Last Updated: May 25, 2018
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Autism Learning Styles

You may have heard the saying, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”

This is a popular saying because kids with autism can be so different from one another. In fact, the kids with autism who I see in therapy are often more similar to their parents than to each other.

But there are certain things all kids with autism have in common. Kids with autism have their own learning style, and it is different from how those of us who don’t have autism think and learn.

As a parent, understanding the special way your child thinks can help you to be more effective at teaching your child new skills. It can also reduce some of the daily battles and frustrations that accompany the condition.

I’ve seen many parents overcome with relief when they discover that what seemed like utter stubbornness was really just their child’s different learning style.

And when you have a better grasp on how your child thinks, you can teach your child in a way they will understand.

Visual Learning

Visual Learning

One of the criteria used to diagnose autism is that a child has trouble with social communication [1]. This means that kids with autism don’t understand spoken language and body language in the same way the rest of us do.>

While interpreting language can be difficult for kids with autism, it is often easier for them to make sense of the things they see. This is why we say that kids with autism are “visual learners.”

Here are some ways you can help a visual learner:

> Demonstrate new skills

When teaching your child a new skill, demonstrate how to do it rather than just describing what to do. For instance, put one piece in the puzzle, and then hand your child a piece to try and put in. It’s okay to use some words too, just don’t forget to “show” as well as “tell.”

> Eliminate distractions

Some kids with autism may seem distractible because when they see an activity they are immediately drawn to do it. An example of this would be when you tell your child to come eat, and on the way to the table they see a train and start rolling it down the track. This is related to your child’s visual learning style: seeing the train was a stronger influence on your child than the instruction you had just given them.

Try to clear away distractions so your child can focus. If you are teaching your child how to use a new toy or are working on school work, use a table with only one activity at a time. Make sure there are no distractions in your child’s line of sight. A table tucked behind furniture near a corner often works best.

> Use direct language

When you give instructions, try to focus on the most important words. Even kids who use lots of language can have trouble telling the main point from the details. Rather than saying “Buddy it’s about time to pick up your trains, okay?” Try something more direct like “Put the trains in the bin.” If your child doesn’t use many words at all, stick with something even more simple like saying “In!” as you show them what to do.

> Try a visual schedule

If your child has trouble transitioning from one area to another, he may benefit from a picture schedule or object schedule so that he can see the sequence of what happens next.

> Consider a visual timer

A visual timer may help ease transitions a well. A visual timer is a timer that allows a child to see the passage of time. A quick search for “visual timer” on google or in the app store of your phone will yield lots of free options.

Adherence to Routines

Routines

You may have noticed that there are some things your child always does in the same way. For some kids, once they learn to hang their coat on the rack, you’ll never ever find it on the floor again. For others, they may always eat their potatoes, and then their meat, and then put their plate in a certain spot in the dishwasher.

When the routines are useful, this can be a real strength. But you may have also noticed that your child forms routines that aren’t as helpful. For instance, your child may need the schedule to be exactly the same day to day, or your child may put their toys back on the floor as soon as you put them away.

This is related to what is called “restricted and repetitive behavior,” which is one of the traits psychologists look for when they diagnose autism [1]. Kids with autism often develop very strong interests and very rigid routines. And once the routines are formed, they can be very hard to change.

I often see families who are confused about why their child has become so upset by something simple like a new rug in the living room. I ask these families to imagine how would feel if they came home and found their furniture on the ceiling. Some seemingly minor changes can be this upsetting and confusing for a child with autism. It can be hard for a child with autism to tell what the rules are that never change (like gravity) and which ones may change on a whim (like decorations).

In a world that can feel unpredictable to a child with autism, they may rely on their routines to feel safe and secure. [2]

Here are some ways you can help your child be more flexible:

> Practice making changes

If your child has trouble with changes in his schedule, start practicing making changes by replacing something they don’t like with something they do. For instance mark off “chores” on the schedule and replace it with “swimming.” Over time you can try making more challenging changes.

> Make the changes visual

If you use a visual schedule, show your child the changes on their schedule. While they are watching you can mark off one item and write in a new one. Or you can remove a picture card so they can see that there will be a change. Here is a great example of how you might show a change on a school schedule.

> Start early

When your child gets a new toy, teach them to use it flexibly from the very beginning before they can develop a rigid routine. Show how it can be used in a variety of locations, by different people, and in a variety of ways.

> Use social stories

Social stories are stories written to help your child know what to expect when you are going to make a change. For young kids and kids with less language, include pictures of your child and only one sentence per page. For kids with lots of language, you can write out the story with mostly words.

Difficulty with Implicit Learning

Implicit Learning

There are so many things you know how to do that no one ever taught you. Most likely, no one sat down with you as a child and taught you how to play with your toys, tell a joke, or ride a bus.

But while the reasons for this are debated, research and experience show that people with autism often need explicit instruction to learn new skills that the rest of us just seem to magically pick up [3]. Learning things you’ve never been taught is called implicit learning.

When your child struggles with implicit learning, the answer is to teach them the skills they are missing! You may find yourself teaching things you never imagined, like:

  • How to read body language
  • How to take a shower
  • What to do when you feel angry
  • How to do pretend play
  • How to explore new foods

When teaching your child new skills, remember that they are visual learners, and that they rely on routines. Use this knowledge to help them learn. For example:

> Show rather than tell

Demonstrate how to do something more than you describe it. For example, if you are teaching your child how to clean their hands, rub your hands together in an exaggerated way to show them the action.

> Use visuals

Use pictures, videos, and books to show your child what is expected of them. Let’s say you are teaching your child pretend play and they aren’t paying attention to your demonstrations. Try showing them a picture or a video of the action (like a dinosaur stomping or a baby doll drinking a bottle) and see if they’ll imitate from that.

> Create routines

Teach positive routines to replace challenging ones. For instance, if your child always leaves the dinner table too early, teach them a cleanup routine that always happens before dinner is finished.

Executive Functioning Challenges

Executive Functions

Executive functioning refers to the part of our brain that plans and executes our complex behaviors. When you think of kids with executive functioning challenges, kids with ADHD may come to mind. Similar to kids with ADHD, kids with autism have trouble with breaking a large task into manageable pieces. They also struggle with controlling their impulses and having appropriate responses to challenging events. [4]

Additionally, kids with autism often have trouble identifying what the main point is of something and what is just a detail. For instance, if you show a child with autism a picture of a busy school scene and ask what they see, they may name one detail, like “umbrellas,” or “math problems” rather than saying, “that looks like a busy school.”

Another way executive functioning challenges impact kids with autism is their ability to be flexible. When a child with autism learns a new skill, sometimes they may only use that new skill in one way or in one environment. I’ve know many kids with autism who eat goldfish at school but no where else, who do math with mom but not with dad, or who know how to tie the red shoes but not the blue ones. [4]

Here are some ways you can help your child with their executive functioning challenges:

> Break it down

Break big tasks down into small, manageable steps so that your child can understand how to get started and see that they are making progress. Here are some examples:

  • Cut the problems out of a worksheet and put only one or two per page
  • Write out the steps of a project into a checklist
  • Write out the steps of getting ready for bed into a checklist, or use pictures or objects to represent these activities if your child isn’t reading
  • Put only two or three shapes in the shape sorter for your child to drop in
  • Lay out the items your child needs to get dressed in order on the bed
  • Give your child a place to put her finished work so she can see it disappear from her stack of things to do

> Teach self-calming

Teach a self-calming routine for your child to do right when they start to get frustrated, or even before they begin a challenging task. Choose activities that make sense to your child and seem to help them feel calm. For kids who are more concrete thinkers, this may include:

  • Putting craft balls onto the table and blowing them off to encourage deep breathing
  • Blowing bubbles, pinwheels, or blowing out candles to encourage deep breathing
  • Asking for a hug or a tight squeeze
  • Squeezing stress balls or squishing playdough
  • Jumping on a trampoline

For other kids, they may find the following activities calming:

  • Doing jumping jacks
  • Doing pushups against the wall or on the chair
  • Doing deep breathing with visuals
  • Blowing each finger like a birthday candle
  • Doing something with their special interest like coloring, matching pictures, or counting

> Help them generalize

Help your child generalize skills to new people or new environments. For instance, after you’ve taught them to count using blocks, make sure they can also count using beads. Or once your child plays patty-cake with you, see if they will play patty-cake with another adult.

Difficulty with Perspective Taking

You may have heard before that “Theory of Mind” is difficult for kids with autism. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that someone else’s perspective could be different than your own perspective. This type of perspective-taking is generally difficult for kids with autism [5]. This results in challenges such as:

  • Difficulty understanding and showing empathy for others’ emotions
  • Challenges with imagining how something will make someone else feel
  • Refusal to show one’s work in math
  • Trouble with joint attention (pointing at things to show someone, or looking at what someone else is looking at or pointing to)
  • Trouble choosing play activities that may appeal to other children
  • Difficulty with back-and-forth conversation

Here are some things you can do to help your child with perspective taking:

> Use visuals and rehearsals

Use stories, videos, and role plays to help your child learn new skills. A speech therapist or occupational therapist can help with this if you aren’t sure how to do this.

> Try comic strips

Use comic strip conversations to help your child imagine what others are thinking.

> Teach pointing

Practice pointing with your child by starting with things that are nearby, like pictures in a book or bubbles as they float by. To teach your child to point, you can hold up two choices just out of reach for your child and help them point to which choose one. I often tape balloons to the wall to help my clients learn to point and make a choice about which one to inflate.

> Use a Venn diagram

f your child struggles to choose play activities their friends will enjoy (and knows how to read and write), you can use a Venn diagram to teach them this skill. Your child can put activities they like on one side, activities the friend likes on the other side, and activities they both like in the middle. The activities in the middle are the best choice of what to play together.

Summary

Once you know how your child with autism thinks, it can be a lot easier to figure out how to help them learn new things. Make new tasks visual so that they make more sense to your child. Break activities down into manageable steps, and help your child see that he is making progress. Explicitly teach new skills and help your child use them in lots of different ways. And make sure you teach your child in an environment that is free of distractions to help them focus and learn.

Conclusion

Figuring out how to teach your child with autism isn’t always easy. But with these tools in your pocket, you’ll likely be much more successful at designing activities that your child can understand. Along the way, you may find that speech therapists, occupational therapists, and ABA therapists who understand autism can help you problem solve when you get stuck.

References

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016, April 18). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html.

[2] The National Autistic Society (2016, October 11). Obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines. Retrieved from http://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-routines.aspx

[3] Rea, Shilo (2015, November 19). Brains With Autism Adapt Differently During Implicit Learning. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2015/november/autism-and-learning.html

[4] Craig, F., Margari, F., Legrottaglie, A. R., Palumbi, R., de Giambattista, C., & Margari, L. (2016). A review of executive function deficits in autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 1191–1202. http://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S104620

[5] Senju, A. (2012). Spontaneous theory of mind and its absence in autism spectrum disorders. The Neuroscientist : A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry, 18(2), 108–113. http://doi.org/10.1177/1073858410397208

About the Author Meg Proctor, M.S. Occupational Therapy

Meg Proctor is an autism specialist, occupational therapist, and the founder of Learn Play Thrive, L.L.C. Using online occupational therapy, Meg helps families of kids with autism learn practical strategies to help their kids succeed during their daily activities.

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