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How Students With Autism Learn

— Autism Society
Updated on Jul 28, 2009

To understand how children with autism learn, one must be cognizant of the core deficits that define autism and impede the development of the fundamental prerequisite skills essential for learning. Some unique learning characteristics of students with autism may include, but are not limited to:

  • Attention difficulties
  • Auditory processing impairments
  • The inability to generalize (easily transfer knowledge from one setting to another)
  • Difficulties with learning by observation and imitation
  • Troubles with task/event sequencing
  • Uneven patterns of strengths and weaknesses
  • Problems with organization and planning
  • Difficulties with time concepts and making transitions

As most students with autism do not learn in the same manner as their typical peers, modifications to the curriculum may be necessary to help a child with autism succeed (Wagner, 1998). An extensive discussion of techniques used to address the unique barriers to learning presented by students with autism is beyond the scope of this booklet. However, a brief description is offered here. For more detailed information, consult the resources section at the end of this booklet, especially Grandin (1998), Holmes (1998), Powers (1997), and Schopler and Mesibov (1995).

Addressing Sensory Differences

Many children with autism experience sensory input in variable ways. These sensory processing difficulties can be
quite an impediment to learning. Attentiveness is often improved if accommodations are made to meet a child’s sensory needs. An occupational therapist can often be an excellent source of ideas of ways to address these needs. A few suggestions are offered here.

Difficulties with auditory processing can be offset by providing visual supports, such as pictures, symbols, or written
instructions. Visual stimuli -such as a picture-based communication system, picture sequencing to convey routines or rules, and the written word -can serve as permanent cues for students with autism (Hodgdon, 1995). Some
students with autism are precocious readers; providing them with written instructions, schedules, routines, and/or rules can help them become successful participants in the classroom.

Children with autism may have difficulty processing the meaning of requests, whether visual or auditory. Allow for pauses to give time for a child with autism to determine an appropriate response.

Some children have great difficulty processing auditory and visual stimuli simultaneously. Some children with autism have a great need for physical exercise.  Often giving these children regular breaks to run, swing, or jump on a trampoline can help them become more organized and less anxious.

Addressing Attention Difficulties

Distractibility can be due to such things as self-stimulatory behavior or perseveration (an obsessive preoccupation with extraneous information or objects). Often distractibility can be addressed by redirection, prompting, and, at times, hand-over-hand manipulation. Careful observation of the environment from the child’s eyes can help identify distracting elements that may be easily remedied by changing the child’s seating arrangement or by removing or modifying the distraction. Allowing children with autism to have “breaks” to meet their sensory needs can often
help improve attention.

At the same time, it is important to provide stimulating instruction that is challenging to the student to prevent boredom that can lead to distractibility.

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