Children with autism may have average or above-average intelligence, but autism can still affect learning in a number of ways. Some of these learning difficulties can be effectively addressed, particularly with early interventions, and in some cases, these learning difficulties are also accompanied by strengths unique to autistic children.
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Children with autism may be able to focus acutely on details but may lack the ability to pull back and see the big picture. With a child, this might manifest in remembering the details of a story shared but not the main idea of the story. They may struggle to summarize their own or others’ ideas. One way parents and educators might address this is by putting information into a pattern to reveal the larger pattern of the information as a whole.
Language Development Issues
Struggles with language are one of the main ways autism affects learning, and problems with language development and speech delays are often the first sign that a child may have autism. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says that early intervention that takes into account a child’s interests is one of the most effective ways to address language development issues. Parents and caregivers, as well as specialists, may participate in helping children with autism who have language delays better develop those language skills.
Poor Nonverbal Skills
Often people who cannot communicate verbally compensate with nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, this may not be an option for some autistic children who might also struggle with nonverbal communication. Actions such as eye contact and gestures may be difficult for autistic children. However, as with language development, these skills can also be developed, and in some cases, parents, caregivers and professionals may work with children on developing them before verbal language issues are addressed. For some autistic children, sign language may work as an alternative to verbalization.
Children with autism may be both focused and exceptionally skilled in certain areas such as math or music. However, a narrow range of interests means it can be difficult to engage them in other areas of learning. These narrow and intense interests may also manifest in repetitive play or motions. Children may struggle to understand that others do not share the intensity of their interests and may not realize that they are frustrating people by asking many questions or talking about the interest extensively. However, it is possible to use these narrow interests as a jumping off point for a variety of learning opportunities. Children can research their particular interest and learn to manage how they communicate with others about it. This is also an opportunity to expand an autistic child’s “big picture” skills by placing the interest in its larger context.
Paying attention can be a challenge for children with autism. They can be easily distracted by stimulants that barely even register for people who are not autistic ranging from the texture of their clothing to bright lights to sounds and more. They may also find it difficult to focus on information that is outside their range of interest. However, parents, caregivers and professionals can help autistic children develop their attention skills over time.
Communication issues, a narrow focus and struggles with attention can all present learning challenges for autistic children. A better understanding of how autism can affect learning is an important step toward addressing those difficulties.