Many children with autism spectrum disorder 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 students, an IEP can be put in place to address academic deficits and identify classroom accommodations to ensure success. While having a disability such as autism can negatively impact learning, it can also be accompanied by unique strengths and abilities. For those who teach and work with children with autism, it is important that they be aware of the learning challenges that they face as well as how to best address them. Learning development and classroom experiences may look different, but there are strategies that may be helpful for those with autism spectrum disorders.
You may be wondering how does autism affect learning. The following are learning-related areas that can be affected in children with autism.
Nonverbal Skill Deficits
Often people who cannot communicate verbally compensate with nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, this may not be an option for some children with autism who might struggle with nonverbal communication. Actions such as eye contact and gestures tend to be difficult for many individuals with autism. Nonverbal communication is broad and covers everything from facial expressions, body language, movement, touch, space, and voice––aside from eye contact and gestures. Generally, people don’t think about it as they go about their day-to-day activities, but nonverbal communication makes up a considerable role in how we successfully communicate with others.
When individuals struggle with understanding nonverbal cues and how to appropriately give off their own, effective communication can be a challenge. In a learning environment, if the education staff does not know how to help students who have communication deficits, the student will likely struggle even more.
Special education staff should be trained on how to accommodate students who have communication needs. They should also teach lessons on social skills and communication skills along with a speech therapist if appropriate. Playing games and encouraging social interaction is an easy approach to model these important skills in a fun and engaging way.
Students with poor nonverbal skills can still be successful academically and socially in the classroom. As with language development, these skills can also be developed. Teachers, along with parents, caregivers and professionals should work with their children/students on developing these skills in the school, at home, and out in the community.
Using visual aids or a visual schedule can be a helpful strategy. They can help typically developing children as well as helping those who develop language differently.
See Also: What is Visual Scheduling?
Lack of Focus
Many children in general lack focus at times and find it difficult to concentrate while at school. This is also true in children with autism, who are known to struggle with concentration––and ADD and ADHD are quite common in individuals who have autism. Students with autism might find it difficult to focus on information that is outside their range of interest, especially if it is concerning an academic topic. The focus tends to wane surrounding topics and activities that do not interest students with autism, probably more quickly than the average student.
Focusing during a lesson or on an assignment can be even more complicated due to the sensory issues that many children with autism face. They can be easily distracted by stimulants that barely even register to people who are not on the spectrum, ranging from the texture of their clothing to bright lights to sounds and more. 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 for them. Noisy environments can make the learning experience complicated.
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.
Other ways to increase focus in a classroom with students with autism are:
- Immerse students in high-interest activities and topics
- Increase engagement level of educational activities
- Utilize repetition
- Give clear and concise directions
- Minimize distractions around the classroom
- Use modeling methods
- Set goals and add in reinforcement
Paying attention can be a challenge for children with autism. However, parents, caregivers, and professionals can help children with autism develop their attention skills over time. There are many ways to help increase focus and concentration in a classroom. Getting to know each student more thoroughly and understanding what makes their minds wander will help you create interventions.
Speech and Language Disorders
Speech and language deficits are one of the main ways autism affects learning. Problems with language development and speech delays are often the first sign that a child may have autism. There are multiple types of speech and language disorders that are categorized under expressive or receptive. Parents who notice signs of a speech and language disorder in their child can hire a speech-language pathologist to observe and assess. This entails observing how the child follows directions, listens, speaks, understands, and repeats phrases.
A pragmatic speech delay, under the expressive disorder category, is one of the more common types of delays that presents itself in what people say, how they say it, and when they say it. Children with autism who have a pragmatic delay might constantly talk out of turn and off-topic during class, be louder than what is accepted, perseverate on certain words or phrases, have a difficult time stating their ideas and opinions, struggle with collaborative lessons, have poor conversational skills, and find idioms and metaphors difficult to understand. Many of these are language skills that come naturally to the general population; however, these are common areas that students with autism may find conflicting.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says that intervention that takes into account a child’s interests is one of the most effective ways to address language development issues. And early intervention is crucial. Parents and caregivers, as well as specialists, may participate in helping children with autism who have language delays better develop those language skills.
Oftentimes, developmental delays and autism go hand in hand. However, that is not to say that everyone who has autism also has a developmental delay. Likewise, one cannot say that someone with a developmental delay will have autism.
The types of developmental delays include cognitive developmental delay, sensorimotor delay, socioemotional delay, and speech and language delay.
Generally, a developmental delay is noticed and then a diagnosis of autism is made. This is because signs and symptoms of a developmental delay are often caught early on. Babies and toddlers can show signs of developmental delays, which parents, teachers, and physicians can easily identify. For instance, if a baby’s typical milestones are not being met, this is a sign of a possible developmental delay. Delays can affect memory, speech, coordination, logic, ability to do simple tasks independently, etc.
According to Expert Community Care Management, “Early intervention is the key, in either case. It helps a child with a delay reach their highest level of functioning in a developmental area.” They state that early intervention entails:
- Screening for developmental delays.
- A therapy plan that connects an affected child and caregivers to qualified providers.
- Monitoring a child’s progress to ensure they achieve the very best results.
These are typically interventions that are already in place by the time a child with autism begins school. However, some children with autism are not diagnosed until later on. When students with autism have one or more developmental delays, this can impact a variety of aspects related to school and learning. These students will likely receive speech therapy, physical therapy, and/or occupational therapy in the school setting. Teachers can work in coordination with other professionals and help their students be the most successful at school.
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 interests and learn to manage how they communicate with others about them. This is also an opportunity to expand an autistic child’s “big picture” skills by placing the interest in its larger context.
Teachers, support staff, and other related professionals each have the responsibility for ensuring each student receives a fair and appropriate education. This means that they must be knowledgeable and understand the different ways autism can affect learning and development. In turn, this means that they must be able to accommodate and differentiate for individual needs at school. A better understanding of how autism can affect learning is an important step toward addressing the challenges these children face. Other children may benefit from many teaching strategies that help those with autism spectrum disorder.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated January 2022