Learning is what happens when experiences lead to change, which can introduce new knowledge and skills. It is generally a fluid process as the brain learns to adapt to new information and feedback.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can influence the way a person thinks, learns, communicates, and solves problems, often leading to behavioral, social, and communication issues. People with autism are often highly intelligent; however, they are likely to learn differently than people who are not on the autism spectrum.
Get a deeper understanding of how autism can impact learning ability, below.
How People Learn
Learning is not just gaining information through studying or in an academic setting but occurs all the time. Learning is when behavior is changed and adapted based on experiences and environmental aspects. The brain is moldable and altered based on external input.
Old memories are broken down and synthesized into new ones to evolve, adapt, grow, and change continually. We often learn by doing and through positive and negative reinforcement. For instance, when we burn ourselves on a hot stove, we learn not to do that again. Another example is how praise from a parent can encourage us to keep practicing desired behaviors until they are habitual.
Learning is best accomplished on the go while moving between different environments and contexts. Information can become more fixed through repetition in various settings.
Some of the biggest leaps in brain development and learning occur between the ages of 1 and 4. This is when language and motor skills are evolving at a rapid rate. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that delays development, and signs of the condition usually start showing during this window of learning and growth.
Autism Influence on Learning
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that there is a range in severity of symptoms. Some people are high functioning and need lower levels of support, while others are more significantly challenged and can benefit from daily support.
Autism impacts learning in a variety of ways and the level of severity also plays a role. Some of the hallmark features of autism that directly affect learning include the following:
- Narrow focus
- Repetitive behaviors
- Resistance to change
- Language development delays
- Difficulties with nonverbal communication skills
- Troubles socializing and with social interactions
- Attention and focus problems
- Sensory issues
Fixed Focus & Narrow Field
Learning is the ability to process new information and adapt to the world around you. People with autism are often resistant to new environments, transitions, and change, and often become fixated on specific fields or objects of interest. This is called narrow focus. A limited range of interest can mean that someone with autism is an expert on one thing or field but does not learn about others.
Autism can also make a child more apt to pay attention to specific details and therefore miss the bigger picture. This narrow view can impact learning and developing other skills and abilities. Sensory issues can also mean that someone with autism is less likely to explore new things, which is often essential for learning.
The inability to focus for a length of time, ease of distractibility, and trouble paying attention can also negatively impact learning for someone with autism.
Social, Behavioral, Language, & Communication Delays
Language delays, difficulties with social interactions, and communication issues also impact learning for someone with autism as we often learn by doing and interacting with others. People with autism may have trouble making eye contact and regularly have difficulties understanding emotions and reading body language. This can influence the ability to learn how to engage socially and lead to behavioral issues.
These delays impact how someone with autism processes information and therefore affects the ability to learn. Someone with autism also has issues with executive functions, which can lead to difficulties with time management, problem-solving skills, and organization.
Recognizing Learning Styles in Children With Autism
There are typically three main ways people learn: through seeing, hearing, or doing (touching). Neurotypical people often engage all three learning styles — visual, auditory, and kinesthetic — whereas someone with autism usually sticks to only one. Knowing your child’s learning style can help develop methods for improving learning and working with what works best.
For example, a visual learner processes things best by seeing them; books, pictures, and task charts can be highly effective. An auditory learner will do best with verbal cues and communication. A hands-on, or kinesthetic, learner will perform best by doing and working with their hands. Once the learning style is identified, a treatment program can be designed accordingly to complement this.
Early intervention when the brain is still growing and developing is key for helping someone with autism manage symptoms and learn to the best of their potential. The brain changes and new pathways are formed as a person learns, and interventions can help to form new pathways and help someone with autism learn. The brain is not fixed and can be enhanced through tailored learning programs.
Interventions to Improve Learning
An autism treatment program is specific to each person and their abilities and needs. It can include a variety of interventions that can help improve learning such as:
- Speech and language therapy. A trained professional will work to help improve speech and language skills and will include both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication.
- Occupational therapy. Often using play, occupational therapy works to teach skills needed for daily life functioning and independence.
- Behavioral interventions. Interventions such as applied behavioral analysis (ABA) uses positive reinforcement to help teach new skills, encourage desired behaviors, and enhance learning.
- Social skills training. This can include improving social interactions and enhancing problem-solving skills.
Each of these interventions is tailored to help improve communication, social abilities, daily living skills, and cognitive abilities and can enhance a person with autism’s ability to learn.
Tips for Supporting Learning With Autism
Additional methods for enhancing learning in someone with autism include the following:
- Understand your child’s learning style and work with it.
- Control the environment. Often overstimulation such as bright lights and loud sounds can make it more difficult for a person with autism to learn effectively
- Stick to simple language and sentences as it can take someone with autism longer to process language.
- Remember that people with autism are literal and figurative language can be difficult for them to understand.
- Be clear and give warnings about transitions. People with autism prefer a structured routine and change can elicit anxiety.
- Positive reinforcement is a better teacher than punishment.
People with autism learn differently than neurotypical individuals. It is important to recognize and embrace these differences, working with and not against them to support and enhance learning.
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How to Differentiate Autism From a Learning Disability. (January 2020). ADDitude.
Learning Styles and Autism. Autism Research Institute (ARI).
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Research in Brain Functioning and Learning. (2021). American Psychological Association (APA).
Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).