If you are raising a child with Autism, you may be concerned about how this will affect their learning and education throughout their life. While this topic is unique to each child since Autism does consist of a spectrum (as seen below), there are things all parents can do to help their child’s educational journey.
Your child may have above average intelligence and be high functioning autistic, or on the other end, they may have severe learning disabilities and be non-verbal. Regardless of where your child lays on the spectrum, it’s important, however, that you work with a specialist because your child is unique, in order to address issues that are specific to his or her needs.
With that caveat in mind, we’ll dive into some of the general challenges children with Autism can have and some of the ways that these can be addressed at school and home.
I would like to note that it is your child’s right to have access to “free and appropriate” education funded by the government, because of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990. If you are not familiar with your child’s FAPE rights, an Educational Advocate, like Activ8 owner, Anna Laboon, is well-versed in the ins and out of the system and can help you secure the additional services your child needs in order to thrive in a public school program.
Common Learning Challenges for Children with Autism
One of the main issues that children with Autism face is social skills. Interacting with teachers and their peers can often be a point of difficulty. Children with Autism tend to struggle when it comes to picking up on other’s body language, understanding non-literal phrases (sarcasm), and understanding that others have different desires or beliefs than they do.
Along with social skills is general communication is often times difficult. Expressing their feelings and listening to directions can be difficult. Reading and writing can also be something children with Autism struggle with, but could also be a place that a child on the spectrum is very strong at.
At the core of this is that children with Autism tend to struggle with what is called joint attention. This means sharing an experience through eye contact, gestures, and talking. Joint attention would be explaining to your child that they need to clean their room and realizing that they are not paying attention. You are not sharing the experience of discussing the room needing to be cleaned.
Joint attention is at the core of all learning and social interactions. Teaching someone something is just really sharing your experience with them and both are paying attention to what is being taught.
These are the general struggles that children will experience, but they will differ for each child in severity. Let’s look at how children in general learn and how this can be used to our advantage when teaching your child.
Different Learning Styles
Different learning styles are something you may be familiar with. There are three main ones, which we’ll explain more of in a second. But first, a quick explanation of learning styles will help us understand why knowing this is important for your autistic child’s learning.
A learning style is a way in which a person best observes and retains information about their environment. This environment could be school, social interactions, or giving directions at home.
We all have different learning styles, and understanding this can help us double down on our strengths to learn even better. Using multiple learning styles actually can improve our learning, but making sure our favorite learning style is included at all times will make sure we are maximizing our learning ability.
So there are three different learning styles, and they are pretty simple to grasp.
Visual – This is a style of learning which works best by seeing things. If your child loves to read and seeing pictures helps them remember, then they have strength in visual learning.
Auditory – Does your child retain information said allow very well? Are they able to repeat exactly what the teacher said in class? Do they love to listen to music and podcasts? They probably learn best by audio then!
Kinesthetic – This is “hands on” learning. Taking things apart and learning by doing would fall under this category.
Looking at those three styles, you may already have an idea of what style of learner your child is. If not, it’s best to observe how they interact with their environment and when they do tell you something they learned and are excited about, you can ask how they learned it.
It may be obvious that a lot of learning in school only includes visual and auditory. Reading books and taking notes are the visual, while listening to lectures is the auditory. This leaves out one of the styles and can be detrimental to a child whose preferred learning style is kinesthetic!
Once you figure out your child’s preferred learning style, you can begin to engage them in the best way possible.
An easy example of this is if your child never listens to you. You tell them directions all the time, and they never follow them. Well, what if it turns out that your child is weaker in auditory learning but stronger in visual or kinesthetic? Instead of telling them to sit down and calm down, what if you had something visual to represent it? A poster or card that they got to look at and would express the message to them in their preferred style.
Or if they are kinesthetic, actually putting your hands on their shoulders and calmly guiding them will meet them on their level.
Once you learn the way they best take in information, you can begin to communicate with them better before.
How to Support Learning For Children With Autism
While you may see your child struggling to learn, it’s important to remember that this is a process of slow improvements over time. Your child may be struggling right now, but with consistent work and improving things like diet and exercise, you can begin to help your child learn easier.
In addition to some lifestyle changes, here are some of the specific things we can do to support your child while they are trying to learn either at home or school.
First off, having your child work with a trained speech pathologist can help them speak clearing and understand words better. This can even work if your child is non-verbal since there are communication alternatives, such as Key Word Sign, which is a light version of sign language. Another option is Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which teaches children to exchange pictures with adults to communicate.
Another tip is to use the student’s name often, and waiting until you have their full attention to give them instructions. Along with this, shortening instructions can help. For example, how many individual steps does cleaning your room involve? There’s picking up toys, doing laundry, making the bed, etc. Giving one simple instruction at a time can help them understand what to do.
Using positive enforcement versus negative is a good way to help them learn faster as well. This means celebrating their wins, while also avoiding using “Don’t” or “Stop” and instead tell them what the positive action would look like. A quick example of this is “Stop running around” versus “Please sit down.” It changes the focus from negative to positive. Along with this idea, maybe your child is more visual or kinesthetic and modeling the correct behavior or reaction is the best way for them to understand your message.
This tip goes along with what has been discussed above of getting your expectations correct when engaging with your child. If you know their learning style, then you have a better idea what to expect in certain situations. You should also expect their processing time to take a little longer. You can wait for a little for them to try to process what you said before repeating it again to them.
Another good win (which I think we all could use) is to learn to say “I don’t know.” Often times, it’s embarrassing and frustrating to not know something. If your child doesn’t think that it’s ok to say “I don’t know,” then they may feel more anxious and not be able to get their message across. It can also teach them to look for additional resources when they admit they don’t know something.
Teaching your child to look for visual cues in his or her environment can help as well. This is trying to bring in two different learning styles to improve learning. Visual cues could be calendars, signs, or displays.
Remember to try to double down on their strengths to help them learn faster and better.
How to Deal With Obsessions
One issue that may get in the way of your child learning is their obsession with one thing. This is often an issue with Autism, is that they love one topic or activity so much that it takes away from them learning anything else.
I hope this article is able to help you understand some of the struggles your child with autism may face with learning, but also how to help them and support them in their learning.
Simply seeing the world from their eyes and understanding how they best express themselves and take in information can make a world of difference.