Implications for Learning

Advances in neuropsychological research have assisted in the accurate diagnosis, skill assessment, and development of effective intervention strategies. This research, while addressing individual children’s needs, also presents a strength-based model of children’s abilities that can be applied to early intervention and education programming.

For many children with autism, sustained attention and visually-based reasoning skills often exceed the ability to shift attention and engage in verbal reasoning tasks. Some recent findings suggest that executive dysfunction (difficulty with goal-orientation, planning, self-monitoring, etc.) is characteristic of children with autism, and that this domain of functioning does not improve in children with autism as quickly as it does in children with other developmental disabilities.

The difficulty that most children with autism have in imitation is related to executive dysfunction. Imitation skills that involve sequences of movements and symbolic movements (such as pantomime) are often impacted. This has great implication for the child’s ability to learn about others’ intentions and mental states, speech, language, and social skills. It also has implications for the child’s ability to learn complex fine motor skills such as writing. However, despite the imitation impairment in children
with autism, these children are often able to learn to engage in imitation in highly structured contexts. Accordingly, they often quickly learn to imitate simple movements (e.g., clapping hands) in response to discriminative stimuli such as “Do this.”. The challenge to early intervention specialists is to teach imitation in a way that will enhance the child’s learning to play, communicate, and interact with others.

An area of great challenge for children with autism is social-cognitive and social-emotional development. This challenge appears to be present in the first years of life and affects the child’s intention to:

At times, individuals with autism have difficulty reading the internal cues of their own emotional state and appear to have different responses to emotional input. Although these social difficulties severely hamper the ability of the child with autism to establish reciprocal peer relationships, children with autism do form attachments to their family members and often desire friendships. They require assistance in learning to relate to others and the development of social skills to support their interactions within school, home, and community.

Communication and imaginative play are areas of challenge for children with autism. Many never develop a functional verbal communication system. Learning to understand language, particularly language that is non-literal (as in humor, puns), is difficult. Some children with autism develop early and extensive rote language systems. This can manifest as learning the alphabet before being able to say ten words or learning clips from videotapes that are recited in communicative or noncommunicative contexts. Children with autism who are verbal may have great difficulty getting the ‘gist’ of a story or conversation. Social conversational skills (pragmatics) are always impaired, as seen in difficulty with conversational turn-taking, adjusting vocabulary, and other aspects of speech for the context (formal versus informal), and maintaining others’ topics. Frequently, such social communication difficulties lead to social isolation for the child with autism. Yet these skills can be taught and greatly improve a child’s social success.

Children with autism have many strengths to support them in the learning process and have been shown to demonstrate their highest skills in structured contexts. Everyone involved in the life of a child with autism will enhance a child’s ability to learn if they tailor the environment, address the child’s needs by providing visual guidelines, adjusting the level of linguistic complexity directed to the child, offering an appropriate communication system for the child, capitalizing on the child’s interests, and generally structuring the child’s interaction and learning contexts to meet the child’s individual


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