At the end of every July over the last four years, Andee says she loses sleep in the days leading up to the start of the school year.
“It means that for the next several months, I’m literally in a fight with my son every morning, trying to get him ready for the school day,” she explains. “Some mornings, it is literally a fight – he swings at me because he’s so upset.”
It’s a situation that wouldn’t surprise autism spectrum disorder experts in the least – school is hardly ever a pleasurable environment for kids who are on the spectrum. That means it’s likely not pleasant for their parents, either.
Although many kids with autism have average, or even above-average, intelligence, autism affects their learning because they spend so much time trying to figure out how to cope with an environment that isn’t aligned with their abilities, or one that may present additional and unexpected challenges.
Also, autism can affect learning in other ways too – but the good thing is, some of those can be addressed effectively and successfully, especially is early intervention is introduced.
Here are some of the ways autism can affect a child’s learning:
Language development. Language can be difficult for kids with autism, which makes it one of the most significant obstacles in a child’s learning journey. It could be that their language development is delayed, or they may be incapable of speech for longer than neurotypical kids. In fact, late speech is often of the first signs that a child is on the spectrum.
Early intervention that considers a child’s interests has been found to be an effective way to address speech and language development issues; when parents, caregivers and support team members work together to help children with language delays, kids have a much better and more fruitful experience in learning environment.
Acute focus. It seems like a skill to be able to be so detailed, doesn’t it? And it is, but kids with autism might have such acute focus that it’s then considered narrow – meaning they can’t see the big picture in comparison to what they’re looking at.
Let’s say a child is painting a picture of a wooded forest, and it’s coming together beautifully. They may then start painting the leaves, but the shade of green they’ve selected isn’t to their liking, and they get so upset at that single color that they can’t pull back and see their stunning creation.
Or they may be listening to a story, and they become transfixed on a particular detail, so much so that they lose the main point of the whole tale.
A suggestion to improve this is as follows: parents and caregivers might repeat certain information and share it in a pattern, so that the child is exposed to the larger pattern of the information as a whole.
Attention challenges. Kids with autism frequently have a hard time paying attention, because they’re so easily distracted by specific stimulants. They might pay attention to details that wouldn’t affect their neurotypical peers, like the texture of a sweater or the color on a carpet.
It could also be that they have a hard time paying attention or focusing on things they’re not interested in at all – if a child, for example, is intrigued with science but not literature, while they might sit through and enjoy a science class about electricity, an English class may be absolute torture for them.
Difficulty with nonverbal skills. Autistic kids can’t easily do what non-autistic children do, which is nonverbally communicate when their verbal skills fail them. They may not know proper gestures to express their pain or discomfort, and may not be able to make direct eye contact.
The good news? Many professionals find that a lot of autistic children benefit from learning sign language. Some parents and caregivers even begin working on nonverbal skills before improving language skills, which has proven beneficial.