• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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IEP—Challenges that Impact Ability to Access Curriculum

Here I wrote a little narrative of the biggest (not the only) challenges little man is facing. I’m hoping setting up my justifications for my accommodation/modification requests. I am also asking that all my input be attached to the IEP or filed with it (whatever the procedure is) since I need to sign a document that says I participated in the creation of it as an “equal partner.”

Challenges that Impact Little Man’s Ability to Access the Curriculum

The following are three core deficits (disabilities) of individuals with AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS that are interfering with Matthew’s ability to succeed. These challenges impact his ability to access the current academic curriculum.

Executive Functioning Deficits or Executive Dysfunction:

Executive function pertains to the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions, which includes processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Executive function is responsible for your skills and ability to goal, plan, sequence, prioritize, organize, initiate, inhibit, pace, shift, self-monitor, emotional control, and completing tasks. When this important self-regulatory system is in deficit, it makes it difficult to take steps towards a goal while incorporating information and making adjustments along the way.

Matthew often has trouble deciding what to do next when working on an assignment or project (sequencing) in order to move himself closer to his goal. This is partially because all the tasks feel like they are of equal importance (prioritizing), and need his attention. This inability to sequence and prioritize effectively often results in his not being able to complete assignments.

Executive dysfunction is responsible for disorganization, forgetting materials, shifting tasks, punctuality, difficulty with note taking (prioritizing information), and the inability to follow multi-step commands (sequencing).

Weak Central Coherence

Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. People with autism appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed ‘weak central coherence’. It is the inability to bring together various details from perception to make a meaningful whole. In other words, it is the hyper-focus on the details without being able to apply the details to the whole picture; getting lost in the details, and then—missing the forest for the trees.

This hyper-focus often claims a partnership responsibility for difficulty shifting focus from one activity to the next. Weak central coherence can be seen, for instance, while working on math problems. The student gets so focused on one aspect of the problem that he either forgets to finish the problem or equation, or cannot keep the sequence of what comes next readily available in his mind. Additionally, the details also refer to instructions (written or verbal)—if one portion is unclear the student can become fixated on that word or phrase, as Matthew does, and not comprehend the entire set of instructions (unable to draw a meaningful whole from the multi-step parts).

Deficits in Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the cognitive process, or ability to "mind-read"; the ability to interpret and understand the world around us. It is the intuitive knowledge that children develop in the preschool years (usually by the age of four) that other people have thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, and desires that will influence their behaviors. This knowledge allows us to be able to relate to, and understand the behaviors of others. The lack of theory of mind, coupled with missing social cues, and misinterpreting vocal intonations and body language often results in a misunderstanding of another person’s intensions.

When areas of auditory processing and communications are affected, as is in Matthew’s case, a student can misinterpret the reasons for being “punished,” and interpret what is happening to them as injustice, or being picked on—misinterpreting the teacher’s intentions. When asked why Matthew received punishment in school (loss of recess, or ice-cream privileges, etc.), he often cannot convey accurate information about the event. Many times he has no idea, or is completely wrong about “why” he was punished.

Sensory Issues: Auditory Processing/Proprioception

In addition to the sensory differences of social participation, vision, hearing, body awareness and balance and motion identified in the IEP, Matthew is also having auditory processing differences. He is unable to read in the same room where a television is on at home, or other people are in the room. When he intently focuses on a task, Matthew will not process sounds around him. He may not hear verbal cues to shift activities, or teacher’s instructions. If the interruption to his concentration registers at all, he does not comprehend, or often recall verbal instructions. Many times Matthew does not respond to his name being called (very loudly) when he is focused on an activity.

Matthew needs proprioceptive input (bouncing, spinning, jumping, sliding, swinging) and physical activity every day; lack of this physical activity results in increased anxiety levels, and decreased focus and learning.

Additional challenges as noted in the “Academic and Functional Strengths and Needs” section of the IEP:

· Achieving significantly below his above average level of Verbal Comprehension ability in Writing Samples and Understanding Directions

· Weaknesses in statement of purpose/focus, organization, elaboration or evidence, and language/vocabulary

· Has difficulty with pragmatic skills of eye contact, maintaining a conversation, and providing information in a topic so an unfamiliar listener understands what he is communicating.

· Difficulty knowing how to take a turn in a conversation, respectful compliment to a teacher, requesting information, giving directions for a task, and identifying inappropriate topics.

· Delayed eye movement skills, delayed motor coordination/pencil control skills, decreased handwriting legibility and sensory processing differences.

· Borderline oculomotor skills and automaticity of number calling skills. Oculomotor skills are needed for reading and copying accurately and efficiently in the classroom.

· Delayed pencil control skills—delayed pencil control skills can affect handwriting legibility (far point sentence copy produced only 25 % word legibility.

· Sensory differences: social participation, vision, hearing, body awareness and balance and motion. These delays may affect Matthew’s ability to function optimally in the classroom setting.


Coming up Next: Requested Accommodations.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.