• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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How Can Autism Affect Your Child’s Ability to Learn in the Classroom?


Children with autism spectrum disorders can struggle in a traditional classroom setting. Schools are designed to teach one type of learner, and not geared towards children with learning differences. The following are three core deficits (disabilities) of individuals with autism spectrum disorders that can interfere with their ability to succeed in this setting, and can impact their ability to access the current academic curriculum. Understanding the reasons that a child is struggling is the first step to helping them succeed.

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.Children with autism often have trouble deciding what to do next when working on an assignment or school project (sequencing) in order to move closer to their goal. This is partially because all the tasks feel like they are of equal importance (prioritizing), and need their attention immediately. This inability to sequence and prioritize effectively often results in not being able to complete assignments in a timely manner. Executive dysfunction is also 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

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 those 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 when 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, 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 intentions. When areas of auditory processing and communications are also affected, 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 they received a punishment in school (loss of privilege, recess, time-out, etc.), they often cannot convey accurate information about the event. In these cases, the children have no idea, or are completely wrong about “why” they were disciplined.

These are just a few ways that autistic children may be experiencing their classroom’s differently than their peers. If you child with autism appears disorganized, un-focused, confused, scatter-brained, or lost in their own world in school, it could be a manifestation of his or her autism. Do not despair, there are supports that you can put in place that can help your child succeed. If you feel your child needs help in school, do not hesitate to ask—talk to your child’s teacher, and the school’s special education coordinator.


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.

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