How to Teach an Autistic Child who has Trouble Learning

Autism Intelligence

School was never easy for the typically developing populations, let alone for autistic children. Often, a child's inability to learn a certain way has had teachers and peers viewing the student as inept, and lacking in intelligence. How wrong they are! Every child learns in a different manner, some holding better memories, others requiring hands-on experience to retain certain information. But what exactly defines intelligence?

According to Howard Gardner, human beings have nine different kinds of intelligence that reflect different ways of interacting with the world. Howard Gardner was a psychologist and professor of neuroscience from Harvard University who developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in 1983. For him, intelligence cannot be measured by short answer testing; each individual has a unique combination of the nine intelligences he defined, creating their personal profile, much like a fingerprint defines one's identity. These intelligences include:

  1. Linguistic Intelligence: Using language to express what you think through writing, speaking, etc. A lawyer, for example, would be high in this form of intelligence.
  2. Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: Understanding the roots of certain systems that are not so easy to decipher, like a scientist or logician might. Individuals with this intelligence are also able to make sense of numbers the way a mathematician does.
  3. Musical Rhythmic Intelligence: Many people require rhymes and music to remember information, with an apt ability to hear patterns, recognize them, and perhaps manipulate them. Music is always present in their minds.
  4. Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence: When the body is used to solve a problem or to make sense of something, including speaking with hands and feet, it's an interesting intelligence form that comes naturally to artists, dancers, athletes, etc.
  5. Spatial Intelligence: Used in arts and sciences, this type of intelligence allows the mind to envisage a whole, using a strong imagination to create or recreate different scenes. Chess players, pilots, sailors, etc., all must have spatial intelligence.
  6. Naturalist Intelligence: An essential part of our evolution, chefs, botanists, etc., have the ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) and hold certain sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations).
  7. Intrapersonal Intelligence: There are those who have such a strong understanding of their own selves and personals abilities, people who we naturally gravitate towards because they are sure of themselves and know where one should seek help from.
  8. Interpersonal Intelligence: Some individuals are able to read those around them like and open book, making them great diplomats, businessmen, or fit for a profession in which they work with people directly.
  9. Existential Intelligence: Philosophers and theologists and people who are able to really delve into the unknown and understand existence at a whole different level hold this form of intelligence.

But where do autistic children fit in?
Autistic children have minds that seem to rarely want to shut off. Parents often lament about the lack of sleep their children on the spectrum receive, without realizing why this might be the case. The truth of the matter is that they cannot shut it all off, with the autistic mind working an average of 42% more, according to the latest findings in a University of Toronto and Case Western Reserve University joint study described in a previous article on the issue. This would also be why children seem to withdraw into themselves. You have probably noticed how ASDs seem to be in another world, with many believing that they are simply unwilling to learn. It might just be that they are overloaded at the moment and require another method of learning.

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Here is where an Italian study last month comes in. Before describing the study, it would be prudent to mention that schools have shifted their focus and now place major emphasis on modelling what the children should be doing before asking them to follow suit. According to the article published in Psychological Medicine, ASD children lack the proper skills when it comes to detection using trial and error, but are as adept as neurotypical children when following an observation. 20 ASD children were observed, not a large number in itself, but enough for a preliminary study. They were studied alongside typically developing children, matched for chronological age (CA), IQ, and gender on tasks concerning the learning of a visuomotor sequence by observation or by trial and error. Three phases were studied:

  • Detection phase: Participants discovered the correct sequence and learned how to perform the task
  • Exercise phase: Participants reproduced the sequence until performance was error free
  • Automatization phase: Participants repeated the error-free sequence until they became quick and accurate

The study found that in detection, even though trial and error was not so great, ASD children and TD children were on par during observation. In the exercise phase, both showed the same results as well. However, in the automation phase, hyperimitation was found to be a recurring problem. As such, there appears to be lack of control when it comes to imitative behaviors.

So How Exactly Should you be Teaching Autistic Children?
Since autistic children love to imitate and their intelligences range with any sequence using Gardner's MI theory as a base, it appears the best form of teaching would be through excessive modelling and providing enough exercises for a child to feel confident in his or her abilities. They may have problems with automatization, but they do not lack in figuring things out for themselves and mastering skills when they are provided with a visual representation to model their behavior after. This means teachers should be active and parents should be working with their child in a way where they present their thought processes and allow the students to copy the techniques. This will help autistic children tap into their potential and increase confidence in their abilities, in and out of the classroom.

PBS- Gardner's Multiple Intelligences