By Raising Children Network
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Research suggests that the sooner children with ASD get help with understanding and making sense of the people and world around them, the sooner brain connections and structures for later, more complex learning will have the opportunity to develop and expand.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) follow a different developmental pattern from other children and develop at a different rate. They face challenges in understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, as well as interacting and communicating with others. These challenges can affect how they learn and develop.

Autism spectrum disorder: development

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop at a different rate and don’t necessarily develop skills in the same order as typically developing children.

For example, a child with ASD might start to use a few single words around 12 months of age, but might not have the explosion of language typically seen in other children, perhaps learning only a couple of new words each month. It might take him until he’s three years old to start combining these words together into short phrases.

Another child with ASD might be able to label her own body parts but might not be able to label body parts in a picture. Or she might be able to identify colours but not be able to sort according to colour.

Autism spectrum disorder: attention and interaction

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t tune into other people in the same way as typically developing babies and children.

For example, a child with ASD might not respond to his name, make eye contact, smile at caregivers, or wave goodbye without being told to. A child with ASD also might not use eye contact to get someone’s attention or communicate.

Using eye contact and gestures to share experiences with others is called joint attention (or shared attention). For example, when a child and her dad are reading a book together, she might point to a picture in a book then look back at her dad to show him.

Children with ASD find this difficult, but can find it easier to use eye contact or gestures to get someone to do what they want, or to get someone to stop doing something.

Joint attention is a key skill that’s needed for developing communication and language skills. For example, if a dad is pointing to a picture of a dog, but the child is looking somewhere else, it will be more difficult for him to learn the association between the picture of a dog and the word ’dog’. 

Difficulty with joint attention can also make it hard for children with ASD to learn skills such as taking turns, interpreting facial expressions or keeping to the topic of a conversation.

Attention is a skill that develops over time. Our article on learning to pay attention explains how you can use play to build this skill.

Understanding other people’s perspectives

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find it hard to see things from other people’s perspective.

They might have trouble understanding that other people can have different desires and beliefs from them – this is known as ‘theory of mind’. They might also find it hard to understand and predict other people’s behaviour, and to understand how their behaviour affects others.

In everyday life, this can mean that children with ASD don’t understand why another person is upset.

The Sally and Anne example
A child is shown two dolls. The Sally doll has a marble and a basket. The Anne doll has a box. Sally puts the marble in her basket and leaves to go for a walk. While she’s out of the room, Anne takes the marble from the basket and puts it in the box. Sally comes back, and the child is asked where Sally will look for the marble.

The answer we’re looking for is that Sally will look in the basket, where she left the marble. To give this answer, the child needs to be able to understand that someone else’s mental image of the situation is different from his own. He must be able to predict how the other person would behave based on that understanding.

Typically developing children develop these skills at around 3-5 years, but it can take much longer for children with ASD.

Control and regulation

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can struggle with focus, attention, transitions, organisation, memory, time management, emotional control and frustration. We use these high-level abilities to help us do lots of daily tasks, such as working cooperatively with others and prioritising things we need to do.

Difficulties with these abilities can affect a child’s learning. For example, while solving a maths problem, the child might know her facts well, but might not be able to come up with a solution because she might have trouble organising her ideas, coming up with a strategy, or putting all the information together to solve the problem.

Difficulties with high-level abilities can sometimes lead to challenging behaviour. Our article on managing challenging behaviour in children with ASD takes you through some information that might be helpful.

Seeing the 'big picture'

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty seeing the ‘big picture’. They can get lost in the details, rather than pulling together different sources of information and seeing the situation as a whole.

For example, when someone who can see the big picture looks at an endless expanse of trees, that person would see ‘the forest’. But someone who can’t see the big picture would see only a lot of individual trees.

Difficulty in this area can affect a child’s learning and development – for example, after reading a story, the child might remember the small details but forget what the story means overall. A younger child might look at a picture book and focus on details in the background, rather than the characters and the storyline.

The ability to focus on detail can also be a strength. In our article on thinking and learning strengths, you can read more about how to spot strengths in your child’s thinking, and use these to promote your child’s development.

Video early intervention

Children with ASD benefit from early intervention – the earlier, the better. As one dad in this video says, ‘You can help your children learn how to do stuff’ by working out which interventions are best for them. The parents in this video also explain that it’s OK to try different things, but you don’t have to keep on with them if you feel they’re not working for your child. Interventions based on scientific evidence are likely to help most.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Anneke Jurgens, Monash University.