Thinking and learning strengths in children with autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often described in terms of their difficulties, deficits and challenges. But children with ASD also have many strengths and abilities.
These might be strengths when compared to typically developing children, or individual strengths within your child’s own set of skills.
Once you work out what your child’s strengths and abilities are, you can use them to help your child’s development.
A developmental assessment or an IQ test can help you learn more about your child’s thinking and learning strengths:
- Developmental assessment: professionals measure children’s strengths as part of the multidisciplinary assessment used for diagnosing ASD.
- IQ test: this test is used for children over four years. It measures intellectual potential and abilities compared with children the same age.
In IQ tests, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often better at tasks that need rote memory, short-term memory, or physical manipulation and visual-spatial skills like block design, than they are at solving problems using language.
Other children with ASD who have better language skills usually do better with verbal thinking and less well in non-verbal activities like puzzles and block design.
Did you know that some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have good musical pitch recognition? They’re good at things like identifying individual notes within chords.
Visual learning and thinking and autism spectrum disorder
Visual thinking can be a strength for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They can be good at visual search tasks like finding a triangle within a complex picture, or finding a red S in a set of red Xs and green Ss.
These good visual skills might be because children with ASD tend to focus on details, rather than the whole – for example, specific details in a picture, rather than the whole picture.
Also, children with ASD can be visual learners. This might be because visual information lasts longer and is more concrete than spoken and heard information. This might help children with ASD – who often need longer than typically developing children – to process information and choose what they’re going to say.
Working with your child’s visual skills
You might think about how you can present information visually and use your child’s visual skills to help her in other areas. For example:
- Put visual reminders around your house – if your child can read, these can be written words, but they can also be pictures.
- Take photos of the different play activities your child can do, and put them on an ‘activity board’ as a reminder.
- Take photos of the different steps involved in daily activities, like packing a school bag or brushing teeth. Stick the sequence on a wall near where your child does each activity.
- Use visual schedules for either the whole day or for smaller activities.
Note that intervention programs using visual strategies can work well in teaching and supporting children with ASD.
Rule-based thinking and autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often good at understanding and working with rules. You can use this strength to help your child develop new skills.
One way to do this is by making clear rules about what should be done and when. This can help make the ‘hidden’ rules of social interaction and everyday activities more visible, structured and easy for your child to follow. For example:
- When someone comes to the door, say ‘hello’.
- When it’s bed time, I brush my teeth.
Positive phrases like ‘When x happens, do this ...’, work better than negative phrases like ‘Don’t …’. You could to talk to other parents or professionals to get ideas about what rules to include.
It’s also a good idea to present rules visually. You could make a ‘rule book’ using pictures and words. Read the ‘rule book’ to your child and let him look at it whenever he wants.
Rules that use ‘if, then’ statements can help your child understand what’s going on around her, like how other people are feeling. For example, ‘If Sam is laughing, Sam might be happy’.
These statements also tie in with your child’s ability to follow clear steps and sequences, so you can use them when you want your child to do something. For example, ‘If you put your shoes on, then you can go outside’. Or you can use a simpler version – for example, ‘Shoes first, then outside’.
Special topics of interest and autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can often focus intently and learn a lot about topics they’re especially interested in.
Here are some ideas for promoting your child’s learning and social and communication skills by making the most of his special interests:
- Share your child’s interests by playing alongside her. This can develop your child’s play skills if you comment on what you’re both doing, swap toys, take turns and so on.
- Use your child’s interests to expand his numeracy skills. For example, you could use Thomas the Tank Engine and friends to talk about colours, numbers and size.
- Build your child’s interests into challenging activities. For example, if having a bath is challenging, you could give your child some special interest toys to play with in the bath, or stick pictures of her special topic around the bath as a talking point.
- Develop your child’s conversational skills by talking to your child about his special interest. This might give your child extra motivation to communicate and talk with you. Your child might start by giving a speech instead of having a conversation. You could gradually introduce questions, and get your child to ask you questions too.
Rote memory skills and autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often good at learning by heart (rote memory). Many children with ASD can remember large chunks of information, like conversations from movies, words to a song, number plates and so on.
You can encourage your child to use rote memory for learning useful information, like your phone number and address, the alphabet and times tables.