Thinking and learning strengths in autistic children
Autistic children have many strengths and abilities.
These might be strengths when compared with typically developing children, or individual strengths within their own skill sets.
Once you work out what your child’s strengths and abilities are, you can use them to help your child’s development.
The following tools can help you learn more about your child’s thinking and learning strengths:
- Developmental assessment: this is used for children as part of autism diagnosis. It measures children’s strengths in areas like non-verbal thinking skills, language and communication, and movement.
- IQ test: this test measures intellectual potential and abilities compared with children the same age. It’s used only for children aged four years and over.
Visual learning and thinking and autism
Visual thinking can be a strength for autistic children. They might 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 strong visual skills might be because autistic children tend to focus on details, rather than the whole.
Also, autistic children are often visual learners. This might be because visual information lasts longer and is more concrete than spoken and heard information. It might help autistic children to process information and choose how to respond.
You can help your child learn by presenting information visually. You can also use your child’s visual skills to help them 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 or to help your child make a choice.
- 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 supports for either the whole day or for daily activities.
Therapies and supports that use visual strategies often work well for autistic children.
Rule-based thinking and autism
Autistic children 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 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 them look at it whenever they want.
Rules that use ‘if, then’ statements can help your child understand what’s going on around them, like how other people are feeling. For example, ‘If Sam is laughing, then Sam might be happy’.
‘If, then’ statements are also good for activities with 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
Autistic children can often focus intently and learn a lot about things they’re very interested in.
Here are some ideas for developing your child’s skills by making the most of their special interests:
- Play skills: when your child is playing with their special interest toys or objects, play alongside them. You can expand your child’s play and social skills by commenting on what you’re both doing, swapping toys, taking turns and so on.
- Numeracy skills: use your child’s favourite toys to talk about colours, numbers and size – for example, red toy cars and blue toy cars, big trucks and small motorbikes, and so on.
- Daily care skills: develop your child’s ability to cooperate by building their 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 your child’s special topic around the bath as a talking point.
- Conversation skills: talk with your child about their special interests. 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.
As your child gets older, you can look for ways to use their special interests in one area to build skills in other areas. For example, if your child has good computer skills, they might like to learn about coding or developing video games. Or if your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, they might be interested to learn about train networks in your area.
Rote memory skills and autism
Autistic children are often good at learning by heart (rote memory). Many autistic children 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.