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How Does an Autistic Child Learn?

By Dr Michelle Garnett & Prof Tony Atwood

Autistic children have an unusual profile of learning abilities that can often be recognised in very early childhood. Some pre-school autistic children have reading and numeracy abilities above the level of their peers. Such advanced literacy and numeracy abilities may have been self-taught through watching educational television programs, computer games and YouTube videos. There are autistic children who appear to easily ‘crack the code’ of reading, spelling, or numeracy; indeed, these subjects may become their special interest at school. In contrast, some autistic children have considerable delay in academic skills and an early assessment of learning abilities suggests the characteristics of dyslexia and dyscalculia. There seem to be more autistic children than one might expect at the extremes of cognitive ability. 

Teachers soon recognize that the autistic child in their class has a distinctive learning profile, often being talented in understanding the logical world, noticing details and patterns and remembering facts, and the artistic world with a talent for drawing or music. However, the child can be easily distracted or distressed by sensory and social experiences, and when problem solving, appears to have a ‘one-track mind’ and a fear of failure.  As the child progresses through the school grades, teachers identify problems with organizational abilities, flexible thinking, and group projects. End of year school reports often describe a conspicuously uneven profile of academic achievement with areas of excellence and areas that require remedial assistance. 

It is extremely important that teachers and parents know the learning profile of an autistic child to improve his or her academic achievement. This is especially important as children usually have two reasons to attend school – to learn and to socialize. If the autistic child is not successful socially at school, then academic success becomes more important as the primary motivation to attend school and for the development of self-esteem and self-identity.  

Verbalising and Visualising

Valuable information on an autistic child’s learning profile can be obtained from formal testing using a standardized test of intelligence and tests of academic achievement. Standardized tests of intelligence have at least ten sub-tests that measure a range of intellectual abilities. Some sub-tests measure specific components of verbal reasoning, while others measure components of visual reasoning. 

Some autistic children have relatively advanced verbal reasoning skills and may be colloquially described as ‘verbalisers.’ If such a child has difficulty acquiring a particular academic ability in the social and sensory interactive ‘theatre’ of the classroom, then his or her knowledge and understanding may be improved by solitary and quiet reading about the concept. If the autistic child has relatively advanced visual reasoning skills, a ‘visualizer’ then learning may be facilitated by observation of the teacher’s actions rather than listening to their instructions and learning from a computer screen. Learning from a computer screen significantly reduces any difficulties with social and conversational abilities. The ‘verbalisers’ may eventually be successful in careers where verbal abilities are an advantage, for example the legal professions or being an author, and ‘visualizers’ may be successful in careers such as engineering or the visual arts.


Psychologists divide attention into four components: the ability to sustain attention, to pay attention to relevant information, to shift attention when needed, and to encode attention – that is, to remember what was attended to. Autistic children appear to have problems with all four aspects of attention. The duration of attention to schoolwork can be an obvious problem but the degree of attention can vary according to the level of motivation. If the child is attending to an activity associated with his or her special interest, the level of attention can be excessive. The child appears to be oblivious of external cues that it is time to move on to another activity or to pay attention to the comments, requests and instructions of a teacher or parent. The amount of sustained attention can also depend on whether the child wants to give the attention to what an adult wants them to do. The autistic child may have his or her own agenda for what to attend to.

Even when the autistic child appears to be attentive to the task set by the teacher, he or she may not be attending to what is relevant in the material in front of them. Typical children can more easily identify and selectively attend to what is relevant to the context or problem. Autistic children are often distracted and confused by irrelevant detail, and they don’t automatically know what the teacher wants them to look at.  They may need specific instruction at to exactly what to look at on the page. 

Some academic activities require the ability to shift attention during the activity and focus on new information. Unfortunately, autistic children can have difficulty ‘changing track’ while engaged in a ‘train of thought’. There can also be problems with memory processes such that the recently learned information is not stored or encoded as well as one would expect. Autistic children may not remember what to attend to when they encounter the same problem again. This characteristic can affect social situations. Autistic children process social information using intellect rather than intuition and can have problems remembering what the relevant social cues are and changing their conversation ‘track’ when interacting with more than one person.

The autistic child often has considerable problems switching thoughts to a new activity until there has been closure, i.e., the activity has been successfully completed. Other children appear to have the capacity to pause a thought or activity and to easily move to the next activity. In the classroom, autistic children can resist changing activities until they have completed the previous activity, knowing that their thinking cannot as easily cope with transitions without closure. A teacher or parent may need to provide multiple verbal indications when an activity is going to change, perhaps counting down and if possible, allowing the autistic child extra time to finish the task.

Executive Functioning

Autistic children and adolescents often have problems with executive function. Perhaps the best way to understand the concept of executive function is to think of a chief executive of a large company, who can perceive the ‘big picture’, consider the potential outcomes of various decisions, is able to organize resources and knowledge, plan and prioritize within the required time frame, and modify decisions based on results. Such executive function skills may be significantly delayed in autistic children and adolescents.

In the early school years, the main signs of impaired executive function are difficulties with inhibiting a response (i.e., being impulsive), working memory and using new strategies. The autistic child can be notorious for being impulsive in schoolwork and in social situations, appearing to respond without thinking of the context, consequences, and previous experience. By the age of eight years, a typical child can ‘switch on’ and use his or her frontal lobes to inhibit a response and think before deciding what to do or say. The autistic child can become capable of thoughtful deliberation before responding, but under conditions of stress, or if feeling overwhelmed or confused, can be impulsive. It is important to encourage the child to relax and consider other options before responding and to recognize that being impulsive can be a sign of confusion and stress.

Working memory is the ability to maintain or hold information ‘online’ when solving a problem. The autistic child may have an exceptional long-term memory and is perhaps able to recite the credits or dialogue of his or her favourite film but has difficulty with the mental recall and manipulation of information relevant to an academic task. The child’s working memory capacity may be less than that of his or her peers. Other children have a ‘bucket’ capacity for remembering and using relevant information, but the autistic child has a working memory ‘cup’ which affects the amount of information he or she can retrieve from the memory ‘well’. 

Another problem with working memory is a tendency to quickly forget a thought. One of the reasons autistic children are notorious for interrupting others was explained by an autistic child who said he had to say what was on his mind to his teacher because if he waited, he would forget what he was going to say.

Impaired executive function can include difficulties with flexible thinking.  Typical children can quickly react to feedback and are prepared to change strategies or direction with new information. Autistic children tend to continue using incorrect strategies, even when they know their strategy isn’t working, as they have difficulty conceptualizing different thoughts and reactions.

In the high school years, problems with executive function can become more apparent as the school curriculum changes to become more complex and self-directed, and teachers and parents have age-appropriate expectations based on the maturing cognitive abilities of age peers. In the primary school years, success in subjects such as History can be measured by the ability to recall facts such as dates. By the high school years, assessment in history has changed, and requires that the child shows ability in writing essays that have a clear organizational structure, and that he or she can recognize, compare, and evaluate different perspectives and interpretations. Autistic adolescents with impaired executive function have problems with the organizing and planning aspects of class work, assignments, essays, and homework. 

There can also be problems with self-reflection and self-monitoring. By the high school years, typical children have developed the capacity to have a mental ‘conversation’ to solve a problem. The internal thinking process can include a dialogue, discussing the merits of various options and solutions. This process may not be as efficient in the thinking of an autistic adolescent as it is in typical peers. Many autistic adolescents ‘think in pictures’ and are less likely to use an inner voice or conversation to facilitate problem solving. The autistic adolescent may need the teacher or parent’s voice to guide his or her thoughts.

One strategy to reduce the problems associated with impaired executive functioning is to have someone act as an ‘executive secretary’. The child’s mother may have realized that she has already become an executive secretary, providing guidance with organizing and planning, especially with regards to completing homework assignments. The executive secretary (a parent or teacher) may also need to create a time schedule, proofread draft reports and essays, colour code subject books, encourage alternative strategies and create ‘to do’ checklists, with a clear schedule of activities and the duration of each activity. 

Such close monitoring and guidance may initially appear to be excessive for an adolescent or young adult with recognized intellectual ability. A parent who provides the support as an executive secretary may be labelled as overprotective by school agencies and family members, but that parent has learned that without such support, the autistic child would not achieve the grades that reflect his or her actual abilities. We encourage a parent or teacher to take on this very important role of executive secretary. We hope that this will be a temporary appointment as the autistic adolescent and young adult eventually achieves greater independence with organizational skills.

Coping with Mistakes

The learning profile of autistic children can include a tendency to focus on errors, a need to fix an irregularity and a desire to be a perfectionist. This can lead to a fear of making a mistake and the child’s refusal to commence an activity unless he or she can complete it perfectly. The avoidance of errors can mean that autistic children prefer accuracy rather than speed, which can affect performance in timed tests and lead to their thinking being described as pedantic. An autistic girl complained that her teacher frequently asked her to hurry up but said that if she did hurry up, she might make a mistake.

It is important to change the autistic child’s perception of errors and mistakes. Autistic children often value intellectual abilities in themselves and others, and young children can be encouraged to recognize that the development of cognitive ‘strength’ is like that of physical strength, in that the brain needs exercise on difficult or strenuous mental activity, that includes making mistakes, to improve intellectual ability. If all mental tasks were easy, we would not improve our intellect. Intellectual effort makes the brain smarter. 

Adults will need to model how to respond to a mistake and have a constructive response to the child’s errors, with comments such as, ‘This is a difficult problem designed to make you think and learn, and together we can find a solution.’ It must also be remembered that while there can be a fear of making a mistake, there can be an enormous delight in getting something right, and success and perfection may be a more important motivator than pleasing an adult or impressing peers.

Cognitive Talents

There are autistic children and adults who have cognitive abilities that are significantly above average and are sometimes described as gifted and talented. This can provide both advantages and disadvantages to the child. The advantages include a greater capacity to intellectually process and learn social cues and conventions. Advanced intellectual maturity may be admired by a teacher and winning academic competitions can lead to greater status for the child and school. Academic and artistic success can raise self-esteem and contribute to social inclusion; their social naivety and eccentricity can be accepted as part of the ‘absent-minded professor’ or artistic genius image. However, there are disadvantages.

Autistic children are more socially and emotionally immature than their peers, which contributes towards their being socially isolated, ridiculed, and tormented. Having considerably advanced intellectual maturity in comparison to one’s peers could further increase social isolation and alienation. The child may have no peer group socially or intellectually in his or her classroom.  Having an impressive vocabulary and knowledge can lead adults to expect an equivalent maturity in social reasoning, emotion management and behaviour; they may be unjustly critical of the child who is unable to express these abilities as maturely as his or her age peers. 

We have recently recognised that the learning profile associated with autism can also include alexithymia, which can affect the expression of academic talents. Alexithymia is a difficulty converting thoughts into words. The autistic child’s conceptualization or solution perhaps to a mathematics problem may be extraordinary. However, while the autistic child knows their solution is perfect, they may have genuine difficulty explaining how they achieved that solution.


Autistic children and adolescents have different ways of thinking and learning. This can lead to academic talents and difficulties. Teachers and parents need to be aware of the autistic student’s personal learning profile and modify the classroom curriculum to accommodate their distinct learning profile. This can include identifying learning talents and recognising that autistic people can produce a new perspective on the problems of tomorrow.

We have been training teachers in recognising and supporting autistic students for the majority of our combined 80 years of specialisation in autism. 

To learn more about this increasingly important area, see our online course, Autism in Schools.