The Learning Styles of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
By Bethany McCabe, MS, OTR/L
Both children on the autism spectrum and their neurotypical peers learn best when they are exposed to various learning styles and teaching methods. Studies have shown that uncovering and supporting children’s favored learning styles can improve performance in all areas. To understand how a child learns best, it helps to understand what type of learning environment a child responds to organically.
First, there is visual style learning. In this category, children rely on their sense of sight, and best learn from books, videos, charts, pictures and color coding methods. Children in this learning category also benefit greatly from visual aids, such as visual schedules in the classroom or at home. Labeling is also a great way to assist in care of articles at home, as well as in school. Children with visual learning styles often pursue careers as: data analysts, artists, architects, to name a few.
A second type of learning is Auditory Style. Children who fall in this realm of learning method benefit greatly from listening or speaking activities, such as talking, audiotapes, role playing, and saying things out loud, or repeating. These children are relying on their sense of hearing and nonvisual stimulation to learn from their environment. This style of learning often gets malassisted in the classroom, because the child often appears not to be paying attention in the classroom, due to lack of eye contact or taking of notes, e.g. Children who learn best from auditory means do not necessarily require other methods of learning a task and are simply able to take in information from auditory means. Job categories that fit well with auditory learners include: judges, lawyers, interpreters, musicians, and salespeople, or other vocations where not tangible processing of vast information is a must.
The third type of learning is considered Tactile or Kinesthetic in nature. Children who fall into this category of learning style benefit greatly from doing projects, working with objects, and moving around. Examples of these strategies include playing games, building models, conducting experiments, and moving while doing. This type of learning can be incorporated into curriculum by having instructions and hands on stations. All children can really benefit from hands on activities during instruction to make more abstract ideas appear more tangible in nature. To a kinetic tactile learner, seeing and touching is learning. This type of learner would make fantastic surgeons, sculptors, mechanics or handymen/women.
A wonderful way to better understand how information is absorbed is to look at the “Cone of Learning,” developed by Edgar Dale. Below is a general version of the chart that illustrates the way information is believed to be absorbed by children through various types of teaching. Reviewing the cone, it appears that the best learning actually comes from the combination of multiple modes of teaching, rather than just focusing on one type of sense as a primary method. At the type of the scale, we can see that pure lecture type teaching is the least effective way to deliver information, and that practicing and reteaching a topic actually have the highest rates of understanding information.
While many children learn through multiple means of input, most children on the Autism Spectrum have one preferred primary learning style. This is also true for children who demonstrate sensory processing disorder symptoms. This tendency to lean strongly in one direction can have most impact in middle and high school years, as frequency of hands on learning decreases drastically. Therefore, those who best learn from kinesthetic or tactile means can struggle more greatly without modifications to education plans. On the other hand, it is okay to double down on child’s strength instead of trying to marginally improve a weakness.
That being said, those with strong visual learning tendencies would benefit most greatly from reading from books, notes, screens or the board for absorption of knowledge and materials. Auditory learners will benefit from lecture, recordings, audio books, and video demonstrations (without necessarily having to watch the videos, but rather listen to them. Kinesthetic (touch) learners would best perform with models, experiments, or tactile input from lesson plans.
Teaching to a child’s learning style may greatly impact the child’s performance in the classroom. It is important for a child to be observed in the classroom or other learning environments in order to discover how the child takes in information from his or her environment. Discovering a child’s learning style, especially those on the Autism Spectrum, is vital in creating and nurturing a positive rapport. By understanding and teaching to specific learning styles, negative behaviors can be avoided in the classroom setting. If a child that has visual learning preferences is constantly being talked to or having directions explained orally or by lecture, he will not respond in kind. It is important for children who are observed to be looking at books, computers or televisions with or without sound on, be taught via visual means. On the other hand, those children who consistently avoid eye contact, do not look at the board or a book during instruction, yet talk constantly, listen to music or the radio, are more than likely auditory learners. Or, if the child is constantly picking up objects or touching books and resources, she may be a kinesthetic (touch) learner.
At times, it is more difficult to assess a child’s true learning style. In this case, it is best to present all areas of learning methods within a lesson plan. For example, in a math lesson teaching a child the concept of adding, one could present a math worksheet (visual), with verbal directions and explanation (auditory), and use blocks to demonstrate the concept (tactile/kinesthetic). This type of teaching also allows for those children with crossover styles to be able to absorb information from more than one method.
In summary, assessing a child’s learning style is a key component in his or her success as a student of life. By adapting teaching methods specifically to meet a child’s needs, results become positive with measurable outcomes. By in large, teaching to a child’s learning needs not only increases educational output, but decreases resistive behaviors to learning and ultimately affects positive self esteem and behaviors in the classroom.
Bethany McCabe, MS, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and owner of SkillsTherapy, LLC in Boulder, Colorado. SkillsTherapy serves children in the Boulder County Colorado area and consults with clients nationwide with Pediatric Occupational Therapy services specializing in the areas of: Handwriting, Fine Motor skills, Developmental Delays, Sensory Processing Disorders, Activities in Daily Living, Age appropriate Play Activities, Gross Motor Skills, Coordination, Functional Play and Life Skills Activities, Self-Help Skills, and more. In-home therapy services are offered to clients to ensure the highest quality experience possible. Therapy is individualized to each child’s needs and is catered to his or her learning styles. Learn more at: http://www.skillstherapy.com