How much can children with autism learn? It’s a question I get a lot, as a person who provides therapy to kids with autism to improve their academic, social, and athletic skills. The answer is that all children with autism can learn. Some make amazing progress; for others the progress is much slower.
I’m listing below a couple of examples of students who have made excellent progress in all areas. They are an eight-year old boy and a seven-year old boy I worked with who both made amazing progress in a short period of time. (The greatest example of improvement that I am aware of is a teenage boy who I have been working with for five years. I’m going to compile a before and after list of skills and behaviors. This kind of progress is truly inspiring for parents who have young children who are worried about what the future holds).
It’s always the child himself or herself who deserves the most credit for learning. The parents, of course, also play a huge role. Other than that, it’s a team effort, with teachers and home therapists making contributions to the child’s success.
Experience has shown that children learn best when subjects are integrated, rather than splitting them up into different areas. I believe that in the future, a typical session will be run like this: one-third academics and cognitive skills, one-third social skills and functional life skills, and one-third sports, exercise, and motor skills.
Each area builds on the others and makes all learning more effective so that the child can use skills in a natural environment. Pathways in the brain are developed to work in conjunction with each other, not in separate areas. Interventions should be meaningful to the child, rather than just memorizing information. Kids aren’t robots and neither are the people who work with them. It’s not the number of hours that are spent learning. It’s how efficient those hours are.
|Area||Progress for a high functioning 8-year old boy with autism during a 7-month period|
|Math||Improved ability in:
|Maps||Improved ability to find spots on the map. Learned directions better than before. Learned most of the states, which he didn’t have before.|
|Time||Improved ability to tell time by counting by 5’s on clock.|
|Pretend and Abstract Play||Improved spontaneity, imagination, and creativity by using jokes and pretend stories. He improved his ability to make up stories and use symbolic play.|
|Games||Improved ability to sit down and play scrabble. He had a terrible temper at first but now can play an entire game somewhat independently. Improved spelling through scrabble. Introduced other games.|
|Overall||He had his best session ever on 9/21. We had a lot of momentum and things were only going to get better.|
|Area||Progress for 7-year old boy with autism with severe developmental delays including language|
|Overall||He has made a lot of progress. I have only been working regularly with him doing two-hour sessions for 3 months. Before then we did 1.5 hours sessions sporadically.|
|Books||He is able to sit for 15 minutes at a time reading books with me and is interested in looking at books (colors, foods) by himself. Before he would not sit still at all. He can now read different books with help, looking at words instead of just pictures. Once we read 7 books back to back.|
|Flashcards||Here are words he has mastered from my flashcards or bean bags. They were not on the Verbal Behavior Team’s list of words he’s mastered (I realize he may have known a few of these before, especially the foods) – desk, table, chair, TV, fridge, wall, door, sink, soap, mirror, stairs; crackers, chips, salsa, nuts, onion, goldfish, beans, taco, broccoli, cheese, carrots; triangle, rectangle, square, oval, circle; three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten; Mom, Dad, his name, his sister’s name; sleepy, (he hasn’t learned sad, mad, happy, or sick, but I’ve made those flashcards because they are very important).
I also reinforced many of the words from the VBA team’s list by having him review flashcards.
Though he can read the words “Mommy,” “Daddy,” etc., he’s having trouble associating them with the pics on the flashcards, showing how important it was to make those flashcards.
|Typing||He wouldn’t do it at all at the start. Now he has no problem sitting for 15 min. The work paid off as he knows where the keys are now. Typing has helped him read his name and understand that the answer to how old he is is 7. It has helped him learn to read Mommy, Daddy, his sister’s name and his name. He has taken my finger and guided me to the letters before, showing joint attention, which is crucial to learning. Typing is NOT meant as an alternative method of communication for him, but it will help him spell and read words, then phrases, then sentences, and will ultimately help him speak better because he will understand language more. Typing is one way to help kids generalize language – to learn words in several different ways rather than just reading sight words. It also helps with fine motor skills.|
|Intraverbals||In Aug. he mastered saying his name and 7 in response to “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” but he lost them because of confusion with what VBA program has done.|
|Soccer||He can kick back and forth on the grass. He can dribble the length of the field and then kick it hard into the net. He can kick it into the goal over and over. During the last two sessions I had him kicking back and forth with his brother, which is a huge milestone socially.|
|Basketball||He can now shoot from several feet away rather than just dunk.|
|Trampoline||He can play catch while jumping, kick the ball back and forth while on the trampoline, and stop and do imitative exercises, which he could not do before.|
|Imaginative and Pretend play||He has a much stronger interest in stuffed animals now. At first he had no interest. Then he would smile and laugh and say “frog” or “bug.”This is very important to learn how to play and think abstractly.|
|Oral Motor||He learned to imitate by using his tongue and lips. In June he was able to blow bubbles but before he couldn’t.|
|Handwriting||He is getting better at tracing numbers and letters. Before he couldn’t do it at all. He can’t do it independently but he in some cases is doing part of it himself. He shows more interest in it.|
|Math||He is very interested in counting though he loses track/needs help after about 15. He has started addition. His attention span has increased during math.|
|Numbers and shapes||He has completely mastered numbers 1-10 and shapes with beanbags. Determined he may be partly color-blind.|
|Spelling||Spellmaster – He has chosen the right tiles to spell certain words. Using different ways to read is helping generalize (flashcards, books, typing, spellmaster, etc.)|
|Other||He has been very engaged, with lots of two way interaction. The rapport we have is very important to learning because kids will learn more when they are motivated and having fun. He shows a lot of joint attention: Joint attention refers to the propensity of a child to engage another’s attention to share enjoyment of objects or events. Children display joint attention skills by initiating bids to others to pay attention to what they are attending to and by following the line of visual regard and point gestures of a social partner (Mundy & Thorp). Thus, children both initiate and respond to joint attention bids.
Joint attention behaviors represent a critical area in typical development. Joint attention skills have been found to be concurrently related to receptive and expressive language skills among typically-developing children. In addition, research indicates that joint attention is important for the development of a host of other, later-emerging, skills, such as more complex expressive language, symbolic play, and theory of mind.
Initiating joint attention, shared engagement, two-way interaction, connecting on an emotional level is how kids learn – this isn’t just from Greenspan but this is well known – this is taught at Johns Hopkins – and the relationship a child has with the therapist is very important to learning. His words are very emphatic after we do something he enjoys. He shows a lot of enthusiasm, also helpful to learning. He has the ability to go with the flow. These are all elements of RDI that he has shown for the past four months. We have been doing RDI type games in a natural environment already. He has not cried significantly with me since 6/21.