Autism Spectrum Disorder: How Do We Encourage Independent Learning?

Children with autism spectrum disorder may find it difficult to use contextual and social cues advantageous for group learning or social participation. Moreover, their learning style may prevent them from “looking up and around” to discover and act on these cues in a conventional manner. As a result, adults often prematurely step in to direct the children’s interactions.

Object vs. People Oriented

When children enter the learning or social situation, we often ask them to, “stop, wait, look up and around to determine what we are doing. How can you become part of what we are doing?” Children with ASD often remain in their comfort zone during learning and social situations, keeping their focus on objects rather than people. In these cases, children do not independently pay attention to these informational, social and communication cues. Thus, they may remain unresponsive to others in the learning and social contexts – so adults intervene.

Allowing Learning

Children with ASD may not know how to fit into a group, making an impression that they do not want to be with us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When children with ASD retreat, it’s because they do not know how to be with us. Adults then interject by directing children’s actions, telling them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

Who is doing the thinking? Is the child acting on their own or is the adult thinking for them? Adults may say, “If I don’t tell the child what to do, he or she may never respond.” In response, we need to focus our attention on learning style challenges of children with ASD and how we address these challenges.

Defining Learning

How do we know when children with ASD have learned something? The Learning Style Profile gives the following definition:

Children will have learned a skill when he or she is able to use that skill across persons, places and circumstances – knowing how and when to use that skill.

This definition speaks to independence – does the child independently know how and when to use the skill without being directed or prompted by adults? If we teach children with ASD in prompt-dependent ways, they will remain prompt-dependent. Likewise, if we think for a child, the child won’t learn to think independently.

Achieving Independence

The Learning Style Profile for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder offers strategies and methods that assist children with ASD in becoming independent learners. It’s important for these children to make independent decisions using contextual cues in learning and social situations, without prompts. A child’s learning style should progress similarly to the outline below:

  1. Object- to people-oriented learning
  2. Attending to and learning from a single social model
  3. Attending to and learning from multiple social models
  4. Sharing control with others
  5. Being flexible during learning and social situations
  6. Acquiring a balanced interaction style (initiating, maintaining, responding)
  7. Using generative, spontaneous language
  8. Developing and executing a social game plan
  9. Learning at a distance
  10. Engaging in smooth transitions from current to new activities and locations

These steps can form building blocks to success for children with ASD in schools and other social situations. If a child takes advantage of the cues and makes an independent decision of “how and when” to use their skills, the child increases their genuine learning capacity and achievement.

We should focus on assisting these children in making independent decisions. Our initial goal should not be correct performance, but independent problem-solving and action.