When it comes to educating children with autism and learning difficulties, the question arises whether they are one in the same. The reason for wondering this is because there seem to be challenges that an autistic child experiences in an educational setting that can look like another learning disability.
Autism spectrum disorders are not the same as a learning disability. Autism spectrum disorder is a spectrum disorder, and some children with an autism diagnosis tend to experience these challenges with:
- social skills/social cues
- language skills
- sensory processing issues
- limited interests
- executive function skills
- speech delays
- working memory
- time management/ time blindness
- repetitive behaviors and movements (stimming)
- eye contact
Some autistic children can also have learning disabilities. Learning disorders could:
- influence the formation of verbal and language skills
- affect verbal expression
- affect writing
- cause difficulty with math
- create challenges with motor control
- be a cause of limited attention span
Although early intervention would be the best option, most learning disorders are not diagnosed until school age. This article is going to discuss some of the overlapping symptoms of autism and learning disorders, how they can potentially affect learning, and the main difficulties autistic students could face.
As with any type of neurodiversity, it is important to remember that each person is an individual. What affects one person may not affect another the same way.
It is always important to talk to your child’s doctor if you have any questions or concerns. They typically have resources available or are able to refer to a specialist, like a developmental behavioral pediatrician, that can answer questions.
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What are some overlapping symptoms between autism and learning disorders?
There are symptoms that can be apparent in both autism and learning disorders. The overlap is what can cause confusion for parents and teachers and make learning challenging for the autistic child.
Executive function can be a difficulty for autistic people. Executive functioning skills make it easier to interact and understand most learning environments.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University,
“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”
“the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
Typically developing children have generally learned executive functioning skills and have an easier time understanding what they are feeling. Whereas, if an autistic person has sensory issues and melts down because of a new trigger, they can become easily distracted or irritable, and have a hard time understanding how they are feeling.
What do executive function skills have to do with learning development?
During a child’s development, executive functioning and self-regulatory skills are growing. These skills are important in the learning environment because they are what help a child self regulate, maintain a productive attitude, and make the best choices that affect themselves and those around them.
There are three main types of cognition function formed from this self regulation:
- building working memory
- the ability for brain flexibility and critical thinking skills
- better overall self control
These functions need to work together in order for the brain to be able to focus enough and develop problem solving skills, be able to focus and understand the teacher and what they want, and have positive social interactions engaging in the classroom with the teacher and other children.
Can autism affect a learning disability?
Being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and/or having a learning difficulty can be a challenge in and of itself. There are other challenges that can tend to show up with autism, like needing to follow a rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for flexibility, that can directly affect a learning disability.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t gold at the end of the educational rainbow. In my experience, I have found ways to incorporate regular brain and physical exercises that help build critical thinking skills, mindfulness, self-regulation, among other skills that are specific to us.
It is something that I found through talking to the doctor and other professionals in the education and mental health field. Rachel Anderson interviewed Sheri Taylor, MEd. founder of Uniquely Taylored Educational Consulting.
Sheri stated that when it comes to education,
“Strategies for working with people with autism should be individualized. This is true for all learners, but it is especially true for our ‘outside-the-box’ thinkers. “
What are the main learning difficulties that autistic people face?
It is so important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to approaches to education and learning difficulties. It is all based on the individual, what motivates them, their learning style, and other factors.
Those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can have a hard time with social interactions engaging and understanding what the teacher wants them to do. This is where visual support can be beneficial.
There are also special education services that are available through most schools that have the support needed for the individual, depending on what educational support they need. There are things like the IEP (Individualized Education Program) that is specified to the student and outlines the goals and plans for the student.
It would also outline any special education services and needs. These supports are available to help with any additional difficulties that an autistic student or one with learning differences may have.
If your child attends public school, you can contact the local education department, talk to the principal, or teacher and they should be able to help you start the process or direct you to who can help. For homeschool and private school, there are resources available through HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association).
Although it can be challenging for an autistic student, there are so many resources and support available to help figure out what works for them. Learning differences may add to the challenge, but that is not where it has to stop.
The good news is that there are professionals and organizations that are there to support the child and parents to give them the best educational experience. There are ways that can help an individual grow and find new ways of learning that fit them better as an individual.
Finding what your child enjoys, how they prefer to learn, and what other supports they need is a healthy move towards a positive educational experience. The goal is for them to be able to live a full life and reach their goals and future aspirations.
Asking questions and working with a team that has your child’s best interest in mind is a gift.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Andersen, Rachel. (2022). Strategies for Teaching Children With Autism. www.autismparentingmagazine.com/teaching-strategies-autism-children/
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2023). Executive Function & Self Regulation.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2023). Learning Disabilities. www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/learning-disabilities#: