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Autism and Learning Difficulties: Is There a Link?

April 2, 2024

When it comes to educating children with autism and learning difficulties, the question arises whether they are one and 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.

So, is there a connection between autism and learning difficulties? In this article, we’ll learn more about learning issues, the way they connect to ASD, and the most common challenges autistic students face.

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Is autism a learning disability?

Autism spectrum disorders are different from learning disabilities. Autism spectrum disorder covers a range of conditions, and some children diagnosed with autism may face challenges in various areas, such as:

  • 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 are different from autism because they:

  • 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.

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 in the same way.

It is crucial to talk to your child’s doctor if you have any questions or concerns. They typically have resources available or can refer you to a specialist, like a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, who can answer your questions.

The similarities between autism and learning disabilities

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 difficult for autistic people. These skills make it easier to interact with and understand most learning environments.

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental abilities that help us plan, concentrate, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks effectively. These skills are crucial for filtering distractions, prioritizing tasks, setting and reaching goals, and controlling impulses.

Little girl focused on coloring https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/learning-difficulties-autistic-students-face/

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 experiences meltdowns because of a new trigger, they can become easily distracted or irritable and have a hard time understanding how they are feeling.

The main difference between autism and learning disabilities

The key difference between autism and learning disabilities lies in their characteristics and how they impact individuals. Autism is a developmental disorder primarily affecting social interaction, communication skills, and behavior.

In contrast, learning disabilities typically involve difficulties with specific academic skills like reading, writing, or math despite average or above-average intelligence.

While some individuals with autism may also have learning disabilities, not everyone with learning disabilities has autism.

Since autism is a spectrum disorder, it varies widely in presentation and severity. Learning disabilities, on the other hand, are typically more specific in nature.

Can autism affect a learning disability?

Being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and/or having a learning difficulty can be a real issue. Some challenges that tend to show up with autism, like needing to follow a rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for flexibility, 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, and self-regulation.


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I learned this through discussions with professionals in education and mental health. In one conversation, it was emphasized that personalized strategies are crucial in education, especially for children who think differently.

Common learning difficulties in autism

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 trouble engaging in social interactions and understanding what the teacher wants them to do. This is where visual support can be beneficial.

Special education services are also available through most schools, depending on what educational support the individual needs. There are tools like the IEP (Individualized Education Program), which is specified to the student and outlines their goals and plans.

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 and talk to the principal or teacher. They should be able to help you start the process or direct you to someone who can help.

There is help available

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.

A tutor helping a young boy study https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/learning-difficulties-autistic-students-face/

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

FAQs

Q: How autism can affect learning?

A: Autism can affect learning by impacting social interaction, communication skills, and behavior, which may require tailored teaching approaches. Individuals with autism might also experience sensory sensitivities or difficulty with organization and attention, further influencing their learning process.

Q: How do autistic students learn best?

A: Autistic students learn best through personalized approaches that cater to their individual needs and strengths. Providing clear structure, visual aids, and minimizing sensory distractions can also greatly support their learning experience.

Q: Can autism affect memory?

A: Yes, autism can affect memory, as individuals on the autism spectrum may experience challenges with both short-term and long-term memory. However, the extent of the impact can vary among individuals.

Q: How does autism affect thinking?

A: Autism can affect thinking by influencing how individuals process information and perceive the world around them. It may manifest in differences in communication, social interaction, and sensory processing.

References

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.
www.developing child..harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2023). Learning Disabilities. www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/learning-disabilities#:

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