It may be a generalization, but autism is often linked to a visual learning style. It follows that using flashcards (especially picture cards as visual supports) for learning may be a great tool for parents to help their child on the spectrum.
Looking back at our lockdown history, late-night online shopping was replaced by later night teaching aids searches. As homeschooling became a reality for many scared parents, the internet was nearly broken by the desperation for best at-home teaching methods. Many parents would have stumbled across autism flashcards, a traditional teaching tool to teach new words and concepts.
Traditional flashcards are mostly just simple, small cardboards used to aid language and concept/procedure teaching. The card usually has a word, and/or picture, or sometimes even a sentence or phrase on it. The value of flashcards is debatable; some feel flashcards are mainly useful as a simplistic memory tool. Arguing along such lines, some researchers and educators feel the cards do not contribute to improved reading and language skills as it adds little value in terms of comprehension.
On the other hand there are those (such as Nicholson, 1998) who feel memorizing flashcard words actually translates to better reading as flashcards may facilitate automaticity by helping children read accurately and quickly. Nicholson states flashcards could actually foster comprehension, because when children do not struggle with each word, the extra mental energy can be applied to comprehension. Flashcards serve as the scaffold, words are recognized and read accurately, so that maximum effort can be applied to comprehension, the essence of reading.
Maybe the debate about flashcards should be shifted to the digital world to be relevant to children today. Learning is shifting to the digital landscape with astonishing speed. For parents with autistic children, digital platforms may be especially useful for language learning.
A systematic literature review investigated the impact of technology on people with autism spectrum disorder. Valencia et al., 2019 introduces the review by explaining why computers are a great tool to help individuals on the spectrum learn and develop skills. The authors speak of the enjoyment of many autistic people when interacting with computers, as such interactions occurring in a safe environment.
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Parents with autistic kids might agree that flashcards on the iPad may seem a little more exciting than the traditional type. Preference aside, parents are obviously interested in the results of strategies with promises of helping children learn more effectively.
Unfortunately, research pertaining to flashcard success is scarce, even more so when looking for studies in special education settings. Research (Alanazi, 2017) does suggest improvement of reading and writing skills when flashcards are used in populations of children with learning disabilities. For children on the spectrum, however, early intervention may require specific strategies to aid language learning.
Autism and flashcards
One of the core characteristics of autism is social-communication difficulties. This may include trouble with expressive and receptive language—leading to frustration and behavioral challenges, especially when children are not able to express emotions and feelings. It follows that flashcards may be more than a learning tool for children with autism, flashcards can also function as visual supports to facilitate communication and expression of needs and emotions.
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The Benefits of Visual Supports for Autism
Traditional flashcards aiding such communication are available commercially. For example: My Feelings and Emotions Flashcards For Special Needs, Autism as Cue Cards, Aiding with Empathy and Social Skills, and digital flashcards can be downloaded on your child’s mobile device.
When it comes to digital flashcards, there seems to be a distinct advantage in technology. Research (Zaffke et al., 2014) mentions how flashcard apps can be used to create social stories for children with autism. The authors describe how a specific flashcard app allows users to create personalized content incorporating pictures, text, and audio on mobile devices.
A study (Harris et al., 2015) investigated the effectiveness of using Direct Instruction flashcards to teach a child to answer age appropriate social questions in a preschool environment. The child had developmental delays and a suspected diagnosis of autism. The authors concluded that using Direct Instruction flashcards seemed successful in teaching the child appropriate responses to social questions.
This may seem almost robotic; instructing a child to use set responses to social questions may bring up questions of social spontaneity and comprehension. The argument for flashcards in a reading context may be equally applicable to social settings: if a child feels comfortable in how they will respond to social questions they may use this level of comfort as scaffolding to build social skills. For many individuals on the spectrum it may be stressful to answer social questions appropriately, so the support of such cards could serve as encouragement to pursue social situations, and practice makes perfect!
Teacher’s best friend
For teachers, there may be significant challenges in teaching vocabulary and reading skills to specific special education populations.
A quasi experimental research study describes the influence of using flashcards and puppets to develop vocabulary (Wahyuni, 2019). Surprisingly the eighth graders in the study showed more interest in the flashcards than the puppets; the author suggests flashcards may be a successful aid to help children develop vocabulary in special education settings.
For teachers, the best way to utilize flashcards for students with autism may be to incorporate the kids’ special interests. For example, for many children on the spectrum, trains are especially fascinating. A lesson about trains could incorporate picture cards for visual learners, and transport related words (verbs, phrases, and new words) could also be taught by flashcards for better vocabulary development. This may seem too specific, but transport or “getting around” vocabulary could be generalized, it could serve as scaffolding to develop further vocabulary.
Train themed flashcards could also be incorporated to teach social skills. Appropriate responses to social questions, for example between a conductor and passenger, could be prompted by flashcards. This may later help build more general conversation. This not only makes learning fun, but according to research (Winter-Messiers, 2007) special skills could help to develop skills which may be difficult for children with autism to learn otherwise.
Like any other teaching aid, flashcards have advantages and disadvantages. Parents are the critical thinkers in the best position to judge whether this media is appropriate for their child. A free digital flashcard app may be a practical way of testing it out. For best results, parents should adapt flashcards (digital or traditional) to appeal to their child’s special interests as, when a child is fully engaged, flashcards may be a great teaching tool.
Alanazi, Mona. (2017). Use of Flashcards in Dealing with Reading and Writing Difficulties in SEN students. Multidisciplinary Journal of Educational Research. 7. 53. 10.17583/remie.2017.2211.
Harris, M., Mclaughlin, T.F., Derby, K.M., & Clark, A. (2015). Using DI Flashcards with and Without a Prompt to Increase Social Questions for a Preschool Student with Autism with Measures of Generalization across School Personnel. International journal of applied research, 1, 951-955.
Nicholson, T. (1998). The Flashcard Strikes Back. The Reading Teacher, 52(2), 188–192.
Valencia, K., Rusu, C., Quiñones, D., & Jamet, E. (2019). The Impact of Technology on People with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Literature Review. Sensors (Basel, Switzerland), 19(20), 4485. https://doi.org/10.3390/s19204485.
Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth With Asperger Syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 140–152. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030301.
Zaffke, Aaron & Jain, Niharika & Johnson, Norah & Alam, Mohammad Arif Ul & Magiera, Marta & Ahamed, Sheikh. (2014). iCanLearn: A Mobile Application for Creating Flashcards and Social Stories™ for Children with Autism. 8456. 10.1007/978-3-319-14424-5_25.