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Teaching Autistic Children Critical Thinking Skills

October 21, 2022

What is so important about teaching autistic children critical thinking skills? These skills are important to everyday decisions and obstacles an individual may face, there are many neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals that have a hard time with these skills.

Teaching Autistic Children Critical Thinking Skills

This article is going to outline abstract and conceptual thinking skills development, practice, and use in the school setting and at home. I plan on including ways that both parents and teachers will best be able to encourage and build these skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

It may take some creativity and thinking outside the box when interacting and teaching these skills. It is important to remember and take note of the differences and potential difficulties that your child may have when taking these ideas into consideration.

As always, these are merely the tip of the iceberg and may not work for everybody. That is why the ability of parents and educators to think outside the box and use their own critical thinking skills when figuring out what will work best for the child.

Neurodivergence, autism, and critical thinking skills

It has been thought that neurodivergent children, particularly autistic children, have a harder time with an abstract idea. In the article, Associations Between Conceptual Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Adaptive Ability in High-functioning Autism, they state that this thought is not entirely correct and cannot cover the spectrum that autism covers.

For instance, the article states that there are children that have learned some conceptual reasoning skills, along with abstract thinking in a therapy or school setting and do well. Then when they go about their everyday lives they tend to forget or have a hard time applying these skills to everyday occurrences.

There are also autistic children who have no need to further their problem solving and conceptual skills. As I stated, with the spectrum that autism falls under, it can be challenging to address all the differing areas of development in these areas.

Ways to promote and enhance abstract and conceptual thinking skills

In this section I will mainly focus on ways of developing these skills in the classroom environment. Also, what alterations and support can be put in place to help the individuals develop these skills.

Problem solving and critical thinking development in the classroom

The presentation, Understanding Autism Professional Development Curriculum: Strategies for Classroom Success and Effective Use of Teacher Supports, starts with explaining what autism is and moves into what affects the autistic students and ways to help and support these students.

What can affect the student with autism?

  • Unpredictability
    this can be daunting and even a little scary for a student that may rely on knowing what they should expect next
    when school events, like an unexpected pep rally in the loud gym, can be met with extreme difficulty and be more of a stressful event than something fun
  • Transitions
    knowing what is coming up next and have the time to prepare for these transitions can be key with some students
    keeping transitions and how they are handled in mind can help decrease difficult behaviors before they begin by making it easier for the student to transition smoothly
  • Environmental changes
    these changes can be anything from seating changes to adding a new plant to the classroom and can stimulate certain sensory sensitive individuals or be an unwelcome surprise they were not ready for
  • Sensory overload
    if a student is exhibiting unusual or difficult behaviors, it can occur from all the sounds in the hallway to the buzzing from the lights and can affect the individual that may have a sensitive sensory response
  • Sensory seeking
    these students need some type of sensory stimulating activity, or could be the individuals that need to move around during discussion because that is how their brain best functions
  • Navigation
    it can be confusing, especially if the student has any of the various communication difficulties and may lack the social skills needed to ask when navigating from classroom to classroom or learning center to learning center and can be further irritated by loud and unexpected sounds of voices and chairs scraping the floor
  • Expectations
    not knowing what is expected of them, if the student is still developing social skills they may not do what is asked because they are unsure of what the expectations were before the activity and/or task and are unaware of how to ask appropriately
  • Decision making
    if given too many possibilities for decisions, the student may become confused and irritated because they don’t know what to do and there are too many choices that have been presented to them

Ways to help and support these students

  • Provide structure and consistency
    organizational skills are so important when it comes to this step because it can require a posted classroom schedule and one that the students also have in their notebooks that they can refer to, if needed
    try to stay clear of visual clutter, as that can cause more confusion
  • Make information and supplies readily accessible
    label where items, homework, lessons, etc. go for the day
    don’t forget to verbally explain and show the students where they can find these areas and labels, if they haven’t been introduced
  • Predictability
    this is where having a schedule and following it helps and is a nice starting point
    also having different tools and visual supports that are easily accessible to the student makes it easier for them to use and understand
  • Consider potential distractions
    try to remember that open windows, fluorescent lighting, strong smells, and loud noises can be extremely distracting and are a few of the things that can affect a sensory sensitive student
    keeping these distractions down or altering them in a friendlier way can help the individual with paying attention to the task at hand
  • Provide plenty of visual supports
    visual supports are your friend and ones that are interactive, more so for younger students but can benefit older students who like the sensory stimulation when the student physically removes a piece to the complete side or has a visual schedule in front of them and knows to expect gym class after recess

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What are five ways that teachers can support critical thinking in the classroom?

Whether the student is in a general education classroom or special education program, there are five ways that teachers and teaching aids can help support students:

  1. Expose and prepare
    this a way that the teacher or aid could show and talk about the assignment before the assignment is taught and helps expose the student to the material and prepare them for what is going to be expected of them and what the assignment will entail
  2. Provide and plan for necessary adaptations for the student
    if the student already has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) there could be modifications and adaptations already outlined
  3. Visual supports
    these could be token charts that allow the student to interact and add tokens when they have accomplished something all the way to an interactive visual board that the student carries around, to a visual schedule that changes as the tasks change throughout the say letting the students know what to expect next
  4. Reinforcement
    the reinforcement discussed here is a way of rewarding the child for following school rules, finishing assignments, interacting with other students, or whatever they are working on for the moment
  5. Offer a safe space
    this is an area where the student can decompress and can either be a place where they go by themselves when they become overwhelmed

Free your mind

As a parent, it can be difficult changing around your thought patterns and expectations when it comes to different aspects of your child and what is being expected of them. It is an important thing to remember, though, that as your child is learning all kinds of things like new ways to interact in a more socially acceptable way to keep all your interactions as light and fun as possible.

As a parent you can look at things in a creative way. This can be fun and add a sense of adventure to how you and your child continue to learn and respond, especially when it comes to critical thinking, abstract skills, conceptual skills, and problem solving skills.

For instance, if you know your child doesn’t like doing their school work at the table, you can ask them where they would like to do their school work, be careful and avoid verbal overload by talking too long. It is best to keep to shorter sentences and questions and offer two to three potential answers.

If they say they would prefer to practice spelling on the couch, just make sure to minimize distractions and voila they have a new place to do work and where able to practice some abstract concepts to where homework can be done.

What to do

In her article, 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking, Helen Lee Bouygues states three ways of improving critical thinking, and they are things parents can do at home to practice with their children!

What are the three things that parents can do at home to help these skills?

  1. Ask questions
    this can seem super simple, but the act of asking and answering repetitive verbal questions can help build problem solving skills because the child has to use their thinking skills and reason with the question to come up with potential answers
  2. Be logical
    if your child is very logical, this exercise could help them expand beyond their logic, although they would start with logic, and expand as you both come up with more questions and concepts to talk about
  3. See things differently
    you and your child have had a discussion about homework and they have figured out that they can do spelling practice on the couch, maybe come up with what other subjects may be done on the couch? Or where else could be a good place to practice spelling words and find out that they love spelling while swinging on their sensory swing.

Key takeaways

There are many ways that teachers and parents can both support and help develop critical thinking and other skills that will help the student in their future. Some of these ideas include ways that the classroom can help or hinder development and education.

Also, challenging parents to think outside the box when helping develop thinking skills and those needed for problem and organizational solving on a daily basis. Although there are children that may be able to express these skills during some times and forget about them during daily tasks, practice can help further the skill set.

As with anything else in life, practice can make perfect. Or, it can at least help by making steps toward the ultimate goals of using these skills as a student and beyond.


Bouygues, H. (2019). 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking. https://hbr.org/2019/05/3-simple-habits-to-improve-your-critical-thinking

Goldstein, G., Mazefsky, C., Minshew, N., Walker, J., Williams, D. (2018). Associations Between Conceptual Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Adaptive Ability in High-functioning Autism.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6067678/

The Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders & Organization for Autism Research. Understanding Autism Professional Development Curriculum: Strategies for Classroom Success and Effective Use of Teacher Supports. https://csesa.fpg.unc.edu/sites/csesa.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/other/Presentation%202%20(Strategies%20for%20Classroom%20Success%20and%20Effective%20Use%20of%20Teacher%20Supports)(2).pdf

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