Incidental Learning for Students with Autism: Definition & Benefits

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you work with children who have autism, you might be interested in different ways to teach them both cognitive and social material. This lesson discusses the definition and benefits of incidental learning for these children.

Discovering Incidental Learning

Sharon has been working with young children with autism for five years and works in an inclusive early childhood setting, or one where they learn and grow alongside typically developing peers.

Over the last year, she has been thinking more and more about how to help these children achieve the many social, cognitive, and motor goals she and others have for them. Sharon knows that every year, there is more research on autism, how it impacts the brain, and how children with autism can be reached.

Recently, she attended a seminar about something called incidental learning. Sharon has learned that incidental learning is a way to think about teaching children with autism in the context of natural, organic situations.

Right away, Sharon is intrigued. She wants to learn more about exactly what incidental learning is and is not, as well as how it might benefit the children in her class.

Defining Incidental Learning

First, Sharon realizes she will need to have a clearer definition of incidental learning. She discovers that usually, incidental learning happens in a variety of natural environments. In fact, much of incidental learning does not even happen in a classroom.

The idea behind incidental learning is that children with autism learn by contextualizing and repeating particular concepts and ideas. Therefore, exposing them to real situations, or incidents, is the best way to get them to internalize a new concept or skill.

Sharon thinks about the following example. There is one child in her class right now who has a substantial language delay related to autism. Sharon has been working with photo cards to teach the student vocabulary for words like 'window' and 'door'.

In incidental learning, Sharon would leave the photo cards behind. Instead, she might take a walk down the hall with the child, remaining alert to what is happening. If the child's attention is caught by a bird flying past outside, Sharon might say, 'There is a bird outside the window!' She would then walk the child over to the window and remind the child what they are doing. 'We are looking out the window! You saw a bird flying past outside the window.'

The child now has the window incident to call on as she incorporates the vocabulary word into her repertoire.

Incidental learning can also be used to teach children about social behaviors and more complex concepts in language, mathematics, and science. Much of it happens in the context of play and observing children in their natural environments.

Benefits of Incidental Learning

Now that Sharon understands what incidental learning is, she starts to think about the benefits it might have for children with autism. Sharon learns about the following benefits:

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