The Impact of Autism Spectrum Disorder on Student Learning

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

If you are a teacher who works with students with IEPs, you are likely to encounter students with autism spectrum disorder at some point. This lesson discusses the different ways these disorders can influence student learning.

Considering Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Tara is a fourth-grade regular education teacher in an inclusive setting, one where students with special needs learn alongside their typically developing peers.

This year, Tara has two students with autism spectrum disorder in her class. Having taught students with this diagnosis before, Tara knows that it can manifest in many different ways.

However, she also understands that students with autism spectrum disorder tend to share similar challenges. For instance:

  • They grow easily overwhelmed by sensory input.
  • They struggle in relationships to others, and have trouble reading subtle social cues.
  • They may have language delays and difficulty remembering new information.

Tara starts to think about the different ways autism spectrum disorder might impact student learning, and what she can do to support these learners in the context of the general education class.

Imitation Impairment and its Effects

As she starts reading more about autism spectrum disorder, Tara learns about a phenomenon called imitation impairment. Many students with autism spectrum disorder have trouble mimicking the actions of others.

Tara thinks about how she teaches a lot of content by modeling a certain behavior, thought process, or mathematical procedure, and expecting that students will follow her actions. It turns out that this kind of teaching is often ineffective for students with autism spectrum disorder, because they cannot really imitate what she is doing.

Tara considers the implications of imitation impairment across the curriculum:

  • It can influence students' reading comprehension, because they are not really learning from watching how adults talk about text.
  • It can influence their acquisition of mathematical procedures, since following another person working through the procedure is not necessarily meaningful.
  • It can impact their executive function, or organization and memory, because they are not learning from watching how adults organize materials, manage time, or keep spaces organized.

Tara realizes that she will have to alter her approach to learning to account for the many ways imitation impairments can influence her students' capacity to learn.

Social Challenges and Student Learning

Another thing Tara already knows about autism spectrum disorder is that it makes socializing and interacting with others very complex for many students. At first, Tara thinks about this aspect of the disorder as relating only to students' social worlds, but as she thinks about it, she realizes it impacts their learning as well.

After all, Tara often relies on group and partner work to help her students acquire skills and content. She notices that in group work, her students with autism spectrum disorder either tend to isolate themselves, or they take on a menial task that allows them to maintain participation in the group. Neither of these options really affords the student the opportunity to learn alongside the others in the group, whether the work is around literacy, science, math or social studies.

How to Support Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Now, Tara is ready to think about what she can do to support the learning of her students with autism spectrum disorders. She learns that the following strategies are crucial.

  • Explicit Instruction

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