The Curious Link Between Autism and Learning Difficulties

the curious link between Autism and Learning Difficulties

Takeaway: Both autism and learning difficulties arise from brains that are ‘wired’ differently. This difference makes it harder to prioritise tasks and focus on the right thing for long enough. But interestingly, there’s also a social component to learning which autism affects. A trained specialist can help your child tackle these issues, but in the meantime, don’t forget your child also has strengths and passions. Encourage her to celebrate these and it’ll balance out a lot of the other frustrations she experiences.   

There’s isn’t just one type of autism, so children experience it in different ways.

The term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ refers to a developmental difference that some children experience. That is, their brains mature in an unusual way, which gives them a whole new set of strengths and weaknesses. For example, children with autism usually have trouble with social interactions, are easily overloaded by sensory input (sights, sounds, etc.), and prefer a predictable daily schedule. But since autism covers a spectrum of possible traits, it’s hard to predict the specific challenges a child might face. So, some children might be okay with a little socialising but will have a meltdown for even the slightest change of routine. And others may especially be bothered only by, say, loud noises. (Do note that children with autism have many strengths, too. For example, they’re often able to hyper-focus on a subject and master it much quicker than their classmates.) Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.

Psychologists have observed a curious link, though. I.e., the link between autism and learning difficulties.

About 40% of children with autism have learning difficulties. And the connection goes both ways because 10% of children with learning difficulties have autism. So, what, specifically, is a learning difficulty? Well, think of it as a broad term describing a range of challenges children have in picking up new concepts, ideas, and skills. These challenges aren’t connected to IQ, motivation, or a child’s potential. Rather, they arise because the child’s brain is simply wired to take in and process information differently. So, you might notice her struggling with language/reading (i.e., dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), listening (auditory processing difficulties), numbers/maths (dyscalculia), and so on.

Both autism and learning difficulties are caused by alternate brain wiring, so they’re affected by some of the same processes.

Children with autism and learning difficulties have some core traits in common. For example, they have underdeveloped executive functions, making it much harder for them to organise their thoughts, control emotions, solve problems, manage time, and more. Or they might have sensory processing issues — making it harder to control their hand movements for things like writing, tying shoelaces, catching a ball, etc. When you look at it this way, it’s easier to understand the overlap between autism and learning difficulties. They’re both controlled by some of the same brain processes, so of course, they’ll result in similar behaviours. But while autism and learning differences do overlap, they are not the same thing. So, a child with autism might need a different care plan to one with learning difficulties alone.

Children with autism have many learning challenges, particularly to do with paying attention and managing frustration.

All children have to master multiple skills to become better learners. For example, if they’re doing their homework, they’ll have to ignore thoughts of playing with their latest toy. Then, they’ll have to plan which part of their assignment to start with and which parts to transition to next. Also, they’ll have to put aside doubts that don’t need to be cleared till later. And finally, they’ll have to manage their frustration when struggling to understand something. These sorts of mental processes are hard for most children but much harder for children with autism.

But there’s another unexpected factor at work. And that’s the social aspect of learning.

Children with autism have poor social skills because they can’t decode facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and other non-verbal communication. And this, in turn, makes it harder for them to make friends. But it also affects learning since learning is inherently a social activity. Take language skills, for example. Technically, we master a language by improving our grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary. But really, we master a language by practising it — i.e., talking to people. So, a child with autism, who doesn’t like socialising, will find it much harder to perfect the nuances of speaking. This social component of learning goes beyond just language, too. Take ‘memory,’ for instance. If you crack a joke and no one finds it funny, you’ll soon forget that joke. But if everyone in the room is in tears laughing, you’ll remember every word of that joke for years. Our brains learn using emotions and social interactions — two things that children with autism struggle with. And this why it’s critical for them to explore new ways of learning.

As parents, it’s easy to obsess over our children’s weaknesses. But we need to celebrate their strengths, too.

Specialists can assess your child and create a customised care plan. And this is essential to getting your child the help and support she needs. But it’s a slow, often frustrating journey. And what can help keep your child hopeful is to keep celebrating her strengths. For example, many children with autism develop pet subjects that they’re passionate about. And by encouraging and celebrating these passions, you’ll be teaching your child that she’s more than just her autism diagnosis. And this changes everything!

Are you concerned that your child might have learning difficulties? If so, we can help.

The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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