What goes First in Learning for Students with ASD? Academic Knowledge or Not?

My child is 5 years old already, it’s time for him to learn mathematics and writing.

I am happy that he has improved a lot, but I am still worried that he cannot catch up with coming academic demands, can you teach him the content of the school lessons in advance?

A lot of parents would like us to teach their children academic knowledge, the reason can be due to them reaching school age, or that they are worried their children will lag behind academically. However, in AP, we usually do not recommend teaching academic knowledge directly. There is a saying: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead of being a tutorial teacher to our students, we believe it is more important to teach them effective learning skills so that they can learn effectively in school.

There are many reasons that cause our students to not be able to learn effectively in school, here are some common problems:

Missing Learning How to Learn Skills

  1. Lack of Attention
    Attention deficit is one of the main reasons why our students cannot learn effectively in school. Children with ASD can get distracted easily, and they cannot sustain attention for long periods of time, therefore, they cannot concentrate and learn through the talking of teachers.
  2. Not Seeking Help
    When our students encounter difficulties or if they do not understand something, they are usually not persistent enough to clarify or seek help spontaneously. As a result, the teachers would not know if they have anything that they do not understand and students would miss important learning opportunities and information.
  3. Lacking Observational Learning Skills
    Teachers will usually conduct information through asking students questions in the class. Due to having low awareness to peers, students with ASD do not pay very good attention to what their peers say or do. When teachers interact with their classmates, our students may only focus on what the teachers say and miss important information from their peers.
  4. Low Learning Motivation
    Typical children would have basic interest in different topics, and this motivates them to learn. However, with limited interest, children with ASD may only be interested in one subject or topic, their motivation to learn other things is very low, and therefore the learning efficiency is low.

Weak Language Comprehension Skills

Our students are usually weak in language comprehension. They are used to simple instructions or explanations. However, teachers in school would offer peripheral information in their delivery and use different formats to express key points, and thus students have to use inferencing, have an understanding of cause and effect in order to take in the whole picture. Students with ASD usually lack of these skills.

Not Actively Remembering Information

Memory is also an important component in the learning process. There are many things in academic settings that children have to remember, such as class routines, new vocabulary and information, etc. However, children with ASD do not necessarily attain, process and store this information appropriately, and so it is difficult for them to learn effectively.

The above are just some components that contribute to effective learning in academic settings, putting aside the social aspects that are needed to thrive in these settings. For children with ASD to learn effectively in class, we should not directly teach them the academic knowledge needed, but instead to focus on building and solidifying their Learning How to Learn Skills.

It is important to note that our approach does not completely preclude teaching academic knowledge, but the decision of whether or not to do so depend on whether those skills will help our children to become more effective, independent learners in the long run, and not just for the sake of “catching up” to school norms and standards.

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Information provided by:

Kan Wong (Autism Partnership Program Director)
Ms. Lai-Kan Wong is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis. She joined Autism Partnership in 2001 and began working as a Program Specialist. She is experienced in working with children across different settings including individual therapy session, small group training, and ABA classrooms. Ms. Wong has also helped training staff in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan office since 2005. She is now responsible for supervising individual cases, staff training, parent training, and overseas consultation. Kan also receives ongoing training and supervision from Dr. Ronald Leaf and Dr. John McEachin in the Los Angeles office.

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