Unit 3: Learning characteristics of students with ASD

3.1.      Introduction to ASD (concept, aetiology, prevalence, incidence, historical perspective cultural perspective, myths, recent trends and updates)

3.2.    Understanding the Spectrum of Autism (communication, interactions, thought and behaviours)

3.3.      Neurocognitive Theories and their relevance in class room teaching

3.4.      Sensory processing in Autism

3.5.      Learning Characteristics and Styles across age and disabilities











3.1           Introduction to ASD (concept, etiology, prevalence, incidence, historical perspective cultural perspective, myths, recent trends and updates)


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a diverse group of conditions. They are characterised by some degree of difficulty with social interaction and communication. Other characteristics are atypical patterns of activities and behaviours, such as difficulty with transition from one activity to another, a focus on details and unusual reactions to sensations.

The abilities and needs of people with autism vary and can evolve over time. While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Autism often has an impact on education and employment opportunities. In addition, the demands on families providing care and support can be significant. Societal attitudes and the level of support provided by local and national authorities are important factors determining the quality of life of people with autism.

Characteristics of autism may be detected in early childhood, but autism is often not diagnosed until much later.

People with autism often have co-occurring conditions, including epilepsy, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well as challenging behaviours such as difficulty sleeping and self-injury. The level of intellectual functioning among people with autism varies widely, extending from profound impairment to superior levels.



It is likely that autism has existed through the ages, but the first ever clinical account of the disorder was published by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. Dr. Kanner, who developed the first child psychiatric service at a U.S. hospital, described a group of 11 children – eight boys and three girls – who had "autistic disturbances of affective contact."

Dr. Kanner based his report on direct observation, and much of what he set down has stood the test of time. He vividly depicted the essential features of autism, all of which are echoed in current-day diagnostic manuals. It is interesting to note that, just as in Kanner's study, the rate of autism in males continues to be much higher than the rate in females.

Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, was working at nearly the same time as Kanner with a similar group of children on the other side of the Atlantic. A milder form of autism, Asperger syndrome, was named after him.

As the word "spectrum" suggests, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have challenges that run the gamut from mild to severe, with different levels of ability and disability. Someone may have no functional speech, or may have a rich vocabulary. He or she may be intellectually disabled or have an average or above average IQ. He may be socially withdrawn or may be socially active, although in an oblivious, eccentric way. He may be fixated on lining up toys in a certain order, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of animals or another favorite topic.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM 5)*, is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with symptoms that include "persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts" and "restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities." The DSM 5 gives examples of these two broad categorizes:

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

§   Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

§   Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

§   Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

§   Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

§   Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).

§   Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).

§   Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

These symptoms result from underlying challenges in a child’s ability to take in the world through his senses, and to use his body and thoughts to respond to it. When these challenges are significant, they interfere with a child’s ability to grow and learn, and may lead to a diagnosis of autism.


Autistic disorder: A child is diagnosed with autism when he or she has all the signs of symptoms of ASD.

Asperger's Syndrome: Referred to as high functioning Autism, it is characterized by significant issues with social/emotional skills and obsessive focus on certain topics. There is no language or cognitive development delay.

Pervasive Developmental DisorderNot Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS): PDD is often referred to as Atypical Autism because it is diagnosed when a child exhibits some but not all characteristics of autism. For instance,if a child exhibits speech delay and certain repetitive behaviors—he would most likely get a diagnosis of PDD (NOS)

Rett Syndrome: Rett Syndrome is a rare and severe disorder which is linked to a defect in the chromosome X, and therefore it mostly affects girls. Rett Syndrome is characterized by normal period of development followed by a slow regression in skills, often loss of communication skills and loss of purposeful hand movements.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: This is a very rare disorder where there is normal development in all areas initially and the onset of regression of skills happens much later than in other disorders of the spectrum. Children with Childhood Disintegrative Disorder experience loss of skills across all (language, social, behavioural and motor) development areas.

Earlier, each condition (autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome) was diagnosed separately but now, these conditions are grouped together and are called as autism spectrum disorder.



It is estimated that worldwide about one in 160 children has an ASD. This estimate represents an average figure, and reported prevalence varies substantially across studies. Some well-controlled studies have, however, reported figures that are substantially higher. The prevalence of ASD in many low- and middle-income countries is unknown.


Available scientific evidence suggests that there are probably many factors that make a child more likely to have an ASD, including environmental and genetic factors.

Available epidemiological data conclude that there is no evidence of a causal association between measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and ASD. Previous studies suggesting a causal link were found to be filled with methodological flaws(2)(3).

There is also no evidence to suggest that any other childhood vaccine may increase the risk of ASD. Evidence reviews of the potential association between the preservative thiomersal and aluminium adjuvants contained in inactivated vaccines and the risk of ASD strongly concluded that vaccines do not increase the risk of ASD.




3.2           Understanding the Spectrum of Autism (communication, interactions, thought and behaviours)


Even as infants, children with ASD may seem different, especially when compared to other children their own age. They may become overly focused on certain objects, rarely make eye contact, and fail to engage in typical babbling with their parents. In other cases, children may develop normally until the second or even third year of life, but then start to withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.

The severity of ASD can vary greatly and is based on the degree to which social communication, insistence of sameness of activities and surroundings, and repetitive patterns of behavior affect the daily functioning of the individual.

A diagnosis of Autism is given when two specific areas of development are significantly affected. They are: social interaction and communication, and repetitious behaviors and so-called restricted interests (American Psychological Association, 2013, CDC, 2020). More specifically, people with Autism have been thought to be challenged by the ability to understand others’ perspectives or attribute mental states to other people (often referred to as mind-blindness or lack of Theory of Mind) and have been said to display a lack of empathy. (In The Son-Rise Program, we know that the ideas of so-called mind-blindness and lack of empathy come, ironically, from people in the neurotypical community looking at people on the spectrum from the outside and misunderstanding/misperceiving what is occurring on the inside.) Communication challenges may range from no (current) use of language to difficulty participating in the kinds of social conversations that the neurotypical community regularly engages in. Repetitious behaviors (often referred to as “stims” – though not in The Son-Rise Program) may be patterns of motor movements (fine or gross motor), repeated verbal lines (often called “scripting”) or involve unusual sensory stimulations (e.g. spinning or dropping objects or watching movement). Other children with Autism may have more usual interests but have an unusually focused range of interests or become powerfully focused on a few interests. These developmental differences tend to become apparent between 18 and 36 months of age

Social communication and interaction

A child or adult with autism spectrum disorder may have problems with social interaction and communication skills, including any of these signs:

·       Fails to respond to his or her name or appears not to hear you at times

·       Resists cuddling and holding, and seems to prefer playing alone, retreating into his or her own world

·       Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression

·       Doesn't speak or has delayed speech, or loses previous ability to say words or sentences

·       Can't start a conversation or keep one going, or only starts one to make requests or label items

·       Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech

·       Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them

·       Doesn't appear to understand simple questions or directions

·       Doesn't express emotions or feelings and appears unaware of others' feelings

·       Doesn't point at or bring objects to share interest

·       Inappropriately approaches a social interaction by being passive, aggressive or disruptive

·       Has difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as interpreting other people's facial expressions, body postures or tone of voice

Patterns of behavior

A child or adult with autism spectrum disorder may have limited, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities, including any of these signs:

·       Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping

·       Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging

·       Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change

·       Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff or exaggerated body language

·       Is fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn't understand the overall purpose or function of the object

·       Is unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature

·       Doesn't engage in imitative or make-believe play

·       Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus

·       Has specific food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or refusing foods with a certain texture

As they mature, some children with autism spectrum disorder become more engaged with others and show fewer disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe problems, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the teen years can bring worse behavioral and emotional problems.


3.3           Neurocognitive Theories and their relevance in class room teaching



In his 1995 book, "Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind,"  Simon Baron-Cohen* explored what has become one of the central theoretical concepts of autism: theory of mind.

Baron-Cohen proposed that children with autism suffer from mindblindness. Already hampered by the inability to achieve joint attention with others, they become unable to build on that fundamental step to intuit what others are thinking, perceiving, intending, or believing. They become “blind” to others’ mental states.

Typical humans “mind read” easily and naturally. They are not psychic; they are simply wired from birth to quickly acquire the ability to make a good guess at what others are thinking or planning. This is essential for beings who are not only social creatures, but who have the potential to be each other’s predators. The ability to discern whether another human is friend or foe is necessary to survival. Is the person approaching with that bat going to ask me to play ball or smash my skull in with it? Instant judgments must be made, and action taken. To lack this ability, to be blind to others’ intentions or beliefs, is to be at a terrible disadvantage.


In 2002, Simon Baron-Cohen expanded on his mindblindness theory by weaving in another concept: empathy. He described two brain “types”: an empathizing, female brain (which, on average, more women would have) and a systemizing, male brain (which, on average, more men would have).

“Empathizing,” he wrote, “is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing allows you to predict a person’s behavior, and to care about how others feel.”   Systemizing, on the other hand, is “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system… Systemizing allows you to predict the behavior of a system –rather than human beings-- and to control it.” 

A very balanced person would possess these abilities in equal measure, with the average man leaning more heavily on the side of systemizing, and the average woman leaning more heavily on the side of empathizing. People with autism spectrum disorders, in contrast, are viewed as lacking to an astounding degree the ability to empathize –to read via expression, body language, actions, and words emotions, intentions, and perceptions. This builds on the mindblindness concept by including a more specific emotional aspect. A person with an ASD has trouble reading not just thoughts, but feelings.

Although people with ASDs lack a strong empathic sense, they are viewed in this framework as incredible systemizers. They possess an extreme male brain. Because of this, their deficits will be in the realm of intuiting other humans’ mental states and feelings, and predicting or manipulating their behavior. They will be good, on the other hand, at evaluating non-human systems, such as machines, scientific phenomena, or a collection of objects, down to the lowest level of detail. The extent to which they are “hyper-systemizers” will vary with level of functioning. The more disabled they are, the less able they will be able to adapt to or interact with systems that are not 100% predictable. A very low functioning individual may line up objects in the same order again and again; a higher functioning individual may program computers.

Understanding and controlling human systems depends upon a rapid-fire ability to adapt to barely predictable, infinitely variable human actions. Because they are hyper-systemizers, best able to cope with logical, lawful systems and not with systems of “high variance or change (such as the social world of other minds),”   people with ASDs become resistant to change, clinging to routine and all that is predictable for dear life.


In 1989, Uta Frith* proposed the Weak Central Coherence Theory of autism. “Central coherence” was the term given to a human being’s ability to derive overall meaning from a mass of details. A person with strong central coherence, looking at an endless expanse of trees, would see “the forest.” A person with weak central coherence would see only a whole lot of individual trees.

It was Frith’s belief that other theories might account for the core deficits of individuals with ASDs, but could not account for their amazing strengths. For instance, some individuals with ASDs have “savant” skills –a remarkable ability in areas such as music, memory, or calculation. People on the spectrum tend to excel at focusing on extreme detail, and so are able to pick out a tiny element from a mass of complex data or objects. The notion of “weak central coherence” could explain both deficits and strengths. When a task required a person to extract global meaning from many details, to get the “big picture”, people with ASDs would be at a major disadvantage. When picking out extreme detail from surrounding masses of information was required, people with ASDs would be in a position to shine. They would be good at parts, but not at wholes.

Frith, who calls this “a detail-focused cognitive style”, stated in a recent article that weak central coherence is not just a failure to extract global form and meaning, but is also “an outcome of superiority in local processing” --something she views as a bias rather than a lack.


Theories can be wrong. They can even be very wrong. They may be accepted for years, however, before they are successfully challenged or disproved.

There was a time when autism was believed to be a solely psychological condition with no organic –that is, physical or neurological—basis at all. In his 1967 book, The Empty Fortress,  child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that autism was caused when a child withdrew from the unbearable rejection of a cold, unresponsive mother. The mother, it was supposed, had not wanted the child, and still did not, whether consciously or unconsciously.

This view of autism was obviously very destructive. Not only did it have no basis in fact, but it placed a terrible burden of blame on women already devastated by their child’s condition. To make things worse, when anyone studied families with an autistic child, they found the mothers were depressed, stressed out, overwhelmed and not very available, all of which was interpreted as support for the “refrigerator mother” theory.

Of course, they had it backwards. It was not that a stressed out and depressed parent created a child with an ASD, but that having a child with an ASD tended to make parents stressed out or depressed. What they had wrong is what researchers call direction of causality.

We bring this up for two reasons.

First of all, it is important to note that theories are just that. As you educate yourself about all that is going on in the world of autism research, it is important to know the difference between a theory and a fact.

Second of all, we realize that there may still be an echo of the “refrigerator mother” belief out there, a shadow that amplifies the tendency for parents –and especially moms—to blame themselves for their child’s ASD. Yes, parental behavior can make a difference in family functioning. Learning parenting techniques, keeping parental conflict to a minimum, and keeping yourself sane will be of help to your kids, including those with an ASD. But you did not cause your child’s ASD.

The “refrigerator mother” theory has been utterly discredited, and the fact you have a child with an ASD is in no way your fault.


Teachers' can facilitate a life time of successful learning by equipping students with a repertoire of strategies and tools for learning. The teacher plays an important role in the educational process. Effective teaching depends upon the evolution of innovative strategies and also the methodology of teaching. As we gain a more scientifically based understanding about today's novel brain and how it learns, we must rethink about what we do in classroom and school. Neuro scientists are mapping the pathways between body and brain, providing tangible evidence of the benefits of hands-on, experimental learning. Neurocognitive process includes a number of human functions through neuronal networks. Brain cells communicating with each other through on electrochemical process. Neurocognition includes perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging and reasoning processes. The neurocognitive approach is based upon certain irrefutable facts concerning brain functions, which are applied to the intervention strategies of student teachers developmental difficulties. The teachers must develop the competencies like content competency, contextual competency, communication competency, classroom management and evaluation competency. In this paper, we discuss how the brain and its functions are helpful to the teachers in teaching and bringing out the dimensions of teaching competency such as induction, content, pedagogy, organisation and assessment. We elucidate the Neurocognitive strategies are how helpful to bring out the secrets of amygdala and hippocampus involving in teaching strategies. We also emphasize that the recent development of designing Neurocognitive programme that focus on both cognitive and social development has theoretical and practical challenges.


3.4           Sensory processing in Autism


Many people are familiar with the five senses of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling. In addition to these five, there are two other senses, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The vestibular sense helps people with balance. The proprioceptive sense helps people be aware of where their bodies are in relation to other things (for example, people or objects near them.) Sensory processing is the ability to use all seven senses to take in, process, and give meaning to sensory information from the environment.

Sensory integration is the neurological process that organizes and gives meaning to the information that is received from the senses, allowing an individual to respond appropriately. For example, when someone reaches for the stove, feels the heat, withdraws his or her hand quickly, and says “ouch,” sensory integration is at play. In this example, the individual first feels the heat, then uses his or her muscles and bones to withdraw the hand, and lastly uses language to say “ouch.”

What are sensory processing difficulties?

Sensory processing difficulty is a breakdown of the neurological process that organizes the sensory information. Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information and therefore may react differently than expected to information in the environment. Some children may overreact to environmental stimuli, while others may fail to notice or respond to environmental stimuli. A difficulty with processing sensory information can lead to difficulties with completing basic daily activities. For example, a child holding his hands over his ears and screaming as if in pain when the fire alarm sounds, or a child who seems to hear an airplane overhead and stop in his tracks before anyone else can hear it, is having difficult processing sensory information. (These children may also be struggling with other co-occurring conditions to ASD, such as anxiety.)

Tactile System

The tactile system includes nerves under the skin’s surface that send information to the brain. This information includes light touch, pain, temperature, and pressure. These play an important role in perceiving the environment as well as protective reactions for survival.

Dysfunction in the tactile system can be seen when an individual:

·      withdraws from being touched

·      refuses to eat certain ‘textured’ foods

·      refuses to wear certain types of clothing

·      complains about having one’s hair or face washed

·      avoids getting one’s hands dirty (i.e., glue, sand, mud, finger-paint)

·      uses one’s fingertips rather than whole hands to manipulate objects

A dysfunctional tactile system may lead to a misperception of touch and/or pain (hyper- or hypo-sensitive ) and may lead to self-imposed isolation, general irritability, distractibility, and hyperactivity.

Tactile defensiveness is a condition in which an individual is extremely sensitive to light touch. Theoretically, when the tactile system is immature and working improperly, abnormal neural signals are sent to the cortex in the brain which can interfere with other brain processes. This, in turn, causes the brain to be overly stimulated and may lead to excessive brain activity, which can neither be turned off nor organized. This type of over-stimulation in the brain can make it difficult for an individual to organize one’s behavior and concentrate and may lead to a negative emotional response to touch sensations.

Vestibular System

The vestibular system refers to structures within the inner ear (the semi-circular canals) that detect movement and changes in the position of the head. For example, the vestibular system tells you when your head is upright or tilted (even with your eyes closed). Dysfunction within this system may manifest itself in two different ways. Some children may be hypersensitive to vestibular stimulation and have fearful reactions to ordinary movement activities (e.g., swings, slides, ramps, inclines). They may also have trouble learning to climb or descend stairs or hills; and they may be apprehensive walking or crawling on uneven or unstable surfaces. As a result, they seem fearful in space. In general, these children appear clumsy. On the other extreme, the child may actively seek very intense sensory experiences such as excessive body whirling, jumping, and/or spinning. This type of child demonstrates signs of a hypo-reactive vestibular system; that is, they are trying continuously to stimulate their vestibular systems.

Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system refers to components of muscles, joints, and tendons that provide a person with a subconscious awareness of body position. When proprioception is functioning efficiently, an individual’s body position is automatically adjusted in different situations; for example, the proprioceptive system is responsible for providing the body with the necessary signals to allow us to sit properly in a chair and to step off a curb smoothly. It also allows us to manipulate objects using fine motor movements, such as writing with a pencil, using a spoon to drink soup, and buttoning one’s shirt.

Some common signs of proprioceptive dysfunction are:

·         clumsiness

·         a tendency to fall

·         a lack of awareness of body position in space

·         odd body posturing

·         minimal crawling when young

·         difficulty manipulating small objects (buttons, snaps)

·         eating in a sloppy manner

·         and resistance to new motor movement activities

Another dimension of proprioception is praxis or motor planning. This is the ability to plan and execute different motor tasks. In order for this system to work properly, it must rely on obtaining accurate information from the sensory systems and then organizing and interpreting this information efficiently and effectively.


3.5           Learning Characteristics and Styles across age and disabilities


Selective Attention

In order to interact meaningfully with the world around us, it is vital that we have  the  ability  to  focus  on  particular  aspects  of the  environment  while  ignoring others. Defined as ‘selective attention’, this ability is crucial given that the brain has limited sensory and information-processing systems which are constantly bombarded with  an   excess  of  information  (Broadbent,  1958).  “Without   selective  interest, experience  is  an  utter  chaos.  Interest  alone  gives accent  and  emphasis,  light  and shade,  background  and  foreground  -  intelligible  perspective,  in  a  word”.

Selective attention refers to the ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information. Selective attention, as a filter to help prioritize information according to its importance, is adaptive. If attention is too selective, however, it is maladaptive. Excessively selective attention has become known as “stimulus overselectivity,” which is prevalent in autism. Its cause or causes are assumed to be brain organic. Because overselectivity has serious implications for impairment of learning at many levels, including social, emotional, and language learning (all key features of autism), it is suggested that an evidence-based treatment should focus on the normalization of attention patterns as early as possible to take advantage of the young brain’s plasticity. Behavior analysis can provide such evidence-based treatments. Until a true cure for autism is found, behavior analysis remains the treatment of choice.

Much of the research on attention has focussed on the ability to prioritise the processing  of  one  aspect  of  the  environment  over  another.   As  James   (1890) remarked, “Millions of items of the outward order are presented to my senses which never properly enter my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience  is  what  I  agree  to  attend  to.”  Initially,  selective  attention  was  studied within the auditory modality following observations that, despite a barrage of noise, people  at  a  party  could  successfully  focus  on  the  conversation  that  they  were involved  in  without  being  distracted  by  other  guests.  Cherry  (1953)  used  dichotic listening  tasks  to  replicate  this  effect  experimentally.  He  used  headphones  to  play different  auditory  streams  to  each  ear  and  asked  participants  to  concentrate  on  the input to one ear only and repeat it back to him. Cherry then investigated what aspects of the message in the unattended channel listeners were aware of, and what affected how  successfully  one  input  could  be  shadowed.  He  found  that  only  physical properties  (pitch,  volume  etc)  of  the  unattended  stream  appeared  to  be  processed. Listeners  were  unaware  of  semantic  content,  individual  words  or  even  when  the language changed (from English to reversed speech). Furthermore, supplying the two streams from different locations (i.e. to each ear) or using physically different voices (male  vs.  female)  was  sufficient  to  elicit  effective  shadowing  of  one  channel  only. Broadbent (1958) took these results and those from a number of other studies and put forward the first detailed theory of attention. He concluded that selection occurs after only basic physical properties of stimuli have been processed.

Since the condition was first identified, there have been anecdotal reports of attentional   abnormalities   within   ASD.   Parents   and   clinicians   have   noted   that individuals  with  ASD  appear  to  fixate  inappropriately  on  apparently  irrelevant stimuli and perseverate on highly specific areas of personal interest. Gold and Gold (1974)  stated  that  “the  clinical  syndrome  of  early infantile  autism  results  from  a malfunction in basic alerting and attentional mechanisms”. The nature of a proposed attentional deficit has been based on various different attentional components and the research   can   be   divided   loosely   on   this   basis.   Within   this   chapter,   literature concerning  arousal,  sustained attention,  orienting and attention  shifting  in ASD  will be  outlined,  before  focussing  on  the  more  relevant issue  of  selectivity  and  filtering ability.  It  should  be  noted  that  a  number  of  studies  on  attention  and  ASD  have included  a  social  component.  The  issue  of  social  attention,  however,  will  be  dealt with separately in chapter six and therefore the discussion that follows here will only include experiments that used socially neutral stimuli.


Most infants, children, teens, and adults are highly motivated by social acceptance, inclusion, and rewards. Tiny babies turn their heads and smile when another person attempts to engage their attention. Toddlers work hard to get the attention and praise of parents and other adults. Tweens and teens spend much of their time imitating and striving for the approval of peers—or hoping for praise from parents and teachers. Adults are motivated by the approval of others as well: most will work harder for peer recognition or for a chance to be selected, included, or advanced in a social situation.

To achieve social acceptance, inclusion, or promotion, most people attend very closely to what others do, want, or approve. At all ages, we imitate our peers and look for clues that will help us gain social prestige. Prizes for social acceptance are everywhere, from selection as "Prom King and Queen" to Employee of the Month, election to office, or acceptance into a fraternity or social club.

Because so much of our lives is bound up in the process of achieving social acceptance, we take for granted the desire to observe and imitate the social behavior of our peers. In addition, we assume that, for example, "grounding" a teen will be a meaningful consequence for poor behavior while supporting social activities will be a meaningful reward.

Social motivation is the driver for learning, achievement, and life choices. We don't strive for acceptance simply because smiles are pleasanter than frowns, but because we actively want the experience of being welcomed and included among our peers.

Social Motivation and Autism

The social motivation theory of autism states that autistic children are intrinsically less interested in social engagement. As a result, they pay less attention to social information. The outcome: impaired socio-cognitive development, which can be described as anything to do with our understanding of other people and their actions.

For example, autistic people often lack:

In addition to these deficits which, not surprisingly, make day-to-day life extremely challenging, people with autism are not motivated to action by the approval of others.

Thus, for example, a child with autism may be perfectly capable of (for example) tying his shoes but may have no particular interest in doing so. The fact that "all the other kids" tie their own shoes is irrelevant.

Lack of social motivation is particularly significant for very young children who learn a great deal in the first few years of life through imitation and imitative play. It can also be disabling as children become teens and adults. Many autistic people "hit a wall" when their social communication skills and social motivations fail to keep pace with their intellectual abilities.

Generalization & transfer

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders have many difficulties in learning. One of the consistent characteristics of learners with autism is that they have difficulty transferring skills to new situations and environments and maintaining skills they have mastered. Such difficulties in the maintenance and generalization of skills have been noted since the disorder was first identified, and continue to be a source of clinical concern and a focus of educational programming.

Everyone who has worked with or known many individuals with autism can think of examples of their lack of generalization. For example, a student may be able to respond when someone greets him or her saying “hello,” but not when he or she is greeted with an equivalent but different greeting such as “hi,” “what’s up,” or “how is it going?” Similarly, they may be able to make a sandwich adequately, but fail to do so if the type of bread or brand of jelly is changed.

It is certainly a characteristic of learners with autism that such transfer of skills is a challenge. Such characteristics make it necessary for teachers to train with variability.

Students need to be prepared for the diversity of circumstances that they are likely to encounter in the natural environment. Teachers can use a variety of educational strategies to facilitate the generalization of skills.

As Baer (1999, p. 1) said, “No one learns a generalized lesson unless a generalized lesson is taught.” Since generalization often does not occur without skillful planning, it is imperative that such planning occurs in educational programming for learners with autism.

Instructional Strategies

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis has studied the transfer of skills in individuals with autism for many years. It is clear that generalization is enhanced by incorporating variability into instruction. ABA instruction has emphasized the importance of varying instructions, varying materials, and teaching functionally equivalent responses. Whenever possible, learners are taught with variability from the earliest stages of instruction.

Stokes and Baer (1977) outlined a number of specific strategies to improve the transfer of skills, and emphasized that generalization should not be a “train and hope” approach. They suggested that behavior analysts must plan for generalization in a systematic manner to ensure that the target behavior occurs in similar settings and that desirable responses are strengthened. They suggested a variety of instructional approaches to aid generalization. We will discuss two of these strategies in this article – training loosely and programming common stimuli. One procedure for increasing the likelihood of generalization is what Stokes and Baer refer to as training loosely.

Excessive standardization of instruction (i.e., having every aspect of the instructional situation the same every time) impedes both stimulus and response generalization. Training loosely involves varying as many noncritical dimensions of the antecedent stimuli as possible during instruction and accepting a wide range of correct responses to increase the likelihood that skills will generalize to the natural setting.

When behavior analysts train loosely, they vary antecedent stimuli in a systematic manner. Baer (1981, 1999) suggested varying such stimuli as position (therapist or student), tone, words, how stimuli are presented (e.g., from different angles), settings in which instruction occurs, clothing worn by the therapist, reinforcers offered, time of day of instruction, and other environmental characteristics such as persons present, lighting, temperature, smells, and noise. To maximize the benefits of training loosely, these variations should occur as unpredictably as possible. When a student is learning how to match pictures, the teacher may change the pictures, the area of the classroom or school in which the skill is practiced, and whether the task is done on a table or on a vertical board. Each variation does not significantly change the task itself, but all of the changes help the learner to tolerate minor changes in the instructional context. In general, this helps to prepare the learner for the wide variety of situations that he or she may encounter outside of the instructional context.

Training loosely is often a challenge for teachers, as it seems counter-intuitive and inconsistent with the emphasis on consistency in instruction. The art of ABA intervention involves understanding which instructional components must be consistently presented and which components can be varied.

Another strategy that can be incorporated into instruction is programming common stimuli. Specifically, programming common stimuli involves incorporating stimuli and typical features of the generalization (natural) environment into the instructional setting to increase the likelihood of generalization. For instance, if a learner is being taught to purchase food in a grocery store, it may be appropriate to teach the component skills necessary for this complex skill in a controlled setting such as a classroom initially (quickly moving into the community). When this is done, it is important to use actual stimuli that the learner may encounter in a store (e.g., real food found on shelves in a supermarket, a counter, real money, a cash register, a cashier). One of the benefits of programming common stimuli is that it allows for repeated practice in a controlled setting. Practitioners need to identify the critical elements and objects present in the target environment to ensure that the learner is exposed to them in training. This eases the process of transferring skills to the natural environment.

Preparing the Learner for the Next Setting

In order to prepare the learner well for other environments, it is important to know information about those environments. Specifically, it is helpful to know how assistance is given to learners (i.e., prompting) and how learners are given feedback on their performance (i.e., reinforcement). For example, if students in an included classroom are never helped to respond with physical guidance, we can ensure that the learner is responds to other types of prompts that are used in that setting (e.g., verbal prompts, gestural prompts).

In addition, it is helpful to know how reinforcement is delivered in the target setting. It is usually the case that learners transition to environments with leaner schedules of reinforcement. Teachers in the current environment can fade the use of extrinsic rewards and provide rewards that are commonly available in the target environment. If these changes are made prior to the transition, it eases the difficulty for the learner. If a student has been reinforced for participating in group instruction with edible treats, the teacher might fade this out and replace it with the kinds of rewards that will be available in the next environment, such as positive teacher attention, and nonverbal gestures of praise). Similarly, if a learner has been used to a rich and predictable schedule of reinforcement, it may be important to thin the schedule and to make it more intermittent and less predictable. It is important to have the natural contingencies of reinforcement available in that environment maintain the behavior. Toward that end, the types and schedules of reinforcement available to the learner can be altered while the student is still in the current environment. In this way, the learner is well-prepared for the kinds of rewards they will be offered.

The Individual as the Source of Change

It is possible to involve the individual him or herself in generalization training by equipping them with skills that will increase their success in other environments. One way to accomplish this is to teach the individual to recruit their own reinforcement. Many learners have been taught to recruit teacher attention. A variety of procedures have been used in this context, including teaching students to request feedback and teaching students to show teachers their work products.

This approach has several benefits. It increases the reinforcement delivered to the learner. It also serves to cue the teacher that attention is needed. Perhaps the best element of this approach is that it ensures that teacher attention is given for appropriate behaviors. This is important, as many students receive more attention when they misbehave than they do when they behave. Finally, it is a bridge to other kinds of self-management.

Self-management facilitates the transfer of skills by equipping the individuals themselves with skills in monitoring and managing their own behaviors. Self-management involves making learners aware of and responsible for their own behaviors (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Skills taught include planning (e.g., schedules and checklists), self-recording, and self-reinforcement. Self-management allows for more independence and decreases the need for an external agent of behavioral change.

Generalization must be a priority in educational planning. It should impact how we conceptualize and define target skills, how we teach skills, and how we evaluate progress and mastery. We must program, plan, and assess for generalization throughout instruction. The ultimate indicator of successful instruction is the transfer of skills into natural environments and everyday interactions.

Uneven cognitive profile

The uneven cognitive profile, also known as splinter skills, is when a person on the autism spectrum may demonstrate great strengths in an area but be severely lacking in skills in another area. An example of this may be great academic or verbal ability alongside a weakness in self-help skills such as personal hygiene. We need to be aware of the uneven cognitive profile because we often make assumptions on a person’s ability when viewing the strength(s).

What the neurotypical population has difficulty understanding is how can someone with a very IQ or exceptional abilities have difficulty with independent living or navigating the social world? Our higher functioning folks on the spectrum often suffer because supports are withdrawn or limited because of their splinter skills. We cannot make assumptions based solely on IQ or a person’s ability that may stem from a special interest. We have to look at the entire picture, not just the parts.

It is often heard educators say they do not use visual supports when a student on the autism spectrum has excellent verbal skills. This may be a false assumption because many people on the spectrum have auditory processing difficulties. If the student reads well, using text supports may be enough but some people do not have the ability to transfer those words into a picture.

The uneven cognitive profile has to be kept in mind as the person enters into adulthood. It may not be feasible to live alone in an apartment because of the amount of responsibility. If this is the person’s dream, then assessment of proper supports need to take place. An example of supports may be someone looking in on them every week, creating checklists of tasks that need to be done, or breaking down the steps to a task on a card such as how to do laundry.

Keep the profile in mind when thinking about employment or higher education. Examine what the weaknesses in a work or university/college setting might be and assess what help might be needed to create success. We can help this population be successful, but we also need to recognize what makes them vulnerable as well.


Visual vs Auditory learning

Every individual has a preference for learning. The way a learner predominantly perceives, interacts with, and responds to the environment characterizes one’s style of learning. By understanding a person’s learning style you can help maximize his or her potential, both in and out of the classroom:

Visual – Visual learners typically have strong visual processing skills and learn best by seeing information. Learning strategies include: color-coding, pictures, charts, flash cards, videos and doodling.

In this category, children rely on their sense of sight, and best learn from books, videos, charts, pictures and color coding methods. Children in this learning category also benefit greatly from visual aids, such as visual schedules in the classroom or at home. Labeling is also a great way to assist in care of articles at home, as well as in school. Children with visual learning styles often pursue careers as: data analysts, artists, architects, to name a few.

Auditory – Auditory learners learn best by hearing information. They can typically remember information more accurately when it has been explained to them orally. Learning strategies include: taping lectures, study through discussion, mnemonics, play music (w/o words) while studying.

Children who fall in this realm of learning method benefit greatly from listening or speaking activities, such as talking, audiotapes, role playing, and saying things out loud, or repeating. These children are relying on their sense of hearing and nonvisual stimulation to learn from their environment. This style of learning often gets malassisted in the classroom, because the child often appears not to be paying attention in the classroom, due to lack of eye contact or taking of notes, e.g. Children who learn best from auditory means do not necessarily require other methods of learning a task and are simply able to take in information from auditory means. Job categories that fit well with auditory learners include: judges, lawyers, interpreters, musicians, and salespeople, or other vocations where not tangible processing of vast information is a must.