Why Are Austism Spectrum Kids Visual Learners?

It is an established fact that most (if not all) people on the autism spectrum are visual learners.  In her book Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin discusses this and that her education only opened up when her grade school science teacher implemented visual learning techniques.  But the question remains why?

I don’t have the definitive answer here (and neither do the scientists), but I offer some possibilities and some ways to use visual learning to help your AS child.

The traditional (and historical) teaching methods have all been based on auditory learning; the teachers say something and expect the students’ rote memory to absorb and understand the content.  For neuro-typical kids, that was (and is) fine because much of their pre-school (not “preschool”) learning was auditory (think about parents repetitively saying and mouthing “Mommy” and “Daddy” to their infants).  But this doesn’t work for autistic kids because they only learn things with visual supports (did you ever notice that your AS child took to picture books like ants at a picnic?).  Many of them never spoke or spoke very little for the first few years and it could be because the parents were using the same auditory techniques on them, didn’t have a diagnosis, and didn’t know that those children were visual learners.  [This is NOT to make those parents - including ME - feel bad or guilty; just a possible explanation for the lack of verbal expression by the children].

A lot of research is being done to determine if differences in brain formation or brain utility is related to autism.  Some scientists theorize that there may be a correlation between the part of the brain that is causing the autism and the part of the brain that is linked to visual learning.

We all can learn visually.  Remember those books when you were younger with a picture of an apple, a large letter “A”, and the word “APPLE” all on the same page?  That is visual learning.  A more technical definition is provided on Wikipedia: “Visual learning is a teaching and learning style in which ideas, concepts, data and other information are associated with images and techniques.”  In other words, non-verbal.  Thus, for the same reason the autistic child is nonverbal, his/her learning style is more suited to nonverbal as well.

The point is that education should be adapted for AS kids to incorporate visual learning tools.  Brian S. Friedlander, PhD., has an article “Let’s Get Visual” on polyxo.com about software tools that create a visual learning environment for kids on the autism spectrum.  Dr. Friendlander posits that not only is visual learning good for mainstream education subjects, but also for behavior and social techniques.

Some ways to incorporate visual learning into your AS child’s life:

  • Make lists of daily activities and post it on your child’s bedroom wall or somewhere they see it every day
  • Combine visual cues with verbal cues to enhance understanding of directions (for example, draw a map to help explain directions)
  • Find and cut out pictures of things that your child may struggle with, such as a clock to tell time, a toilet for bathroom training, or food items that your child likes or to help teach about healthy eating
  • Take a photo of your child in various poses to remind him/her of coping methods, such as hands over the ears to protect against loud noises or a smiling face to express when things are good

Google the phrase “visual learning for autism” and you will discover a lot more beyond this blog post.  Also, my company muse[sic] will be coming out with a series of DVDs and CDs that feature learning through music and video for children with autism spectrum disorders very soon.  The education techniques will be based primarily on this research of visual learning.

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