How do autistic kids learn best?

There are over 100,000 students with autism in schools across Australia, and 78% of those report difficulties at school. As a parent or a teacher, it’s worth understanding how autistic kids learn best.

From the most recent survey from the ABS, the difficulties experienced by autistic children at school are varied. From not fitting in socially, to learning difficulties, to exclusion in sports and difficulty sitting down all day. So if we know how to address these common difficulties, we might find out how autistic kids learn best.

Data and graph from

First: Don’t assume how autistic kids learn best

You know what they say – if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Everyone is different, and has a different profile with different strengths and weaknesses.

Start with the human approach – have a conversation between teacher and student. Developing a One Pager document to summarise needs/strengths/interests can also be helpful for teachers.

Rather than make assumptions about what an ‘autistic person’ would find helpful as a support at school, talk to them!

Learning Difficulties

55.3% of autistic students reported learning difficulties. This is a very broad category and could mean many things. Taking the advice above first – make sure teachers talk to autistic students about how they learn best.

Commonly, learning difficulties may be due to low executive functioning around planning and organisation. If there is low muscle tone or low fine motor skills, then handwriting may be messy or tiring. There may also be perfectionist traits. To support these barriers to learning:

  • use scaffolds e.g. paragraph planners like TEEL, OREO or CER to help plan and write out responses.
  • use technological supports e.g. typing rather than writing, talk to text to use voice instead of typing
  • have shared documents e.g. google docs, google classroom so the teacher can see work in progress and not have to wait for work to be submitted (which, with perfectionism, may not happen)
  • break large tasks down into steps or chunks – this helps reduce cognitive load and make the task less overwhelming
  • use lists of steps with built in breaks/rewards and mini-due-dates for each step – this helps with getting started and staying on focus, and managing time
  • use timers to support focus during lessons. A pomodoro style technique (25 mins work, 5 min rest) may work to manage attention, time management and regulation
  • use diaries and reminders for due dates so there is lots of warning in advance. This avoids meltdowns due to time pressures that are unrealistic. Alternatively, be more flexible with due dates to avoid time-related stress.
  • start with concrete ideas before moving to the abstract.
  • sell the ‘why’ you are doing things – if it lacks relevance or interest it can be tricky for autistic kids to engage in
  • harness motivation – where learning can connect to student interests (because autistic children often have fixed or obsessive interests), use these interests to motivate students to engage in learning
  • avoid the excessive use analogies or metaphors in learning – autistic children are often very literal and this can be more confusing.

Be strength based

Some autistic children can have amazing memories, be highly creative and imaginative, and have incredible depth of knowledge around their particular interests. Where possible, use a strength-based approach rather than a deficit approach.

Communication Difficulties

  • don’t assess non-verbal communication like making eye contact, varied tone, or talking in front of others. These aspects of communication relate directly to the ASD assessment and criteria. To be inclusive, marks shouldn’t be applied to things that are known to be uncomfortable or impossible for autistic people.
  • allow wait time after asking questions. There may be delayed processing time where children are making sense of what has been said, non-verbal cues, facial expressions, sarcasm, tone of voice.
  • provide instructions in both written and verbal forms. This allows for reference back to instructions, reduces memory and cognitive demands in the moment, and also accommodates for students who are easily distracted and forget what to do.
  • have flexibility around how to show learning. Rethink every written assignment and time-limited test. Explore other ways of finding out what a student knows.

Difficulty Sitting

16% of students reported difficulty sitting. This is a surprising category of ‘school difficulty’ but there would be lots of active children that find the sedentary nature of school to be tricky. To be responsive to this difficulty, you could try:

  • alternate seating that allows some movement such as wobble chairs, sensory cushions, fit balls, stools, beanbags, elastic band food fidgets.
  • allocate more time to movement breaks (‘brain breaks’) at the start of the day, during lessons, and at the end of the day.
  • incorporate active learning such as body-based pedagogy, standing up and working on vertical spaces, moving to different corners of the rooms for different activities.

Regulation Support

What’s not reported explicitly in the ABS report is difficulties with emotional regulation at school. In our experience, this is a big issue for our autistic kids at school. They are supported through

  • frequent ‘brain breaks’ or movement breaks. This could range from down time doing a preferred activity (reading, drawing) or doing physical movement like yoga, dance, or youtube brain break chases
  • having a ‘calm corner’ in the classroom with a couch, dim lighting, squishy soft cushions and calming sensory toys or reading materials to enable self-regulation

Conclusion: how do autistic kids learn best

There is no one way of learning that’s going to work for all autistic kids because everyone is different. However, we know from the ABS data what the most common difficulties at school are for the over 100,000 autistic students in Australia. So, addressing these barriers can make learning at school more accessible, comfortable and successful.

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