How to Help Your Autistic Child Learn to Think Conceptually

You can help most autistic children think conceptually by guiding them to put details together to form ideas — preferably with visual symbols. You can demonstrate abstract concepts like “more” or “less” with objects instead of explaining them in words. To teach an autistic child fractions, for example, you can use a piece of paper or a piece of fruit that you can cut up to show quarters, thirds, and halves. And to teach the word “fraction,” you show the word with the pictorial example so that the child can form an association between the two.

Say that you want to teach an autistic child the categories of dogs. Whenever you go for a ride or a walk, point out the different types of dogs when you see them. Identify the dog as a dog and mention what kind of dog it is (Bulldog, Dalmatian, and so on). State what makes it a dog and not a cat or a bird. Picture books that show many kinds of dogs may be helpful.

A person with autism functions best with literal, concrete terms, not abstractly. Explaining a concept with detailed descriptions isn’t as effective as showing a picture or the object itself. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is quite true for a person with autism. And to complicate matters, an autistic person will take idiomatic expressions like the previous quote so literally that he may ask, “What are the thousand words?”

Severely autistic children (or children with classic autism) may need to use touch as their most reliable learning method. You can walk a child with severe autistic symptoms through a new task by taking his hand and prompting him to touch the objects involved, because he may not understand the shape by sight if his visual processing is impaired.

A child with autism may also have trouble transferring a freshly learned skill, such as tying his shoelaces, to a new task if you alter the situation at all. For example, if you teach a child how to tie his shoes and then give him a new pair of shoes that have brightly colored laces made of a different material, he may not be able to use the skills he recently learned to tie them. Although the two situations may seem identical to you, the autistic child doesn’t realize that the laces are still shoelaces and that he can tie them in the same way, because they look different than the ones he’s used to. You should also maintain touch consistency when teaching tasks such as lacing shoes to a severely autistic child. If you introduce new touches, you must take time to acclimate the severely autistic child to the change.

When introducing an autistic child to a new situation, even if only one or two details have changed, you must take care to familiarize him with new aspects that may cause confusion. If he’s going to a new school, for instance, you can help by taking him there before the first day to do a walkthrough, where you explain what will happen and show him where different items are located and how to use them. Perhaps you can even arrange for him to meet his new teachers.

And always remember to be understanding and compassionate. The normal anxieties a child faces in a new situation, like the first day of school, are increased by his difficulties in transferring behaviors to new settings — settings that seem conceptually similar but appear to him to be different.

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