Behavior That Indicates The ASD Student Is Having Difficulty
PROBLEMS WITH AUDITORY PROCESSING
Auditory processing is often a weakness, which is sometimes a reflection of the student’s difficulty imposing order on new or novel information. Listening comprehension is often slow and inefficient. Extensive verbal instruction can be overwhelming.
a) poor auditory closure… unable to fill in small missing pieces of the auditory message, may get stuck on missing information and have difficulty going on to get new information to fill in what they did not get the first time
b) when information is presented too fast or not repeated often enough the new information becomes a distraction in their attempts to remember the old information
c) over selection to detail that adds little to the meaning of what is being said
d) rate of eye contact is low, the student misses the nonverbal part of the message provided by the teacher
e) when the student is left to develop the organizational structure for new or novel information, especially when new concepts are introduced, information is often organized as one endless list of unrelated facts and the student’s ability to listen and remember breaks down
f) unable to effectively screen out other noises (e.g., the noise of the heating fan in the back of the room, activity in the hall)
g) unable to sustain focused attention on the verbal content due to competing internal stimuli
h) able to remember facts and associative information but not actively drawing conclusions and organizing the information in a way that makes it easier to recall
AUDITORY PROCESSING RECOMMENDATIONS
a) planned repetition, short summaries and recaps
b) short sentences, paraphrase when the student looks lost
c) pair verbal presentation with visual organizers (graphs, maps illustrations, diagrams)
d) allow processing time between chunks of information
e) periodically cue for attention
f) frequently check for understanding, ask the student to repeat what was said
g) provide format for organizing the information (sequenced time line, list, table, story web or wheel)
h) practice with listening games (“I’m thinking of an object”, verbal absurdities)
i) provide comprehension questions before the presentation
j) preteach the concepts and key vocabulary
k) frequently identify the “big picture” or main point during the lesson, fill in the “big picture” with details, and explicitly show the connections with the rest of the information
l) provide the whole or “big picture” first, then present the particulars. . . without the whole there will often be no organization imposed on the details. . . start with the main point or hypothesis and then fill in the details
m) provide questions that help the student impose meaning and order throughout the presentation. . . help distinguish important and essential information from less important information
PROBLEMS WITH ORGANIZATION AND HIGHER ORDER THINKING SKILLS
ASD students work very hard to apply critical thinking skills (e.g., drawing conclusions, understanding cause and effect, making predictions, making connections, determining main idea, etc.). They also struggles to plan and organize projects and written work. They are overwhelmed by multiple options and have difficulty prioritizing. The final product is usually very good but it usually takes a tremendous effort.
a) ASD children often have a cognitive weakness referred to as a deficit in executive function.
b) One aspect of executive function involves critical thinking skills:
integrating and generalizing information,
understanding cause and effect,
determining main idea,
estimating time to complete activities.
c) Students with executive function problems are overwhelmed by multiple options, they have difficulty prioritizing
d) written expression often shows poor organization with no clear beginning, middle or end, there are often frequent subject changes without proper connection, there is little distinction between personal and general knowledge, ideas are poorly developed (lacking in depth and detail), and often ASD students present with perseveration of ideas and they are overly repetitious with their themes
PROBLEMS WITH ATTENTION
Children with ASD often have trouble sustaining attention or concentrating.
a) distracted by internal stimuli such as an amusing thought, a tangential connection, or a worry leading to obsessive thoughts
b) distracted by external stimuli such as an irrelevant feature of the presentation (the tone of voice or hand gestures used by the teacher), background noise/activity, and social hypervigilence
Children with ASD have trouble shifting attention
a) from one work task to another
b) from working to listening
c) from watching to listening
PROBLEMS WITH THEORY OF MIND
Theory of mind refers to the ability of an individual to have a theory of what is in
another other person’s mind, making the link between people’s behavior and their internal state (their intentions, desires, beliefs, and feelings). Theory of mind is a necessary prerequisite for social interaction and productive social relationships. This is a cognitive ability that develops fully in children between the ages of 3 and 5 years. ASD students are often referred to as “mind blind” because it is suggested that this ability is impaired. For many years the experts thought that nothing could be done to help the ASD child with this difficulty because they thought it reflected a lack of cognitive development. We now know that ASD children do indeed have the cognitive ability to form a theory of mind, but what they lack is the attention and information processing ability to gather the necessary information to make quick and accurate judgments about what is in the mind of others. If we remember this we can solve the problem by pointing out what is relevant, by slowing information down.
Children with ASD, for example, did equally well as typical children when asked to make social judgments when only one social cue was present, but performed significantly worse than the other groups when multiple cues were present (additional cues impeded performance while they improved performance for other groups). This is not a cognitive development problem, but a problem of information overload and a problem of sorting essential from nonessential detail. The multiple cues were not helpful because the ASD children were already paying attention to too many cues, the irrelevant cues. This is a very important distinction and one that is essential to understand when teaching ASD children.
ASD children have trouble attending to eye contact because this information is difficult to process. Without good eye contact it is difficult to form a theory of mind.
a) “People give each other messages with their eyes, but I don’t know what they are saying.”
b) “When I look at your eyes I cannot hear your words.”
They also are impaired in their ability to use shifts of gaze to initiate and terminate an interaction sequence, to reference a person’s reaction, or to establish shared attention to an object of interest.
a) Ability to establish shared attention is typically achieved by 12-15 months and is thought to be a critical element of social development.
b) empirically, joint attention disturbance has been linked to frontal neurological processes in children with and without ASD.
c) there is a link (hypothesized) between joint attention ability and motivation for social approach behaviors.
Children with ASD are subject to overselective attention. Their attention is directed to an overly restricted range of environmental stimuli, not always the most important stimuli, while missing many relevant cues. This is probably a problem in shifting attention as well as sorting essential from nonessential detail.
The ASD child’s problem with “theory of mind” is not a cognitive development problem. ASD children can read nonverbal social cues, they can represent and attribute mental states, but they have a problem with information overload (slow, inefficient processing), lack of social experience, and difficulty rapidly shifting attention. The result is that they often do not have an accurate theory of mind.
b) Children with ASD were able to answer metarepresentation questions when attentional requirements were minimal.
c) Theory of mind does not explain the onset of social difficulties, which begin at 12-15 months when ASD children fail to secure joint attention—long before any child is expected to have a theory of mind age 3-5 years).
PROBLEMS WITH MEMORY
Children with ASD have a weak need for central coherence. They are less inclined to impose a meaningful organizational structure upon new information and often at a loss in grasping the main idea.
Episodic memory is strong (gestalt)
when was the last time the class played “7-up” (what day and what time of day) and who was left standing at the front of the room?
the gestures, mannerisms, voice tone and speech cadence of an actor in a particular scene from a favorite video tape
an interest in “instant replays” and a playing style that involves precise re-creation of previously viewed events
Associative/rote memory is very good (literal)
the exact membership of every reading group, facts about dinosaurs, names of states and capitols
can recall extraordinary level of detail from reading but may not get the point of the story
when asked about what happened in the book, will often respond with “I don’t know” because: a) they are unable to recall every single detail, b) it would take too long to retell the entire story detail by detail, and/or c) they don’t know how to begin organizing the information for someone else to understand
will have trouble responding to open ended questions (e.g., what happened?) about information they have read.
Semantic memory may be weak (meaning)
Children with ASD did equally well recalling nonsense and sensible sentences; they were able to recall a series of unrelated words as well as words that were thematically related.
ORGANIZATION AND HIGHER ORDER THINKING SKILLS, ATTENTION, AND MEMORY RECOMMENDATIONS
a) Detective books (e.g., Nate The Great for young students) provide a model for gathering and organizing clues.
b) Provide an organizing framework for the child to use to understand how that type of thinking is done. A formula or script, for example, can be provided to analyze character (e.g., show how to collect clues about specific characters to be able to describe them, understand what kind of people they are and predict what they will say or do in the story, then use sticky notes to mark the pages while reading every time you come across a clue about the character. . .use the sticky notes to conduct a discussion about the characters in the story). Eventually, once the script is learned and practiced, ASD students no longer require it because it is internalized, so other scripts for additional story elements can be developed.
c) Visualization training can also assist with comprehension. It is important to use an approach that works on visualizing from language (forming images while reading and listening) as well as visualizing from pictures (e.g., give a detailed verbal description from a picture considering color, number, shape, location, movement, mood, background, perspective, time, sound, etc.). You might want to have students practice matching pictures with sentences, eliminating pictures that don’t match the sentence. You might use verbal and visual absurdities, finding “what’s wrong with this picture” and making a story to match it. When ASD students listen or read we want them to form mental pictures that help them organize and understand, raise questions and predict.
d) Steck-Vaughn produces a Critical Thinking series that covers…drawing conclusions, classifying, comparing and contrasting, ordering, predicting, inferring, distinguishing real from make believe, facts versus opinions, outlining and summarizing, determining main idea, identifying relationships
e) Book reports need extensive organization using story maps and graphic organizers that help the ASD child list the characters, describe the setting, identify the main problem, prioritize important events, put events in order, summarize the problem resolution. the ASD child will have extreme difficulty imposing his/her own order on this process.
f) Provide the whole or “big picture” first, then present the particulars. Without the whole there will often be no organization imposed on the particulars. Start with the conclusion, main point, or hypothesis then fill in the details.
g) Provide questions that help the ASD child impose meaning and order throughout the presentation. Help distinguish important and essential information from nonessential information.
h) Use visuals to organize information (lists, tables, outlines, graphs, maps, charts, etc.).
i) Assignments should be broken down into small units.
j) Demonstrate the steps needed to accomplish a particular task, provide clear illustrations, provide a model of the finished product, a format to follow.
k) It helps when each step in a task requiring significant organization and planning (e.g., a book report) is a separate graded, complete assignment.
l) It is important to set clear goals. The teacher needs to explain exactly what the students are expected to learn (use rubrics).
m) Check frequently for understanding, don’t wait for questions.
n) Reduce choices to a minimum, do not overwhelm the ASD child with options.
o) Reduce mechanical overload to increase effort applied to thinking (e.g., less time writing and copying, develop keyboarding skills, use a scribe).
p) Long term assignment organization guidelines:
1) Explicit instruction should be provided, with a stated purpose and clearly stated objectives.
2) List of steps to completion with application to a calendar planner
3) Multiple check points with the teacher, before the start of assignment, at
the proposal stage, the rough draft, and other spot checks.
q) limit the number of shifts in attention, avoid talking while ASD students are writing or reading
r) limit interruptions that break concentration
s) use a cue to prompt a shift in attention, secure attention before proceeding
t) provide a quiet study area free from background noise
u) use headphones (at the computer, listening to story tapes, seat work)
PROBLEMS WITH TRIAL AND ERROR, DISCOVERY, AND GROUP PROCESS LEARNING
a) Making mistakes, getting the wrong answer, and other signs of imperfection often cause significant frustration and learning problems for the ASD child. Children with ASD often react much more severely to failure and quickly become overwhelmed in these situations. They have a much stronger need for perfection than the average child.
b) ASD children usually perseverate on their “failures” and may repeat over and over “I can’t do it, I’ll never be able to do it.” This often leads to increased avoidance of the task in the future.
c) There is little educational benefit to letting children with ASD work out their own mistakes and wrestle with failure as a learning experience.
d) Learning through trial and error is not well tolerated and discovery learning is not productive. When an “investigations” approach to math is used ASD students get upset to learn that there can be more than one right answer, more than one way to solve a problem, and they often get into upsetting arguments with their group members who have ideas that are not technically or precisely correct.
e) ASD students may not try something because they think they may not be able to do it well enough.
f) ASD students set very high standards for themselves, they have a strong drive for perfection and a greater need for immediate success. They do not tolerate the “error” part of the “trial and error” process.
g) Fear of failure is not a motivator. Where other students might try hard because they don’t want to get it wrong, many ASD students won’t attempt it because there is a chance they will get it wrong.
h) ASD students do not easily recognize the small steps to success along the way, they are more focused on the fact that they have not reached mastery. Learning is often none to all. ASD students know it once they completely understand it and they often don’t acknowledge knowing anything about it until they reach that point. They might say, “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing,” when, in fact, there is just one small part that they don’t know how to do.
i) ASD do not readily ask for assistance.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TRIAL AND ERROR, DISCOVERY, AND GROUP PROCESS LEARNING
a) Model and identify mistake making.
b) Model and identify being unsure.
c) Model flexibility.
d) Reward asking for help.
e) Provide clear expectations that there will be mistakes made and you expect questions about what to do.
f) Provide explicit instruction, demonstration, and illustration.
g) It helps to give the “big picture” or conclusion at the start of the lesson, along with the appropriate organizational structure (e.g., template, outline, figure, table, or graph). Inductive methods work better than deductive methods.
h) ASD students do better when first they are shown explicitly how to do something (e.g., a math operation) then they are provided with the explanation or understanding of why it works that way. It helps to show examples of completed assignments.
i) It is better when ASD students are told the point of the lesson (e.g., “This is all about what happens in societies when a particular group is oppressed) before it begins, rather than have them arrive at the point after integrating information from the lesson. Better integration of material occurs when the organizational structure is provided ahead of time and when charts, tables, graphs, completed examples, models, and other visual organizers are used to support the verbal part of the lesson.
J) The ASD child should receive academic assistance as soon as significant difficulties are noticed, before you would provide it to the typical student.
k) Provide alternatives to group work involving trial and error learning. Sometimes it is better for ASD students to work alone on a portion of the assignment, then report to the group. Provide a specific procedure for the ASD to follow during the discovery part of the exercise.
PROBLEMS WITH WRITTEN EXPRESSION
a) ASD students struggle with written expression. They have trouble organizing their thoughts (e.g., creating the “big picture”), putting them into some form of hierarchy (sorting important from unimportant information), and they don’t know where to begin, what to include, or how to connect their ideas. They may have a very sophisticated understanding of the material but are often at a loss when it is time to show this with a report or essay.
b) Often their writing is an idiosyncratic perseveration on a theme, or just one long string of information. Their writing often makes sense to them, but they are at a loss when it comes to evaluating what the reader would like to see.
c) ASD students have very little tolerance for the writing process. For example, they usually want to count the rough draft as their final copy. Without explicit instruction and a clear procedure to follow for each step in the writing process, ASD students don’t understand why they are doing it and the steps do not help them generate a better product. One boy, when required to use a “four square” graphic organizer for his report, simply wrote the report by filling up each square with a full paragraph. The steps in the writing process are not a help, but a burden to the ASD child, without more explicit guidance.
d) Journal writing and other less defined writing assignments (the more open-ended assignments, “Tell me about your weekend”) are frustrating for ASD students because they don’t know what to include or how much to write. Their frequent response to such assignments is, “I don’t know what to write.”
WRITTEN EXPRESSION RECOMMENDATIONS
a) Provide a clear format to follow, a finished example to use. This is the most effective approach, the most important thing to do before the writing begins, yet it is the intervention least often utilized in the classroom.
b) Monitor progress closely (check points at various stages of completion).
c) Use webs, note cards and a writing rubric with staff facilitation at the beginning of the assignment and again in the middle. The student should be taught a script to follow for each of the writing steps. Do not assume that anything is intuitive or self-explanatory. The student will need to know the “rules” or “trick”, for example, to taking notes from reading (e.g., how many facts per card, how many facts per paragraph). The student will also need an explicit procedure to enter note cards into a graphic organizer, and another procedure to write paragraphs from a graphic organizer.
d) Treat each step in the writing process as a separate complete assignment, one that can be graded when finished.
e) Use a visual approach to help ASD students organize their ideas, to help them start with a “big picture” and then make the smaller pictures. This is not the way the ASD mind typically works, so what is obvious to others is not obvious to them. They often have many little pictures, but no big picture, or their version of the big picture is really some obscure and unimportant detail.
f) Teaching ASD students writing is a process filled with explicit procedures, rules, formulas, and routines. Writing is the process of assembling and putting together each ingredient, each element that has its own formula. Every different type of writing has a different formula. Often students are not provided with these formulas because we believe that it interferes with the creative process or it is better to discover much of this on your own. That is not true for ASD students. There should be no secret kept. Give them the formula and show them a completed example. If you do not know the formula or cannot derive a formula, (for example, a formula for building a paragraph, a formula for a persuasive essay) it will be difficult for you to teach writing.
g) See the document, Writing Guide for an example of a detailed rubric of each step in the writing process
PROBLEMS WITH GROUP DISCUSSION IN THE CLASSROOM
ASD students often find it difficult to participate in group discussions in the classroom. They often have the information to contribute but find it too frustrating to deal with the problems of formulating what they has to say and saying it while worrying about interruptions and getting it just right.
a) They may talk too long, with no pauses until finished, and feel a need to complete, intolerant of interruptions or topic shifts. Once started they have to go to the finish uninterrupted. Turn taking is a problem, there is very little give and take.
b) Speech is not always clear, it is presented too fast or too soft, sometimes with odd voice tones related to the way it was heard. There is little appreciation for what the listener needs in order to understand.
c) Often answers contain too much overly precise detail without any emphasis on what is important. They can be overly critical of other students who offer information that is not entirely accurate. This can come across as rude and insensitive.
d) Explanations/stories start in the middle, usually not at the beginning, and usually there is a rambling quality to the narrative, which assumes too much shared information on the part of the listener (personal versus general knowledge).
e) There is often a failure to register reactions of the listener (boredom, comprehension) and the ASD student appears not to care if anyone is listening.
f) ASD students have trouble listening while trying to formulate something to say. Once it is formulated it must be delivered in precise form before it is forgotten. Typically ASD students will start over if they have been interrupted by comments or questions, rather than modify as they go.
g) The ASD student can become overly distracted by the social activity in the surrounding area, unable to ignore it. They may become fascinated by something they see while in the middle of a discussion, and possibly quite worried about any inappropriate social going on.
h) Communication breakdowns are often not recognized as breakdowns, they set up poor modeling by others (e.g., people turn away or walk away while he is still talking, people are forced to interrupt, people tune out or stop paying attention, people don’t respond when the long speech is over, thereby reinforcing one way communication.
i) ASD students are not usually able to compete with the demands of normal group discussion. They may have the right answer but will have trouble formulating it, trouble finding a way to work it into the discussion, or getting it all out quickly enough to avoid interruption. Most of the time the ASD child will refrain from group discussion.
GROUP DISCUSSION RECOMMENDATIONS
a) Use a cloze technique (where you provide the language formulation) for open ended questions. Ask for lists, fill in the blank, ask for facts or provide a multiple choice.
b) Allow ample uninterrupted time for a response, time to organize, formulate and deliver. Class participation requires response protected opportunities.
c) Provide advanced warning about participation opportunities (in a few minutes I’m going to ask you about…).
d) Occasionally have students write their answers and start a group discussion by having ASD students read what they have written and answer questions about what they have written (as opposed to spontaneous free flowing class discussion).
Speaking is more of a social activity than writing so the challenge of expressing ideas is much greater for the ASD child when speaking.
e) Occasionally have students present from a poster, drawing, or diagram that organizes their ideas.
f) Call on the ASD child rather than relying on him to volunteer.
g) Create an atmosphere in the classroom where interruption is not tolerated, wrong answers are not ridiculed, everyone gets a turn, and students are rewarded for their effort and considered brave for taking a chance.
h) Seat the ASD child near the site of instruction.
OTHER WORK HABIT ISSUES
The ASD child usually finishes his/her work ahead of others but does not handle “down time” well. (S)he is not sure what to do with /herself/himself during this time.
Down Time Recommendations.
1) Use as a peer helper.
2) Provide with bonus work along with additional recognition.
3) Provide with jobs around the classroom.
4) Provide a down time folder with engaging activities (see Leisure Break in the articles on Restorative Breaks).
5) Structure the use of study periods for homework and reading.
6) Provide support for proper use of down time in class (e.g., using the last fifteen minutes for homework, reading, completion of class work, studying, or just relaxing with a Leisure Break activity).
The ASD child is often resistant to repetitive work that is too simple or perceived as meaningless to him/her (e.g., writing spelling words 10 times after getting a 100%, a page of math problems below ability level).
Repetitive Work Recommendations.
It may be helpful to boost motivation with a contingent work reduction plan (write every spelling word twice and the ones you got wrong on the pretest 10 times, get one row of math problems 100% correct and skip the next row, etc.).
Note Taking Recommendations.
Provide assistance with note taking. Provide ASD students with a copy of the notes or an outline ahead of time so they can follow the lesson instead of trying to write everything down. Teach note taking skills from reading material.
Getting ready on time, finishing on time, etc can be a significant problem for the ASD child.
Time pressure Recommendations.
It is important to outline how much work should be done to be on schedule, ahead of schedule, behind schedule, etc.