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This author has been thinking lately about how we learn (from a sensory perspective), and how autists’ sensory challenges affect this.

female child in a ball pool - illustrating autism article on spectra.blogThe primary or dominant learning styles of all individuals are said to use the three main sensory receivers: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic – the latter is essentially learning by doing, and includes ‘tactile’ learning – eg. a physical type of learning.

Essentially, all individuals use memory and perception to learn – and these two elements are often different in autists. All of us use all of the three main learning styles to a degree, however we do tend to have a preference for one.

Very young children are generally taught (in an educational setting) using movement-based methods; older children’s teaching is often more visually presented; and for older students, including those moving into college education, auditory learning is more usual. Good teachers would presumably use a blend of teaching techniques, and recognise individuals’ dominant learning styles, and adapt the learning as required.

An autist’s dominant learning style

Helping identify an autist’s dominant learning style can help an autistic child access their education, and could reduce stress. As an example, a young autistic boy this author knows, aged six, struggles (as a kinesthetic learner) to remember a text he has to read at school, which is then directly followed by a comprehension question – all read by the boy on paper.

He would be greatly helped by teaching techniques that involve touching, building, moving, or drawing a subject, in order to learn about it. He may also find it beneficial to hold something (like a fidget pen or toy, which can be tapped or held), while learning, to disperse some energy and aid focus.

Three girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.One point that I have been pondering is whether our dominant learning style is also our Achilles heel, as an autistic. For example, I am an auditory learner – I say things out loud to learn them, can recall information by simply hearing it, and work comfortably with sound in the background.

It is as if my auditory system is amplified

However my dominant autistic sensory challenges are also auditory. On a sensitive day, it is sounds, chattering, people’s mouth or eating noises, background noise, ‘grating’ noises like metal on concrete etc, that challenge my system the most.

So, it is as if my auditory system is amplified – and this not only allows me to effectively learn through auditory means, but also brings my system down when my auditory processing is overloaded. I can only speak as an autist and not for anyone else of a neurotypical persuasion, but if other autists experience this ‘ying and yang’ issue too, identifying it could be most beneficial, in terms of helping an autistic child access learning .

The autism research institute gives some examples of how autistic children may learn as follows:

If an autistic child enjoys looking at books (e.g., picture books), watching television (with or without sound), and tends to look carefully at people and objects, then he/she may be a visual learner.

 If an autistic child talks excessively, enjoys people talking to him/her, and prefers listening to the radio or music, then he/she may be an auditory learner.

And if an autistic child is constantly taking things apart, opening and closing drawers, and pushing buttons, this may indicate that the child is a kinesthetic or ‘hands-on’ learner.

The organisation states ‘It is important that educators assess for learning style as soon as an autistic child enters the school system and that they adapt their teaching styles in rapport with the strengths of the student.’

Boy draws, to illustrate childhood autism articleOf course, not all learning takes place at school, and the same theories can be replicated at home.

It really does make sense to work to a child’s strengths rather than ‘squash’ them into a learning methodology that doesn’t ‘fit’ them!

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions.

The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!


Also published on Medium.