LEARNING STYLES AND AUTISM
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
'Learning styles' is a concept which attempts
to describe the methods by which people gain information about their
environment. People can learn through seeing (visually), hearing
(auditorily), and/or through touching or manipulating an object
(kinesthetically or 'hands-on' learning). For example, looking at
a picture book or reading a textbook involves learning through vision;
listening to a lecture live or on tape involves learning through
hearing; and pressing buttons to determine how to operate a VCR
involves learning kinesthetically.
Generally, most people learn using two to three
learning styles. Interestingly, people can assess their own interests
and lifestyle to determine the ways in which they obtain much of
their information about their environment. In my case, when I read
a book, I can easily understand the text. In contrast, it is difficult
for me to listen to an audiotape recording of that book -- I just
cannot follow the story line. Thus, I am a strong visual learner,
and a moderate, possibly poor, auditory learner. As far as kinesthetic
learning, I am very good at taking apart objects to learn how an
object works, such as a vacuum cleaner or a computer.
One's learning style may affect how well a person
performs in an educational setting, especially from junior high
on through college. Schools usually require both auditory learning
(i.e., listening to a teacher) and visual learning (i.e., reading
a textbook). If one is poor at one of these two ways of learning
sources, he/she will likely depend mostly on his/her strength (e.g.,
a visual learner may study the textbook rather than rely on the
lecture content). Using this logic, if one is poor at both visual
and auditory learning, he/she may have difficulty in school.
Furthermore, one's learning style may be associated
with one's occupation. For example, those individuals who are kinesthetic
learners may tend to have occupations involving their hands, such
as shelf stockers, mechanics, surgeons, or sculptors. Visual learners
may tend to have occupations which involve processing visual information,
such as data processors, artists, architects, or manufacturing part
sorters. Moreover, auditory learners may tend to have jobs which
involve processing auditory information, such as sales people, judges,
musicians, 9-1-1 operators, and waiters/waitresses.
Based on my experience as well as those of my
colleagues, it appears that autistic individuals are more likely
to rely on only one style of learning. By observing the person,
one may be able to determine his/her primary style of learning.
For example, 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.
Once a person's learning style is determined,
then relying on this modality to teach can greatly increase the
likelihood that the person will learn. If one is not sure which
learning style a child has or is teaching to a group with different
learning styles, then the best way to teach could be to use all
three styles together. For example, when teaching the concept 'jello,'
one can display a package and bowl of jello (visual); describe its
features such as its color, texture, and use (auditory); and then
let the person touch and taste it (kinesthetic).
One common problem evidenced by autistic children
is running around the classroom and not listening to the teacher.
This child may not be an auditory learner; and thus, he/she is not
attending to the teacher's words. If the child is a kinesthetic
learner, the teacher may choose to place his/her hands on the child's
shoulders and then guide the student back to his/her chair, or go
to the chair and move it towards the student. If the child learns
visually, the teacher may need to show the child his/her chair or
hand them a picture of the chair and gesture for the child to sit
Teaching to the learning style of the student
may make an impact on whether or not the child can attend to and
process the information which is presented. This, in turn, can affect
the child's performance in school as well as his/her behavior. Therefore,
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.
This will ensure that the autistic child has the greatest chance
for success in school.
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