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"... the most important considerations in devising educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders have to do with recognition of the autism spectrum as a whole, with the concomitant implications for social, communicative, and behavioral development and learning, and with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child across areas of development."
—Educating Children with Autism2001

Understanding Autism
Understanding Cognitive Differences

Flexible Reasoning
Flexible reasoning (or cognitive flexibility) is the ability to take in new information about a situation, subject, or idea, and to make connections and comparisons with the old, then use that information to direct behavior. The ability to think flexibly is an executive function, but impacts students with autism so greatly that it's important to consider it separately.
  • May think of things as either black or white, right or wrong, with no in-between
    • May not be able to comprehend different types of friendships or social connections; people are either friends or enemies, and can rarely if ever, change from one to the other
    • May have difficulty leaving projects unfinished or to be finished later; they are either complete or incomplete
    • May not be able to skip a difficult test question and return to it later
  • May be a concrete/literal thinker
    • May be easily confused by or misunderstand the meanings of idioms, exaggerations, and figures of speech
    • May struggle to understand abstract concepts
  • May have difficulty generating solutions to problems, and tend to fixate on her “favorite” or only solution
    • May seek adult intervention every time there is peer conflict, whether or not they are involved
  • May have difficulty generalizing skills learned in one environment to another environment
    • May be able to organize materials in one class but not another
    • Some skills learned in prior grades may not transfer to the next grade
    • May be able to write paragraphs for reading but not for social studies
    • May be able to engage peers appropriately in the classroom but not in the cafeteria or on the playground
  • May have a strong preference for routines, which provide structure and predictability that help him feel secure
    • May consistently perform tasks in the same order, and may have difficulty inserting a new step or omitting a step
    • May panic, cry, or otherwise act out if there is a change in the routine, especially a sudden or unplanned change
  • May have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next (especially from a preferred activity)
    • May resist transition verbally
    • May ignore the situation completely
    • May refuse to clean up first activity
    • May refuse to begin a new activity, or take a long time to begin the activity
  • May have difficulty with significant transitions such as the start and end of the school year
    • May act out or show signs of anxiety or depression; signs may emerge weeks before the transition is to occur, as the student anticipates the change
  • May engage in repetitive activities
    • May play the same game or activity every day at recess
    • May choose to read the same book or type of book repeatedly
    • May choose only one type of assignment, even when given multiple choices
  • May focus exclusively on specialized interests, resisting other subjects and activities typically enjoyed by same-age peers
    • May focus on a subset of the interest; learning all about clouds, for example, but ignoring other aspects of weather
  • May not be motivated by typical rewards or praise
    • May not make the connection between the rewards, praise, or punishments of peers to themselves. (A student with autism may not think “John got a star for sitting still. If I sit still, maybe I'll get a star too.” This connection will need to be taught directly.)

Improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in grades K-12

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