Special Needs Now

Children with Autism Learn New Words Just Like Other Kids, With One Small Difference

A new study found that autistic kids can perform as well as peers when learning language—they just need more time.

Mom reading to young son. Kids with autism learn words like neurotypical kids. Shutterstock
Kids with autism—even those who are non-verbal or labeled as "low-functioning" (a label that I take serious issue with for many reasons)—can learn and should be taught. My 8-year-old autistic son is non-speaking and he has many challenges, but he's a brilliant problem-solver. And he's taking in all sorts of knowledge every day—he just does it differently and in his own time.

Knowing this about my own child's learning, I was eager to read about a study about autism that was recently published in the International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. In this study, researchers at the University of Iowa sought to explore how autistic kids learn language—a skill that's usually picked up by neurotypical children by following the gaze of someone as they name an object.

To understand what the researchers did, think about how you might teach a young child a new word. "This is a mango," you might say to a toddler, looking at the fruit. Then, to check for comprehension, you might put the mango next to a banana, glance at the right choice, and ask "Can you hand me the mango?" Likely the child will follow your gaze and hand you the mango.

Autistic kids struggle a bit more with this skill, however, since eye contact and visual tracking is a challenge for them. The researchers did find, however, that with time, repetition, and positive reinforcement—not negative reinforcement or consequences—autistic children performed nearly as well as their neurotypical peers.

So, what are the important takeaways here? First and foremost, autism doesn't meant kids can't be taught. They can and they should be taught at grade level. Secondly, we should be patient with them, as they are learning in their own time. But, when given time, they can perform skills on par with their peers. And lastly, it's a reminder to be nice while you're teaching an autistic child. Praise him or her, don't focus on negatives or failures, but celebrate victories, gently guide, and trust that he or she is always listening, learning, and working to show you what he or she knows.

Jamie Pacton lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook, and Twitter @jamiepacton.