New research is challenging the often-used method of teaching kids with autism through repetition.

By Jamie Pacton
October 12, 2015
Boy playing with toy cars
Credit: PhotoUG/Shutterstock

Kids with autism are often taught using repetition, but a new study is challenging that method. Researchers from an international team studied the effects of drills, repetition, and overspecifity in learning. Their findings were clear: Too much repetition causes hyperspecificty and that impairs someone with autism's ability to generalize.

In the study, adults with ASD and a control group had to identify three diagonal bars surrounded by other lines. For the first few days, while the bars stayed in the same spot, both groups performed the same. When the diagonal bars moved for the last four days of the study, the results changed dramatically. The adults with ASD, as Shilo Rea from Carnegie Mellon reports, "performed poorly when the target location was changed and they were not able to improve their performance, indicating that they received no benefit from initially learning the first location. Even more interesting, they were never able to learn the second location as well as the first, demonstrating an interference in learning that may reflect the consequences of extensive repetition."

I saw a similar occurrence when my son, an intelligent, non-speaking 7-year-old on the spectrum learned to wash his hands using a 15-step process. He could do those steps at school and at home, where he practiced with his therapists. Translated into a new setting such as a community park or store bathroom, however, the steps fell apart and he simply stuck his hands under the stream of water. The same thing happened when was asked to identify a picture of a trampoline. At the table, in a controlled setting, he could accurately point it out. But when asked to identify a real trampoline, like the one in our friend's yard, which looked different than the one in his picture, my son struggled to translate his knowledge.

So, what's the takeaway here? Certainly structured teaching and repetition can work—we use it all the time to teach neurotypical kids skills like playing an instrument or learning math—but for kids on the spectrum, it can't be the only teaching method. To be effective, it has to be paired with generalization and practical learning in the natural environment. To return to the case of my son and the pictures of a trampoline, he would have learned better if we had varied our teaching. We should have been showing him pictures of many other types of trampolines, taking him to jump on these trampolines, and talking to him about the similarities and differences at the same time in order to help him generalize his knowledge. It's a simple change in teaching style, but it can have a tremendous impact on a child with autism's learning.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at jamiepacton.comFacebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton.