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Cultivating Critical Thinking Skills in Children with Autism

Does your child face rigidity in thought and routines, or difficulties with managing emotions and social situations? Your child might lack adequate critical thinking skills, an essential aspect of children’s development. Critical thinking is the ability to make sense of our environment and our experiences, allowing us to cope with diverse situations and to problem-solve.

Building critical thinking skills in children with autism helps them to increase flexibility of thought and improve self-regulation. Children with strong thinking skills can approach novel situations with an open mind, ask thoughtful questions, and understand that there might be more than one answer or method to do things.

It may be more difficult to develop critical thinking skills in children with autism as they often think in concrete terms, and may not naturally draw upon past experiences or make novel connections independently. Hence, they may benefit from more explicit teaching and guidance during moments of decision making and when internalising new information. Given that critical thinking skills are crucial, how do we cultivate these skills in children with autism? Here are three strategies to help you build critical thinking skills in your child!

1. Relate stories to your child’s knowledge and experiences

When reading stories or observing situations, draw similarities between the situation and your child’s knowledge and experiences. Relating others’ experiences to your child’s own past experiences helps him realise why the characters acted and thought the way they did. This teaches your child to recognise and adopt others’ perspectives, aiding them in developing critical thinking in similar situations.

To kick off this activity, you can choose a story where the main character goes through a situation familiar to your child, e.g. going to a dentist, or visiting a new place. While reading the book with your child, ask him about his own experiences and compare it to the character’s experience, e.g. “How did you feel when you visited the dentist for the first time? How was Bobby (character) feeling in this story? Why did you feel differently from Bobby?”

2. Vocalise your thought process

Research has shown that we make about 35,000 choices a day (Krockow, 2018). That amounts to thousands of thoughts that we filter through to come to those decisions. Critical thinking and problem-solving processes often come naturally to us, but your child may struggle with organising his thoughts and choosing a line of reasoning. By verbalising your thoughts in real time instead of contemplating silently in your mind, you will model your thought process for your child. Your child can observe how you arrived at certain decisions, and what considerations you reviewed in making those decisions.

For instance, you can vocalise your thoughts on choosing what to eat for dinner, or how to fix a broken chair. Use thinking-out-loud comments, which start with words like “I’m wondering about…” or “I’m thinking that…”. After sharing your thoughts, encourage your child to try talking through a decision he can make in that moment. Your thought processes will provide your child with many examples to learn from when making his own decisions.

3. Keep asking your child questions

It is important to develop a habit of questioning your child about their thoughts and opinions on everything that they experience. Some children with autism may have fleeting thoughts and fail to stay with a strain of thought for long; others may not view a situation from all angles and become easily fixated on a narrow perspective. Your repeated questions will remind your child to think more deeply and holistically, and will help him to learn what questions should be asked about each situation.

You can ask your child why something happened, and have him provide explanations and justifications. You can also ask for more information, or clarify something he shared that you may have questions about. Additionally, you can request for examples or counter-examples, or for the conditions necessary for certain situations to occur. When engaging your child, just remember to keep asking!

Relating stories to your child’s experiences, vocalising your thought processes, and asking questions are good starting points for you to build your child’s critical thinking skills. Grasp informal “in-the-moment” teaching opportunities throughout your child’s day to engage him in critical thinking. View your child as a little intellectual who can surprise you with his depth and complexity of thought. Although critical thinking skills may not come as naturally to some children with autism, your child has the potential to develop strong thinking skills if he is provided with the right stimulation and a rich learning environment!

Written by Hazel.


Greenberg, J. & Weitzman, E. (2014). I'm Ready! How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success. Hanen Early Language Program.

Krockow, E. M. (2018, September 27). How many decisions do we make each day? Psychology Today.

Marlowe, W. B. (2000). An intervention for children with disorders of executive functions. Developmental Neuropsychology, 18(3), 445-454.

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