When we think of learning, a school naturally comes to mind. Most children are whisked off to schools as early as possible in hopes that they will be able to build a strong foundation in areas of academic and character. However, not all children are able to learn in a traditional classroom setting, which makes it difficult for learning to take place beyond what naturally interests and engages them. Before we assume that the school is responsible for the child’s learning, we also need to ask - what are the necessary skills required for school and is my child ready and able to engage in what is being taught at school?
When it comes to learning, attention has always been the greatest concern for many parents. Not being able to pay attention or being easily distracted directly affects a child’s ability to learn and engage in class. While children with autism may have attention issues, it can be a tad selective. It varies in degrees as well, with some not having even the slightest awareness of others who are trying to draw their attention. They may pay intense attention to an activity of interest, yet be completely oblivious to the person who is just beside them, trying to have a conversation with them. This happens because these children lack joint attention, which is when two people share interests in an object or event, and have an understanding that they are both interested in the same object or event.
Joint attention is necessary for any learning to take place in or out of a classroom. Without joint attention, it will be difficult for any learning outside of the child’s world to take place. Even if the child is exceptionally bright, not having sufficient joint attention may hamper a child’s learning and development as it also becomes difficult to assess how much a child really knows. One of the first things that a therapist looks for is whether or not the child displays joint attention - the ability to redirect attention away from an activity he/she is doing, and attend to the therapist. It can be in the form of imitation, echoics or just simply giving eye contact, which is why many drills used to develop joint attention involves getting the child to imitate gross and fine motor actions, as well as to echo sounds.
Listening is another skill which builds on joint attention and requires the ability and desire to pay close attention to sounds. It is an essential requirement for learning in school and in the participation of many daily life activities. Some people may confuse listening and hearing but it is important to note the difference:
Hearing: refers to the passive reception of sounds
Listening: refers to the active process of focusing on sounds
This is an important distinction as young children who are prone to developing ear infections may not be able to hear very well as a result of fluid buildup in the middle ear, making it difficult for sounds to be transmitted through the ear canal. Consequently they can also be mistaken for “not listening” or “not paying attention”. It is therefore crucial to be sure if the child has any hearing issues (from ear infections), or is just not attending to sounds in the environment. Once it can be assured that the child has an intact hearing system, more emphasis can then be placed on building listening skills through receptive tasks which are a build up from imitative tasks. Receptive tasks focus on getting the child to pay attention and respond to verbal cues e.g. asking the child to “Show me clap hands” or “Touch your nose”.
Sitting is yet another skill that is important for learning in school. Many children (and even adults) have difficulty sitting for long periods, and may need to shift about or get up for a quick walk. Younger children who tend to want to interact a lot with their environment will find it even harder to sit for extended periods. Similar to most other children, children with autism may also find it difficult to sit well and pay attention for long periods. To make things worse, many face the additional challenge of not being able to process long and complicated instructions or sentences (some may tune out if they are unable to keep up and become bored with the lesson), have proprioceptive needs (pulling, twisting, chewing on objects, or deliberately crashing into things), or seek vestibular inputs (bouncing up and down, fidgeting, or the need to be in constant motion). This makes it difficult for them to participate in in-class learning, or worse, be labelled as disruptive in the classroom.
It is, however, possible to build good sitting tolerance through addressing their needs appropriately, and by helping them to understand what are good sitting behaviours and how to show that they are “ready” when presented with a task. This is, of course, a skill which requires lots of patience and practice, such that the child is able to sit quietly and wait for instructions to be given before attempting a given task.
Every child is unique and should be allowed to develop in their own ways as much as possible. However, if we want to maximise the learning potential of each child, helping them to develop much needed school-ready skills, such as joint attention, listening, and sitting tolerance, will contribute greatly to their engagement and participation in the classroom.
Written by Marjorie
Joint attention and social referencing. (2007, November). Retrieved December 8, 2019, from http://www.infantva.org/documents/CoPA-Nov-JointAttentionSocialRefer.pdf
Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. Retrieved December 8, 2019, from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Teaching-Tips-for-Children-and-Adults-with-Autism
Sensory Integration: Tips to consider. (2004). Retrieved December 9, 2019, from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Sensory-Integration-Tips-to-Consider