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What Impacts Autistic Children's Learning?

The importance of strategies and the environment.

Key points

  • Every child has individual attributes that interact with an environmental backdrop of their sensory, home, school, and leisure contexts.
  • The role of the environment is paramount to the well-being and learning of children on the autism spectrum.
  • Environmental variables that may impact autistic individuals’ learning include visual support, emotional pressures, or sensory environment.

Every day, I am discovering so much about how my children learn.

Every child is a mixed pot of attributes that ebb, flow, and interact with the environmental backdrop of their sensory, home, school, and leisure contexts.

One of my boys flourishes in a very particular sensory environment that is quiet and void of distractions, while another needs a micromanaged routine and structure to excel.

I’m finding, more and more, that just like fish need water, the role of the environment is paramount to the well-being and learning of children on the autism spectrum.

Research increasingly takes into consideration the impact of the environment on the well-being and learning experiences of autistic children, as it moves away from the deficiency perceptive when exploring autistic characteristics.

Take the example of the theory of mind (ToM), defined by Sodian et al. (2003) as a “body of conceptual knowledge that underlies access to both one’s own and others’ mental states.”

While historically it has often been perceived as an impairment for autistic individuals in comparison to neurotypical's social understanding (E.g., Barn-Cohen, 1990), this perspective continues to be challenged with the rising presence and appreciation of autistic perspectives. Theory of mind is increasingly conceptualized as a reciprocal, dynamic process rather than a deficiency belonging to one person within an interaction, with many authors suggesting that autistic children show different patterns of ToM development as well as the continual development of ToM abilities during schooling.

Similarly, perspectives on learning and cognitive development of neurodiverse individuals are also shifting away from a deficiency model, to embrace unique developmental trajectories and the appreciation of environmental factors.

Consider the example of the focus of attention. While it has been found that many autistic children experience challenges with attention such as difficulties with switching their focus between stimuli (whether visual or relating to mixed modalities), there exist wide-ranging individual differences, including how their attention is impacted by varied environmental variables. Environmental variables can relate to an auditory environment such as the nature of background noise or competing auditory streams; the presence of cues (e.g., explicit instructions or visual ones); or other variables such as an individual’s level of task motivation in relation to their interests.

I personally find that environmental variables have a considerable impact on my children’s well-being and learning. Whereas my 9-year-old may experience challenges with concentration in certain contexts such as in the presence of background noise or social distractions, his ability to focus his attention flourishes in other contexts, such as when making use of headphones that control for background noise and allow the tweaking of audio volume. I find that scheduling a motivating activity such as a brief basketball practice following a less motivating task also greatly supports his focus on attention and learning.

Burack et al. (2016) highlighted the importance of going beyond categorical thinking about ability and exploring how autistic individuals’ interactions with environment impact their cognitive functioning and learning.

For instance, they used Plaisted et al.’s (1999) study to highlight the impact explicit direction can have for autistic children’s global processing abilities (relating to an overall shape of a stimulus); Plaisted et al. (1999) found that children on the autism spectrum have intact global processing abilities when primed with instruction relating to how to focus their attention, however, have a preference for local processing (attending to individual features within an overall shape) without such explicit instructions.

Other environmental variables that may impact individuals’ learning include visual support, emotional pressures, sensory environment, or previous learning, to name a few (Burack et al., 2016).

Burack et al. (2016) also brought to light the importance of noticing the specialized abilities of individuals on the spectrum when trying to establish their cognitive profiles, which may be easily missed, such as an individual's extensive knowledge in an area of interest, or the advantage of a detail-focused cognitive style on tasks such as block design (rearranging blocks according to a pattern) or embedded figures (finding geometric shapes within complex figures).

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As I’ve said in the introduction, every child is a mixed pot of attributes that ebb, flow, and interact with the environment. As research continues to explore how environmental variables such as explicit instructions and individual sensory and motivational preferences influence the focusing of attention and learning, autistic children need our continual open-mindedness in going beyond categorical assessments and keeping our eyes open for what in their environments impacts their cognitive development and well-being.


Baron-Cohen, S., 1990. Autism: a specific cognitive disorder of mind-blindness’. Int. Rev. Psychiatr. 2 (1). 81-90.

Burack, J. A., Russo, N., Kovshoff, H., Palma Fernandes, T., Ringo, J., Landry, O., & Iarocci, G. (2016). How I Attend-Not How Well Do I Attend: Rethinking Developmental Frameworks of Attention and Cognition in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typical Development. Journal of Cognition and Development, 17(4), 553–567.

Cederlund, M., Hagberg, B., & Gillberg, C. (2010). Asperger syndrome in adolescent and young adult males. Interview, self - and parent assessment of social, emotional, and cognitive problems. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31(2), 287–298.

Peterson, C., Wellman, H., & Slaughter, V. (2012). The mind behind the message: Advancing theory-of-mind scales for typically developing children, and those with deafness, autism, or Asperger syndrome. Child Development, 83(2), 469–485. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01728.x

Plaisted, K., Swettenham, J., & Rees, L. (1999). Children with Autism Show Local Precedence in a Divided Attention Task and Global Precedence in a Selective Attention Task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(5), 733–742.

Sodian, B., Hülsken, C., & Thoermer, C. (2003). The self and action in theory of mind research. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(4), 777–782.

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