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Cognitive Issues in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Can you help me understand how my child thinks? His rationale is quite confusing at times, and I find we are rarely on the same page with simple day-to-day issues." 

In looking at the cognitive aspects of the child with ASD level 1 or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), there are four main areas to consider: (1) mindblindness, (2) cognitive inflexibility, (3) impaired imaginative play, and (4) visual learning strength. We'll look at each of these in turn:

1. Mindblindness (theory of mind): This refers to the child’s ability to predict relationships between external and internal states. It is the ability to make inferences about what another person is thinking. More specifically, the HFA child:
  • Is unaware that others have thoughts, beliefs, and desires that influence their behavior.
  • Views the world in black and white (e.g., admits to breaking a rule even when there is no chance of getting caught).
  • Is unaware that others have intentions or viewpoints different from his own; when engaging in off-topic conversation, does not realize the listener is having great difficulty following the conversation.
  • Displays a lack of empathy for others and their emotions (e.g., takes another person’s belongings).
  • Is unaware he can say something that will hurt someone's feelings or that an apology would make the person "feel better" (e.g., tells another person their story is boring).
  • Prefers factual reading materials rather than fiction.
  • Has impaired reading comprehension; word recognition is more advanced (e.g., difficulty understanding characters in stories, why they do or do not do something).
  • Displays difficulty with inferential thinking and problem solving (e.g., completing a multi-step task that is novel).

2. Lack of cognitive flexibility: This refers to the child’s ability to problem solve, to engage in and maintain mental planning, to exert impulse control, to be flexible in thoughts and actions, and to stay focused on a goal until its completion. More specifically, the HFA child:

A. Is distractable and has difficulty sustaining attention.
  • Has difficulty with organizational skills (e.g., What do I need to do, and how do I go about implementing it?).
  • Has difficulty with sequencing (e.g., What is the order used to complete a particular task?).
  • Has difficulty with task initiation.
  • Has difficulty with task completion.
  • Has difficulty with direction following.
  • Has difficulty when novel material is presented without visual support.
  • Engages in competing behaviors (e.g., vocalizations, noises, plays with an object, sits incorrectly, looks in wrong direction).

B. Has poor impulse control, displays difficulty monitoring own behavior, and is not aware of the consequences of his behavior.
  • Displays rigidity in thoughts and actions.
  • Shows a strong desire to control the environment.
  • Has difficulty with transitions.
  • Has difficulty incorporating new information with previously acquired information (i.e., information processing, concept formation, analyzing/ synthesizing information), is unable to generalize learning from one situation to another, may behave quite differently in different settings and with different individuals.
  • Engages in repetitive/stereotypical behaviors.
  • Displays a strong need for perfection, wants to complete activities/assignments perfectly (e.g., his standards are very high and noncompliance may stem from avoidance of a task he feels he can't complete perfectly).

C. Displays inflexible thinking, not learning from past mistakes (note: this is why consequences often appear ineffective).

D. Can only focus on one way to solve a problem, though this solution may be ineffective.
  • Does not ask for help with a problem.
  • Does not ask a peer or adult for needed materials.
  • Continues to engage in an ineffective behavior rather than thinking of alternatives.
  • Is able to name all the presidents, but not sure what a president does.
  • Is unable to focus on group goals when he is a member of the group.

3. Impaired imaginative play: This refers to the ability to create and act out novel play scenarios. While the autistic child may seem to engage in imaginative play, a closer look reveals play that appears to have an imaginary theme (in terms of characters and topics), but is actually very rigid and repetitive. It is important to observe free-play/free-time choices. Is the play really novel, or is it a retelling of a TV show or video? If the play is novel, can it be changed, can playmates alter it, or is the same play repeated over and over? The child:
  • Uses limited play themes and/or toys.
  • Uses toys in an unusual manner.
  • Attempts to control all aspects of the play activity; any attempts by others to vary the play are met with firm resistance.
  • Follows a predetermined script in play.
  • Engages in play that, although it may seem imaginary in nature, is often a retelling of a favorite movie/TV show/book (note: this maintains rigidity in thoughts, language, and actions).
  • Focuses on special interests such that he dominates play and activity choices.

4. Visual learning strength: This refers to being able to learn most successfully through visual modes. This is especially true for the Asperger child. Visual information remains stable over time, allowing the child to process, respond, and remember the information (e.g., I don’t have to worry about forgetting, I can take my time, the information is still there). Not only is this child a visual learner, but he is also a visual thinker. Visual learning compensates for many of the child’s areas of need. The child:

A. Benefits from schedules, signs, cue cards.
  • Uses visual information to help focus attention (e.g., I know what to look at).
  • Uses visual information as a “backup” (e.g., I have something to look at when I forget), especially when new information is presented.
  • Uses visual information to provide external organization and structure, replacing the child’s lack of internal structure (e.g., I know how it is done, I know the sequence).
  • Uses visual information to make concepts more concrete.
  • Uses visual information as a prompt.

B. Has specific strengths in cognitive areas.
  • Displays average or above average intellectual ability.
  • Displays average or above average receptive and expressive language skills
  • Has an extensive fund of factual information.
  • Has an excellent rote memory.
  • Displays high moral standard (e.g., does not know how to lie).
  • Displays strong letter recognition skills.
  • Displays strong number recognition skills.
  • Displays strong word recognition skills.
  • Displays strong oral reading skills, though expression and comprehension are limited.
  • Displays strong spelling skills.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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