Learning Styles and Autism

Learning Styles and Autism – Richard Hirstwood & Clive Smith

The work of such people as Howard Gardner and Barbara Prashnig has raised the profile of individual learning styles, with even the interest of the British Government captured. Various educational papers make reference to the need for individual learning styles to be taken into account, as in the 2011 All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education’s Report of the Inquiry into Overcoming the Barriers to Literacy.

Yet, the work on the education of individuals on the autistic spectrum makes scant reference to the concept of individual learning styles. Where it does, it all almost universally focuses upon the visual learning style, as promoted by and reinforced by the work of Temple Grandin in her book ‘Thinking in Pictures’.

So does the concept of learning styles have any further positive contribution to make to our teaching style when working with students on the autistic spectrum? It is our experience, and that of authors with autism, that individuals on the spectrum do have distinct learning styles and will themselves employ a range of learning styles to make sense of their world and to develop their understanding. Taking a lead from those who identify themselves as autistic, Donna Williams makes a strong case for finding out an individual’s preferred learning style to ensure that, by restricting educational style to using visual approaches, you are not depriving the student of what may be a more appropriate learning programme. We will look at what the various learning styles are and consider their impact upon students with autism and offer some suggestions as to how they can be incorporated into their learning experience.

So what are ‘learning styles’ and how can an understanding of these principles help us adopt a positive approach to the education of people on the autistic spectrum and guide our work in sensory areas? There is a wide range of theories surrounding learning styles, but the work of Howard Gardener identifies the following sub – divisions – Verbal/Linguistic, Mathematical/Logic, Musical, Spatial, Kinaesthetic, Interpersonal and Intra-personal.

Verbal/Linguistic Learners

Linguistic learning includes both spoken and written language so encompasses speaking, reading and writing. There is a tendency to dismiss a linguistic teaching style for autistic individuals because many struggle to understand language. Both Temple Grandin and Donna Williams refer to difficulties in understanding other people’s speech, but both now present regularly at large conferences. It is not understanding language as such that is the problem, but understanding the ‘total communication’ style that most people use.

Many individuals with autism have good vocabularies and speak well, but they don’t ‘communicate’ with others well.

There is a difference – they can impart information, but not necessarily take part in a discussion about that information. Many with autism are very good readers and often express themselves well in a written manner – witness the number of biographical works by individuals on the autistic spectrum. For many learners with autism with more challenging behaviours, the use of symbolic representation in timetables, social stories or comic picture books provides a way of understanding and an insight into the sequence of events that they are involved in.

Many learners with autism enjoy writing, especially when it is of a factual nature, such as keeping journals or making lists. The use of a ‘Mind Map’ approach helps learners to see connections and links between what may appear to them to be random concepts.

Mind maps can be developed from initial scribbling and doodling and such activities can help to focus the student’s thoughts away from those which cause anxiety. The enjoyment involved in listening to and telling stories, whilst characteristics of a linguistic learner, are not often attributed to learners with autism. However, they do enjoy both listening to and relating familiar stories and need repetition to understand the elements of the story. Story telling with familiar stories provides an excellent inclusive class activity. Sensory stories provide the opportunity for the involvement of all students, each having their role in the story which may be shaking a blue sheet to create waves or switching on a torch to create stars.

Consistency is important, and the same story needs to be followed with regularity. When the students know the story with great familiarity, they are in a position to contribute to the storytelling, perhaps by filling in gaps left by the teacher or by using a piece of sensory kit at the appropriate time without instruction. With regular work, the aim would be that at some point they will be able to tell the story themselves, or even make up their own version.

Logical/Mathematical Learner

Mathematical learners are good at seeing patterns and using logic for reasoning. They recognise the connections between disparate events and actions and plan and perform complex operations. The mathematical or logical approach allows the learner to easily classify and group information and are thus better placed to remember it.

Mathematical learners understand how to get from A to B, not just in the journey sense, but also when solving problems. They know how to communicate and gauge their audience, whether a group or just one other person. Mathematical learners understand size, distance, weight, volume, capacity and they interact well within their environment with their enhanced ‘survival’ skills because of it. So mathematical learners work well with numbers, the kind of numbers that help them understand object permanence, how far something is away or how many people have entered a room. Students on the autistic spectrum enjoy regularity and routine and appreciate the mathematical element of patterns, which is what routines are – a physical pattern. A lack of routine conversely is very unsettling and so changes in routines, whether in the sensory room or classroom, must be introduced gradually and with good communication, which will help to support students with ‘challenging behaviour’.

Within sensory work, logical/mathematical learners will enjoy creating and predicting sequences or patterns, for example ordering a sequence of switch presses to produce a colour sequence or using a remote control to move objects or lights.

These two intelligences (verbal/linguistic & logical/mathematical) to date have generally been the most highly prized in education, with the majority of teaching and learning approaches based upon these models.

Musical learners

This learning style is seen in those with a good ability to process and understand sound and to be able to see the rhythms and patterns in sound. These learners respond well to spoken words and auditory input, but tend to pick up on the rhythms and cadence of such words. Remember the rhythm and beat when chanting the times tables or the alphabet? It is the musical rhythm that places the memory into an appropriate part of the brain for later recall. We know from our everyday life that music is an incredibly powerful influence. We can recall early songs and music from our infancy. Specific songs and tunes give us instant recall to past events. Yet in work and at school, we rarely capitalise on the power of music. Some musical learners function best when there is music playing, so there may be occasions when it is appropriate to allow children to listen to music through headphones whilst learning or creating. Allow musical learners to make up their own ‘raps’ to memorise facts. Feeling a little scandalised about that idea?

Then play a ‘rap’ rhythm, if you haven’t got any music then check out this rhythm from ‘You Tube’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIru4MaxNJI and do that “one two is two, two twos are four’, chant to it. Is it possible the times tables were the first ‘raps’?

In sensory terms there is great scope to introduce music. Finding out what sort of music the student likes is the starting point and then the music can be utilised for relaxation when anxiety develops or as an auditory marker in much the same way that visual timetables are used.

A specific piece of music signifies desk work, another creative work, carpet activities signified by yet another but remember these markers must remain consistent and not changed because the adults are getting bored with them! Developing social relationships through music can be a way to remove the anxiety of social interaction for students with autism, singing together, singing in rounds and making music involves turn taking and following the conductor’s instructions.

Visual Learner

Visual Learners prefer using images and they easily see pictures and maps and visualise outcomes in their mind. Spatial ability is good and this makes their understanding of their environment and finding their way about it relatively easy.

Visual learners concentrate when doodling or scribbling and will draw out their thoughts. Much of the literature talks of people on the autistic spectrum as being visual learners, so we need to give thought to how we teach our students in visual ways. We can use colour to reinforce routine, as with musical marking mentioned earlier and we can use colour marking using lights to signify changes of activities or colour to mark specific areas for activities. Where an area has to be multi-functional, coloured sheets attached to the wall with ‘Velcro’ can signify different activities. Colour too can create different atmospheres for learning, so it may be just projecting a pink or yellow screen on to the whiteboard, or you may be able to

use lights with coloured lenses or pin spot lights often come with a range of interchangeable colour filters. Maybe just adding a coloured acetate into a blank wheel for your rotating projector can create a sufficient colour change. Visual learners absorb information well through movies, pictures, videos, and demonstrations using models and props. The sensory room, using data projection, could be an ideal place to present such visual stimuli. The new breed of many data projectors means that we can now project moving images in the classroom, with the projector suitably placed to allow projection into a corner, onto a mini screen or even into a plastic box (as demonstrated in the video the above link takes you to.)

Visual learners enjoy the enhanced response of art in the sensory room, which can be approached in many ways. Ultra-violet black light and fluorescent paint create powerful visual effects. Try finger painting with black light for a stunning visual and tactile experience. Use sheets of lumi-glow with UV or ordinary white light torches – to draw or write or create shadow images.

Kinaesthetic Learner

Kinaesthetic Learners need to be moving, using their body and sense of touch to interact with their world. Such learners think and plan better when they are moving and when trying to work out problems they need to use a physical approach. Many learners with autism demonstrate the characteristics of kinaesthetic learners. They have a tendency to leap straight in and start doing, rather than reading instructions or planning in their mind. They will communicate with large body gestures and enjoy dance, sport and movement based activities. Long periods of sitting will cause restlessness and anxiety.

The sensory room is an ideal venue for the kinaesthetic learner, as we can encourage movement without disturbing others. If you have a soft play area, either within the sensory room or as a separate facility, there are many more opportunities for kinaesthetic learning. Conceptual development of position can be practiced for real along with the appropriate language. The student can practice, over/under, in/out and behind/in front. Shapes and colours can be found, picked and passed between students or sequences created for real. Get the students to physically step on the red square, green square, red square and so on.

In the sensory room, we could use torches to point to and locate shapes, objects, people and words. Use projected books and ask the kinaesthetic learner to follow the words with a laser pointer or draw outlines of the pictures.

Problem solving can incorporate large scale apparatus such as big construction equipment or even building with soft play blocks and posting in welly walls. Operating the red/ blue/yellow switch or attaching words, pictures or symbols to the switch with blu-tac or velcro links the concept to a favourite stimuli i.e. bubble tube/projector. Place switches around the room and play a follow my leader type activity or ‘simon says’ game.

The kinaesthetic learner, with autism or not, needs opportunities to move and become active or management problems will occur. When working in the classroom we do need to find time to legitimise movement for kinaesthetic learners or we can create frustration by making them sit for too long. Intersperse work with movement based tasks – it benefits everybody’s brain to have to do some physical work. Bring some of the activities identified for sensory work into the classroom and keep all learners active to improve their vestibular and proprioceptive skills.

Many individuals with autism talk about their need for movement and how they make sense of what other people are saying only when they are moving themselves.

Interpersonal Learner

Interpersonal learners relate well to other people and like to keep friendships. They work well as part of a team. Don’t automatically dismiss the individual with autism as an interpersonal learner. As Susan Stokes writes, “autistic learners exhibit a lack of effectiveness in social interactions rather than a lack of social interactions.” Review their behaviour and communication skills. There may be instances or certain individuals that they work well with and can benefit from working alongside. They may observe their actions and copy or they may be settled in their presence and therefore be less anxious and better prepared to explore new concepts.

There can often be a tendency to avoid paired or group work because of past problems in such situations, but learners with autism need to use what interpersonal skills they have and to develop these further. Think of the ‘Circle Time’ model – the very clear rules and structure appeal to learners with autism and can benefit them in listening to and modelling other children. Similarly with paired work, giving similar rules and structure can help learners with autism share and develop ideas. Within the sensory room, the opportunities for the student with autism with some degree of interpersonal learning style can be developed and extended. Make sure that the equipment provided allows the learner to participate alongside at least one other student – it goes without saying that this other student must also have a share interpersonal approach. Develop cooperative sharing of switches, torches and other sensory equipment i.e. if using glow in the dark boards make it a shared experience providing one board and two torches.

Intrapersonal learners

Intrapersonal learners prefer a solitary style of learning, working better when they are on their own and can focus their thoughts and feelings, allowing them to be more self-analytical. They will revisit actions in their thoughts and reflect on how they may have done things better or how things may be improved.

The stereo-typical view of a learner with autism is a child who likes to work alone, but they may be a child who has not yet learnt how to work as an interpersonal learner. A child may become anxious in paired work because of past experiences and learnt behaviour. So, as mentioned previously, review and assess the child’s behaviour and communication in interpersonal settings. However, it should be obvious that a child will not work well in a situation that causes anxiety and so opportunities must be given for a child with autism to work alone. On their own they are capable of moderating and coping with sensory stimuli around them that they might find distressing.

They need space to cope with everybody else’s sensory output, including that of the teacher. Creating small personal spaces or environments is often the key here. Provide the opportunity to work in a corner of the room with clear boundaries that don’t allow other children to invade this space.

For practical work, set up small areas i.e. using pop up tents, umbrellas or story boxes which will provide fantastic learning spaces. Recognising the stimuli that creates anxiety and creating a more supportive environment allows the child to screen out the unnecessary sensory input and provides the support the child needs.


So the idea with learning styles is not to have a whole new set of labels to pin on to children or adults with autism. It maybe that the terminology ‘Learning Strengths’ may be more helpful to teachers, in that it emphasises that individuals can utilise all learning styles but may have a preference for particular approaches. The concept of learning styles helps us understand the positive aspects of our students autistic personality and the wide range of skills that they have. Taking this wider viewpoint allows us to develop our teaching styles to match their abilities and not force them into a teaching/learning style that creates anxiety.

Being directed to work in a manner that doesn’t suit your ability will have a significant and negative impact on our students creating anxiety and often provoking a refusal to take part. This refusal is then seen as challenging behaviour and a behaviour plan is developed to get the student to conform. A more constructive approach is to utilise their strengths to reduce their anxiety when faced with new, novel or different approaches. Pair their dominant learning style with the teaching approach necessary for that lesson or for others in the group. Where the lesson is aural based requiring children to listen, provide the student with pictures, symbols or maps of the material being discussed.

It also needs to be borne in mind that people do not have one preferred learning style – these can change within a day or a week. Everybody has multiple intelligences or learning styles and some are stronger than others, and the individuals may prefer one approach but can utilise other approaches less effectively.

Richard Hirstwood & Clive Smith

Original July 2012

Updated 23 July 2014