For this project, we are taking a neurodiversity approach in which the ways of thinking associated with autism are explored as part of a naturally varying broader population. This means that we’re interested in a range of differences in the ways that students experience and think about their learning as well as the types of learning environment and activity that suit them best.
Differences in experiencing the world
There are several general processing theories that can be useful in exploring the difference between autistic and non-autistic individuals. Theories that are based on structural or fundamental differences in the way the brain processes information can be useful understanding why autism can vary so much between individuals as the effect of these differences depends on the individual, their situation and other factors such as levels of anxiety (Stark et al., 2021).
One approach that’s interesting when exploring learning experiences is the Bayesian explanation of autism (Pellicano & Burr, 2012) . This approach focuses on differences in the balance between incoming sensory information and expectations based on prior experience, with autism associated with a greater emphasis on incoming sensory information resulting in greater processing required in new or complex situations and the potential for sensory or social overwhelm.
Thinking about thinking
As well as differences in the way the world is experienced, there are some interesting areas of difference in styles of thinking associated with autism.
The systemising theory focuses on a tendency to seek to make sense of the world as a whole system – finding a way for all the elements (of a situation, a problem or task) to fit together (Baron-Cohen, 2009). This can come be associated with a discomfort where there are gaps – and anxiety at things being incomplete or illogical.
In studies of reasoning, autism has been found to be associated with a tendency towards deliberative (logical, effortful) versus intuitive (rapid, reactive) reasoning (Brosnan et al., 2016). Other areas where there may be differences in thinking are in metacognition, which is the process of assessing one’s own thinking (Grainger et al., 2014), working memory (Habib et al., 2019) and decision-making (Vella et al., 2018).
Thinking and learning
Differences in thinking can be subtle or hidden in everyday learning activities but the consequences of learning through activities that are designed around the needs of non-autistic students can be significant. This could include tasks where the final purpose is unclear or vague. Activities that require fast, instinctive responses or do not allow thinking time can be uncomfortable for autistic students.
As well as having implications for learning tasks themselves, differences in the way that autistic and non-autistic students think have consequences for the learning environment. For example, a large noisy group environment can generate overwhelming sensory input and ‘talk’ that can be exhausting to process, leaving little energy or ‘cognitive load’ for the academic task.
Thinking about inclusion
Even though it’s not possible to give a simple definition of what it means to be an autistic student, it is possible to identify aspects of student life and learning where differences between autistic and non-autistic students may occur and look more closely at teaching and learning environments. These differences can be strengths as well as challenges, but it’s important that learning activities and environments are designed to meet the needs of all students and we recognise and challenge any assumptions that are being made about the way our students experience and think about their learning.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Autism: The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156(1), 68–80. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04467.x
Brosnan, M., Lewton, M., & Ashwin, C. (2016). Reasoning on the Autism Spectrum: A Dual Process Theory Account. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(6), 2115–2125. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2742-4
Grainger, C., Williams, D. M., & Lind, S. E. (2014). Metacognition, metamemory, and mindreading in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(3), 650–659. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036531
Habib, A., Harris, L., Pollick, F., & Melville, C. (2019). A meta-analysis of working memory in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. PLoS ONE, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216198
Pellicano, E., & Burr, D. (2012). When the world becomes ‘too real’: A Bayesian explanation of autistic perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(10), 504–510. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2012.08.009
Stark, E., Stacey, J., Mandy, W., Kringelbach, M. L., & Happé, F. (2021). Autistic Cognition: Charting Routes to Anxiety. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, S1364661321000899. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.03.014
Vella, L., Ring, H., Aitken, M., Watson, P., Presland, A., & Clare, I. C. (2018). Understanding self-reported difficulties in decision-making by people with autism spectrum disorder. Autism : The International Journal of Research and Practice, 22(5), 549–559. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361316687988