The child with autism has long been a poster child for all that’s wrong with current trends in education. The lack of structure and the lack of direct instruction in today’s project-based, group-based, guide-on-the-side classrooms; the amount of time students spend working in groups; the growing influence that “non-cognitive” skills like organization, sociability, and public speaking ability have on grades—all of these shortchange those who struggle socially, organizationally, and orally, and who depend more than other learners do on structure and direct instruction.
For the Powers that Be who have promoted and enacted these trends, and for the many education professionals who are ideologically committed to them, a recent article in Medscape will come as a godsend. Even its title cries out to them: “Standard Approach to Autism May Actual Impair Learning.” The article cites findings showing that “repetitive training,” a staple of “autism education,” may cause cognitive inflexibility, and that reducing repetition in teaching may enhance learning in autism. It then quotes one “autism expert” not involved in the study as calling these results “potentially earthshaking.”
Indeed, given the dominant paradigm, these results well may be earthshaking—but earthshaking in a bad way; earthshaking for children with autism. As characterized by articles like this one, these results risk empowering schools to undo all that remains that’s good in autism education: what remains of direct instruction and structure.
But what, exactly, are the results? In Medscape’s words:
Using a computer-based perceptual learning protocol, the research team trained a group of high-functioning adults with ASD and a healthy control group to locate three diagonal bars that were surrounded by horizontal lines. Participants were asked to identify the diagonal bars during eight daily practice sessions...
For the first 4 days, the bars were kept in the same location on the screen. Then on days 5 through 8, they were moved to a different location.
During the first 4 days…, speed and accuracy of learning were equal for the ASK and control participants. On days 5 through 8, after the location of the diagonal bars had been changed, the control group smoothly transitioned to learning the new location, and their performance continued to improve.
But… those with ASD… performed poorly and were unable to improve their performance. They were never able to learn the second location as well as they had learned the first, suggesting that the repetitive drill interfered with their learning, the researchers say.To those familiar with autism, none of this is actually earthshaking. Hyper-specificity, and difficulty with generalization, is well established in autism—and taken into account in established autism therapies. ABA-style drills, for example, deliberately vary the prompts and work towards generalization.
But, in the hands of those who are less familiar with autism, the proclamations of this article could easily be self-fulfilling—with earthshakingly bad consequences for autistic students.