The new approach to educating children with autism


The variation in autism symptoms makes teaching children with this developmental disorder a challenge. New research is offering an alternative approach for educating children with autism that focuses more on the neuroscience behind the condition.

Revisions to the DSM

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM-5 released in May of 2013 – shortens the diagnostic criteria for autism from three to two symptoms.

  • Social communication impairments
  • Repetitive behaviors

For years, doctors have categorized social and communication impairments separately.

This revision simply pinpoints the standard more completely but does not exclude most children currently with this diagnosis. About six percent of school age kids receive special education for autism spectrum disorder. Broadening the diagnosis will open more doors for educating children with autism.


The learning process involves a long, integrative pathway that serves to connect different tasks together. The brain of an autistic person segments that long pathway into smaller sections.

The Science behind Autism

The exact mechanism behind autism spectrum disorder has been in dispute for decades. The basic theory has been that autism relates directly to brain functioning, but researchers were unable to find the specific connection. Margaret Bauman of Harvard University discovered some microscopic variations in the cerebellum of autistic individuals but nothing that would account for the broad range of symptoms.

Newer technology is giving researchers a clearer picture of how the brain works. With this advanced imaging, neuroscientists see clear differences in brain connections for people with this disorder. One theory suggests that these individuals have problems connecting various stimuli together. For instance, they don’t “connect the dots” between sight and sound or process the link between sound and meaning. This is all due to the variance in brain connections. New scientific research is beginning to make sense out of those variations, and the underlying issue may not be as diverse as scientists originally thought.

The learning process involves a long, integrative pathway that serves to connect different tasks together. The brain of an autistic person segments that long pathway into smaller sections. For example, an autistic girl who is able to multiply six figure numbers may not be able to comprehend basic algebra; her brain is unable to integrate the two functions together. Instead of one long road, the connections form circular pathways – think of them as cul-de-sacs – that lead to repetitive actions. This means traditional academic processes are not effective when educating children with autism.


Advancements in brain imaging is helping to improve diagnosis and education.

The New Approach to Educating Children with Autism

A child’s brain creates scaffolding to support learning during the first four or five years of life. New studies show this scaffolding is underdeveloped in children with autism. This is what leads to the segmenting circular neuron pathways.

One new educational platform focuses on early intervention. The idea is children gravitate towards activities they enjoy. A child who likes video games may not have the patience to set down and read a story. Parents tend to encourage activities their kids enjoy. Children at risk for autism, however, need to be encouraged to focus on what they don’t like because it forces the brain to integrate that task into the learning highway.

The second educational stage deals with school age children and plays on the brain’s ability to re-form pathways. Game-like programs developed by Scientific Learning Corp, target the circular pathways to stimulate growth. The initial study done with the ForWord Language program was promising in all areas. Fifty-nine percent of autistic kids in the study displayed advancement of academic skills.

For years, autism has been a shadowy foe whose cause eluded science even as it grew in proportion. The advancements in brain imaging, however, are dispelling the shadows and allowing for improved diagnosis and education.

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About Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
Dr. Grisolano is a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development.

Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter.