Teaching students with autism about their learning strengths and weaknesses

Michelle Garcia Winner

Over the years, I observed so many students get upset by the fact they had “autism” or “Asperger’s Syndrome” or “ADHD” and in as much as they could verbalize these terms aloud they still didn’t seem to understand what their learning challenges actually were.

I also observed many adults explaining to students that the reason they were having difficulty socializing, studying, and learning was that they had “autism” or “Asperger’s Syndrome”, or “ADHD.” I thought this was a really abstract way of explaining to a student with limited abstract thinking how best to understand their own learning challenges. I also have observed that for many of our smart but socially not-in-step students, that they were using their label as an excuse for not working at learning new ideas; they interpreted the fact that they had a diagnostic label as a reason to not continue to learn.

I was also inspired by the writings of those who describe learning abilities and challenges given the framework that each of us have strengths and weaknesses with regards to our own brain’s design of our multiple intelligences (See books by Dr. Mel Levine and Howard Gardner).

Strengths and Weakness Lesson
The lesson I developed is about teaching our students and adults how to understand their social learning challenges in the context of their overall abilities and then how they can use their strengths to learn more strategies related to their weaknesses.

I have done this lesson with students as young as 8 years old and as old as they come.

The lesson is very simple. To save explaining it all with words, see the below chart:


Here are some basic things I do as I develop this type of chart with the student:

1. Each chart is completely personalized for the person I am developing it with. It does not work at recording actual test scores showing actual competencies. The chart is about how the student perceives their own strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, you can create any categories you want.

2. Determine ideas for posting on the chart by taking time to talk to the student and listening to what they enjoy doing and what they feel they do well.

3. Always start by graphing out the strengths. It is good to have many perceived strengths. Again, strengths are not about listing academic tasks exclusively. If someone says they are really good at playing a specific computer game or Legos then we write specifically that into one category.

4. It is also important to find some areas where the student perceives they are just OK at that task, not good, nor bad. They perceive themselves to be similar to the average person in that area of functioning. With kids, you can use language such as:

a. “First tell me what you think you are really good at compared to other kids you know.”

b. After you have listed 3-5 then say, “Now tell me something you are OK at, that you are just like everyone else in this area of playing or learning.”

c. “Now tell me some things that your brain does not make easy for you. Things you have noticed most other people can learn easier than you.”

5. If students aren’t used to thinking about how they do compared to others, we will shift to explore the idea that we think about what others are doing around us. At this point, I will ask the student to tell me:

a. Who talks a lot in your class?

b. Who doesn’t tend to do their homework?

c. Who is really good in math?

d. Who is super friendly?

e. Who is mean?

By having this discussion with your student you help them observe that they are aware of others’ strengths and weaknesses. This often helps them put their own abilities in perspective.

6. If students can’t think of things, I suggest ideas based on my earlier conversation with them. Ultimately I am doing this with them to help them put their learning challenges in context. They will not usually be as good at spontaneously telling you what they don’t do well as this is not something people usually talk about. I will have some ideas for them to consider:

a. How do you do with keeping track of your homework assignments and doing the homework?

b. How do you do with writing paragraphs or reports? (writing short responses on paper may have been a strength, while writing longer information is often a weakness)

c. How do you do making guesses about what you are reading?

d. How do you do with playing in a group?

e. How do you do with getting into a group?

f. How do you do talking to other kids?

g. Or we may just say, “your social skills”.

I don’t ever ask them this many things about their weaknesses, I choose some main idea based on what I may know the concerns are about a student. At this point, students are usually willing to list these as weaknesses compared to the others.

7. What to do if a student lists their weakness as a perceived strength?

Often, at first I write it as the strength we describe and then we discuss it more in the context of the others’ strengths, and more often than not, the client ends up changing their mind and saying it should be listed as a lower number on the scale. However, at times, I have a student who is afraid to list something as a weakness and I assure them that everyone has weaknesses, including me, the person doing this task with them. If need be, I may make a chart of my brain’s strengths and weaknesses so they see someone who is leading them is admitting to weaknesses. On rare occasion I have said to a student, “Actually, this is an area that you are not as good at, this is why you are here today.” And then I lower that social area on the scale compared to the other areas listed. I go on to continue to explain that is expected and OK that people have learning weaknesses.

8. If you are familiar with the teachings of Social Thinking® you will also be able to explain how their socially based learning weaknesses (organizational skills, written expression, social relationships, reading comprehension, etc. are all related). Making this connection with the student also helps them to see how they don’t have many weaknesses. Instead, there is a weak root system that leads to different areas of weakness. For more information on this please read information about the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition here or in the book, Inside Out: What Makes Persons with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick?

9. You will find your students are usually pretty honest about this. It is often pretty amazing how they are willing to talk about the fact they have strengths and weaknesses when discussing it this way. When they have strengths and language and learning facts, we can then explain these are strengths that will help them to learn more information in the areas they are not as naturally good at learning.

10. Now that the chart is completed, I then go on to talk about what it means to have a learning disability. This means that you have relative learning weaknesses compared to the strengths or even the OK/normal areas of learning. Remarkably, many of our students don’t understand what learning disabilities or differences are, so they react to their weaknesses with anger rather than understanding they can usually use some of their learning strengths to help them learn some of the areas of weakness. I have worked through anger about learning differences much more successfully using this scale.

11. You will find that your students/adults are much more willing to discuss how they learn, what they are good at, and what they are not so astute at learning in this context, compared to simply talking to them about the fact they have ASD, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, etc.

12. We then discuss specific things they can work at learning to help acquire more concepts and skills to boost their area of weakness to a higher number on the scale. I also explain that they likely will never have their weak area be as high as what their brain is naturally good at learning, but they will be able to improve as long as they work at learning!

13. You will also find that for some students once you make the chart you refer back to it session after session. The chart is also helpful to explaining to parents/caregivers what our labels really mean in terms of learning.

14. A note on language: The language based explanation, “Your brain doesn’t make this easy for you,” also helps many of our students put their challenges in context. Make sure you also point out when they are doing things that their brains do make easy for them.

15. Final, final note: The art of teaching is critical in this lesson. Stay in step with your student emotionally while you do this lesson. Spend some significant time talking about what they are good at and pretty good at, rather than rush to their weaknesses and then spend all your time on this area. Remember, our students are often really talented when we are not demanding they participate in socially based situations. Take time to celebrate the many things they do well to give them the strength to talk about what they don’t do as well.

Courtesy of Social Thinking

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