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Helping Autistic Students with Cognitive Flexibility

autistic students cognitive function

Working with children can be a challenge. There may be times within the school day when students need to transition, whether physically or from one task to another. When it is time to transition to a writing lesson after recess, many kids may be upset with the disruption. Of course, most children will be able to make the move back into the classroom and get to their writing. Practicing this from week to week makes it easier for the majority of kids.

This may not be the case for students who are on the autism spectrum. Autistic children often have a difficult time switching gears. They are very focused on what they are working on. It may be overwhelming to them for a variety of reasons.  Over time, teachers and counselors may come up with ways they present those who need this early notification system in place.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

From an early age, autistic kids often struggle with being able to adapt to changes as easily as their neurotypical peers. A lot of this has to do with deficits in cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is our ability to shift thoughts and adapt behaviors in due to our environment. Having cognitive flexibility means that you are able to disengage from one task and re-engage in another one effectively. While we take this for granted, autistic children struggle with this.

While in the school setting, focus has been on working with young autistic students to build up their coping strategies with changes that occur. Social workers will go over mock situations with them and ways to work through them. Special education teachers will talk them through presets for changes in the day and transitions around the school. The goal is to improve their ability to move from task to task without being overwhelmed to the point of a panic attack or more.

Bilingual Autism Research

Autistic students may not always be exposed to a foreign language in school. Parents may have been told it would be too much for their children. Other times it may be removed from a schedule to fit resource room or another therapy in the time slot. This may change thanks to research out of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Researchers studied a small group of nine- and ten-year-old children. Some were monolingual and others were bilingual. In addition to this, some were autistic and others were not in each of the other categories. Preliminary testing showed that bilingual children were able to task-shift with more ease than those who were not. This also held true for the children with autism who were bilingual. The thought is that a bilingual person has to switch languages unconsciously and may factor into the increased cognitive flexibility that is seen.

More research is needed on this topic, but it may be something for special education teachers and therapists to consider.  A foreign language component early on may be beneficial in more than one way for children on the autism spectrum. Does your school promote bilingual support for children in special needs programs? Please share your experiences below.

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