A free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools.

Cognitive Theories

There are a number of theories which have been developed which can help us to understand the ways autistic learners might experience the world and respond in the way that they do.

These theories overlap and are not mutually exclusive. They can give us clues as to how to adapt what we do to support an autistic learner. It is important to remember, however, that autistic learners are individuals and like the population as a whole, will have different degrees of strengths and difficulties with the behaviours outlined in the theories below.

Cognitive Theories   Theory Overview 
Theory of Mind 
  • Develops from joint attention
  • Involves understanding other people's thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences
  • Being able to take this understanding into account in your own actions.
Executive
Function
The ability to:
  • Plan, organise and sequence thoughts and actions
  • Control our impulses.
Weak Central
Coherence
  • The tendency to focus on details, rather than the 'big picture'
  • This focus affects the person's ability to consider context.
Context Blindness
  • Challenge in processing or using all of the information from visual, auditory, historical and social contexts to make sense of experiences in the moment
  • Missing the 'obvious'.
Double Empathy
Problem
A mutual challenge of misunderstanding intentions, motivations or communication between autistic and non-autistic people.
Monotropism  A tendency to focus attention on one thing at a time, with difficulty shifting attention and processing multiple stimuli which might support understanding.

Using Theory of Mind (ToM), we understand other people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences. It was first described by Uta Frith in 1989 and since then our understanding of it has developed considerably. This skill is underpinned by early Joint Attention (commonly delayed in
autism) and continues to develop into adulthood.

Around the age of 5 typically developing children have first order ToM and can understand and use words which show they are developing an awareness that other people have thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perspectives and experiences which are different to their own and they realise that these explain people’s responses and actions.

As children get older they realise that people can think one thing but say another and that there are non-literal interpretations to things people say. Meaning can be conveyed both verbally and non-verbally and through the intonation, speed, pitch and emphasis in speech. They learn that people might use sarcasm, white lies and jokes.

What we might see in the autistic learner 


They might:

  • Try to tell other people what to do
  • Think they are the teacher or attempt to ‘police’ others
  • Seem ‘cheeky’ or selfish
  • Push to the front of the line (not thinking about others)
  • They might not:
    • Follow class instructions. E.g. ‘Everyone take out your textbook’  
    • Know you are talking to them unless you use their name
    • Seek approval (what you think is not registering for them).

What we can do:

  • Cue the child by name and teach the meaning of ‘everyone’
  • Create a predictable environment (where there’s less ‘in the moment’ working out to do)
  • Use visual prompts to support words
  • Exaggerate emotional responses
  • Tell the child what you are thinking
  • Find out what motivates the learner and join them in their interests
  • Avoid using restorative conflict resolution with autistic learners
  • Teach ‘Inside Thoughts and Outside Thoughts’
  • Social Stories and Social Thinking can be useful in supporting ToM. 

Our executive function is the cognitive processes that help us to regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes; our ability to plan, organise and sequence
thoughts and actions; working memory; cognitive flexibility; problem-solving skills and starting and stopping actions. It can affect our ability to be aware of and understand the concept of time. These skills continue to develop into adulthood and can have a significant impact on learning.

Autistic learners might be competent in some aspects of executive functioning but struggle in other aspects. Children with a variety of neurodevelopmental differences have difficulties with executive functioning processes. Note that when we are anxious our ability to use these skills decrease.

What we might see in the autistic learner 


They might:

  • Find it hard to start or stop activities
  • Struggle with interruptions
  • Have difficulty sequencing tasks e.g dressing, organising their schoolbag, following through the steps in a maths problem
  • Be reluctant to try new things
  • Be impulsive and regret these actions later
  • Inconsistency in learning: managing one day but not the next.

What we can do:

  • Be attentive to support needs at the start of a task and at transitions
  • Give instructions in the order things are to happen
  • Break down tasks into clear steps-visual supports are helpful (e.g. pictures of what needs to go in schoolbag)
  • Chunk tasks
  • Sequence activities and routines
  • Ensure materials for tasks are well organised-label where class materials go
  • Page layout for work may need to be pre-set for the learner 
  • Give thinking time
  • Support understanding of time by using visuals, e.g. photos
  • Use timers
  • Use ‘line up feet’, ‘a ‘rope with knots to hold while we line up’ or numbers at different work stations.

Our central coherence ability enables us to see ‘the big picture’, to understand context and to use context to draw meaning. It is the ability to understand the ‘gist’ of a conversation or event. Autistic learners tend to focus on the detail rather than the whole picture which can mean  they can fail to understand the actual meaning or appreciate the nature of a situation or context.

Close attention to detail can of course can also be a major strength which learners can bring to the workforce.

What we might see in the autistic learner 

When learners have weak central coherence we may see the following:

They might:

  • Avoid making choices
  • Seem to understand everything you say yet miss the point
  • Focus on ‘irrelevant’ details
  • Read fluently but don’t always pick up the meaning
  • Rote learn maths but struggle as it gets more complicated.

What we can do:

  • Support choices (forced alternatives or visual prompts)
  • Identify the main idea in new information 
  • Make learning intentions explicit and rehearse the main idea of the lesson
  • Make links explicit (why are we doing this)
  • Mindmaps can help to illustrate connections between ideas
  • Forewarn of changes and events
  • Rehearse and practice for new or different events
  • Use Social Stories.

We use context (visual, auditory, historical and social) to help us understand what is happening in a particular moment in time. Peter Vermeulen describes context blindness as a reduced spontaneous use of context when giving meaning to a stimulus. He suggests that difficulty seeing and understanding context can explain why autistic individuals have difficulty with communication, social interaction, flexible thinking and behaviour. 

What we might see in the autistic learner 


They might:

  • Perform well in tests (e.g. of social skills or emotion recognition), but not in real life
  • Not use seemingly obvious contextual information (e.g. knowing that toilets in a bathroom showroom are not real toilets and should not be used!)
  • Think in an ‘over literal’ or ‘concrete’ way
  • Be overly formal or over familiar
  • Be overwhelmed by new people or places
  • Overshare of personal information
  • Find it difficult to process ambiguity (e.g. when someone says one thing but means another)
  • Find it hard to see things from the perspective of other people
  • Have difficulty adapting rules to changing social contexts – might ‘police' others or just behave unexpectedly.

What we can do:

  • Teach about expected and unexpected actions and thoughts
  • Use Social Stories and reference the social context
  • Teach emotion vocabulary within natural social experiences 
  • Use social skills approaches which focus on teaching sensitivity to context (e.g. Social Thinking, PEERS programme)
  • Use timetables and increase predictability (reduce need for processing in the moment)
  • Practice and prepare for unfamiliar situations
  • Teach and refer to ‘public’ and ‘private’ (places, behaviours, etc.)
  • Explicitly teach implicit rules (e.g. which urinal to use)
  • Teach about personal safety, relevant to current need and developmental stage
  • Teach how to stay safe online.

The theory of the double empathy problem, described by Damian Milton, suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other and there can be a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding.

Through this theory we recognise that as well as autistic people having social communication challenges, non-autistic people can equally have difficulties understanding the intentions and communication of the autistic person. The problem is therefore a dynamic one, which is shared by those both with and without autism.

What we might see in the autistic learner

  • Miscommunication between autistic and non-autistic people
  • Mutual lack of understanding between the autistic learner and the educator.

What we might do

  • Avoid placing ‘blame’ for the miscommunication
  • Accept a shared responsibility to see things from the other person’s perspective
  • See autism as a difference not a deficit.

We all have interests which direct our attention. In monotropism, fewer interests are aroused in the person at any one time and those that are take up most of the processing resources the person has available to them. This makes it harder for the person to pay attention to other things or change the focus of attention. Monotropism has been described as ‘being in an attention tunnel’.

What we might see in the autistic learner 

  • A young child may present as having hearing difficulties (this should still always be checked out)
  • Preference for sameness
  • Restricted, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours
  • Difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another
  • Good attention focus for some things and not others
  • A lack of preparedness for change – the learner has not picked up cues that change is about to happen
  • A focusing on detail rather than the whole picture
  • Uneven skills profile – related to areas of attention focus or lack of focus
  • Being ‘unable to move on’ or getting stuck – and becoming prompt
  • Dependent
  • Reduced initiation
  • A need for order, familiarity and reassurance
  • Reduced awareness of others
  • If something doesn’t work out as expected – they don’t see any alternatives.

What we can do:

  • Join the child before you expect them to join you - ‘Start where the child is’
  • Call the person by name, wait until they respond and focus before asking a question or giving instructions
  • Prepare explicitly for change
  • Be predictable
  • Wait and give adequate time to allow the learner to shift their focus of attention 
  • Allow time to focus on preferred interests
  • Understand that repetitive sensory behaviours are calming (e.g. stimming. rocking, humming)
  • Point out others, to help the child focus on things they haven’t noticed (e.g. ‘Look John’s behind you waiting for a turn.’)
  • Reduce task demands in terms of complexity, time pressure and irrelevant stimuli
  • Make tasks meaningful: if tasks and ideas are conveyed in small portions, ensure that the overall relatedness of the parts is understood.

Select here to access references and further reading in the accompanying download by the National Autism Implementation Team.