What Is the Connection between Autism and Learning Disabilities?

J.M. Willhite

Autism is a broad term used to describe a spectrum of disorders. Defined as a developmental condition associated with atypical brain function, autism has many presentations that are generally accompanied by some degree of learning disability. One's inability to convey his or her thoughts and relate to his or her environment makes treating autism and learning disabilities all the more challenging.

People suffering from autism may have a hard time making friends.
People suffering from autism may have a hard time making friends.

Symptoms of autism and learning disabilities can present as impaired social, behavioral and language skills. Generally emerging by a child’s third year, autistic children have a hard time making friends and relating to others. Some children with autism and learning disabilities engage in repetitive behaviors, exhibit sensory sensitivity and a pronounced sense of detachment from their environment and other people.

Children with autism often throw tantrums.
Children with autism often throw tantrums.

Children with autism and learning disabilities may experience difficulty memorizing words or numbers, demonstrate an inability to understand how words relate to one another within a sentence, or are unable to comprehend what they read. Those who have difficulty with writing may be unable to organize and express their thoughts on paper. Frequently, frustration stemming from one’s inability to process or convey information can confound existing behavioral issues, such as tantrums.

Children with autism and learning disabilites may have difficulty memorizing words or numbers.
Children with autism and learning disabilites may have difficulty memorizing words or numbers.

If a learning disability is not properly addressed when an autistic child is young, learning difficulties can carry over into adulthood. Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence can develop as a result of an autistic child’s learning disability. Depending on the severity of the disability, occupational issues may arise for autistic adults necessitating special accommodations in the workplace. For instance, an individual with a reading disability may require verbal instruction rather than being given written directions.

Occupational therapy is often used to help children with autism to improve their ability to move their bodies so they can use scissors, ride tricycles and catch balls.
Occupational therapy is often used to help children with autism to improve their ability to move their bodies so they can use scissors, ride tricycles and catch balls.

The behavioral and social difficulties an autistic child experiences can further complicate an existing learning disability. Therefore, treatment for autism and learning disabilities is often multi-faceted. On the one hand you have the necessity of specialized attention and on the other hand there is the need to make proper adjustments to suit the child’s treatment program. Autistic children often work with a range of therapists, such as speech and behavioral therapists, who help bring cohesiveness and structure to the child’s life.

Autism and learning disabilities, as comorbid conditions, both require behavioral and educational therapies and consistent structure. Attention to minimizing negative behaviors and reinforcing positive ones is key to any successful treatment approach for a child with autism and learning disabilities. Children with autism and learning disabilities generally thrive in a structured environment, therefore, the earlier an appropriate behavioral plan is implemented the better.

Small children with autism often feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Small children with autism often feel frustrated or overwhelmed.

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