Developing successful educational opportunities for students with autism has long been a challenge for educators. This challenge may well be due to the fact that students with autism have unusual intellectual and academic skills profiles making it difficult for teachers to accurately assess students and align curriculum. The rise in the incidence of a diagnosis of autism is a pressing call to educators to develop a better understanding of the unique profiles these students present and to carefully plan educational opportunities which have been thoughtfully created with mindful consideration of student preferences. All learners have a preferred learning (Dunn & Dunn, 1992). Educators must become more proficient in assessing learning styles as they strive to differentiate instruction based on their students’ needs. This paradigm neither classifies learners based on ability nor disabilities but, rather, on their individual preferences and therefore bodes well for students with unique skill sets such as those seen in students with autism.
Several researchers have documented the positive effects of teaching to all students’ preferred learning-style and their work served as a foundation for this investigation (Burke & Dunn, 2003; Dunn, Beaudry, & Klavas, 1989; Dunn & DeBello, 1999; Dunn, Denig, & Lovelace, 2001; Dunn & Dunn, 1992). Based on the knowledge that individual instructional preferences exist and can be reliably measured, this study extended previous research to include a population of students with autism who were not specifically identified in previous research and found the uniqueness of its findings for this population to be in concert with that of other students identified as having other special needs such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Emotional Disturbance (Braio, et al., 2001; Brand ,1999; Fine, 2002; Greb ,1999; Majewski,1990).
The similarities and differences in the learning preferences of students with autism in comparison to their typical peers was investigated and the possible uniqueness of their learning preferences as a group was examined by responding to the following questions: Are there common learning-style preferences among students who are diagnosed with autism, and are there significant differences between the preferred learning-style preferences of students with autism and the learning-style preferences of their typical elementary level peers?
Data on student learning-style preferences were collected from student responses to questions on the Elementary Learning Style Assessment (ELSA) (Dunn, Rundle, & Burke, 2007), a comprehensive diagnostic instrument that considers 25 different variables in each individual’s environment, sociological, and cognitive processing traits as described in the Dunn and Dunn learning-style model. The model consists of 20 elements, measured by the 25 variables in five strands: Environmental, Emotional, Sociological, Physiological and Psychological.
A sample of 52 students attending a private school in a large metropolitan area whose academic performance was at an elementary level and who had a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder self-reported their preferred learning styles using the ELSA computer-based self-assessment. The findings, as related to these five strands, indicated that there were significant commonalities in the manner in which students with autism preferred to learn (Friedlander, 2010).
Students respond to a number of environmental factors when learning. This research showed that students with autism indicated a preference for learning in environments which included background noise. However, 40% of the students tested indicated they preferred a quiet environment. Students also indicated a strong preference for bright light while learning compared to dim light and a significant preference for a warm environment, with almost 50% of the students preferring warm temperatures over cooler temperatures while learning. It should be noted that the element of Design which considers a formal or casual arrangement of the classroom, such as a conventional desk and chair as opposed to a bean bag chair or large pillows, did not meet the more stringent level of significance (.025) chosen for this study. However, the level of significance was found to be .035, which had the researcher opted for a more traditional level of significance (.05) would have been a consideration. Students with autism indicated a preference for a more structured environment.
Student preferences for varied sociological learning opportunities were also examined. Students with autism report that they learned best in a variety of social settings. While the social makeup of a classroom is usually teacher directed, peer collaboration and interaction in one-to-one and small group settings were important to these students with autism as was working with authoritative adults in a variety of different ways.
Physiological elements that influence learning include perceptual elements such as material being presented in a visual, auditory or tactual manner, time of day (morning , noon or afternoon), intake (snacking or not snacking while working), and opportunities for mobility during learning, such as taking short breaks. This study revealed that students with autism preferred not to snack while learning. While fewer than expected students expressed preferences for learning at specific times of the day, those that did express preferences stated they learned best in the afternoon. They also expressed preferences for material to be presented to them through various perceptual modalities. Although students with autism are often offered visual supports for their learning, they stated their preferences for learning through a variety of different modalities which include tactile, visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
There are commonalities among the emotional needs of students with autism as well. They reported a strong need for structure and authority and felt they were motivated by others. This analysis also showed that students with autism were more multi-task persistent than single-task persistent, desiring frequent breaks during work periods rather than sticking to one task until completion.
Students with autism see themselves as more global than analytical learners. Global thinkers prefer to develop an understanding of the concept and then develop the details. The data analyzed in this study revealed that students with autism have commonalities in learning-style preferences. These commonalities have implications for students and teachers in the inclusive environment of a general education classroom as well as the more specialized, smaller group classroom. When students and teachers alike have a deep understanding of how students learn best and are willing to make simple changes to their everyday classrooms or routines to accommodate student preference, more active and engaged learning can occur.
In addition, this study found that students with autism prefer to learn in ways that are sometimes significantly different from their typical peers (Friedlander, 2010). This difference was apparent in four of the 25 preferences tested. Data revealed students with autism, when compared to their typical peers, reported a significant preference for learning in an environment which included bright light, and required them to listen to the teacher. In comparison, the responses of their typical peers were fairly evenly distributed across responses in choosing low, no preference or bright light (18, 23, and 19 students respectively). Also, 22% of their typical peers reported no preference for learning in an auditory manner, while no students with autism chose “no preference” as their response. They also differed significantly in that they preferred to learn with an authoritative adult as opposed to their typical peers who, although they also” preferred” to learn with an authoritative adult, 30% said they had “no preference” whereas only 4% of students with autism chose this response. Students with autism also felt themselves to be impulsive (56% as opposed to 20% of typical peers) rather than reflective students, while their typical peers made choices which indicated they felt they were more reflective (72% as opposed to 35% of students with autism).
When educators understand that all students have individual needs and preferred learning styles they can create learning environments that ensure maximum success. The learning-style researchers have found that students who are considered to be high-risk have benefited significantly from instruction that was matched to their particular style of learning. As educators continue to search for more effective teaching strategies for students with autism to address their academic, social, and behavioral achievements, a consideration of students’ preferred learning styles is essential.
Students with autism should feel increasingly more comfortable in their general education classrooms when their emotional, sociological, psychological, physiological, and environmental needs are met. Educators must develop proficiency in carefully evaluating profiles of ability for children with autism as their unique strengths and weaknesses may not always be supported within the general education classroom. With more data to support student learning preferences, the inclusion process can be specifically tailored to meet student needs and support success in the classroom when used for instructional planning and teacher training. The results of this study offer valuable insight into the learning styles of students with autism, enabling teachers to create classrooms which are welcoming and enriching, in turn leading to a more comfortable and successful school experience.
Dr. Friedlander is a special education inclusion teacher in elementary education in Ridgefield, Connecticut. She is currently working on a book about learning styles for teachers and their students with autism. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.