Factors That Impact Learning - Autism Awareness

Factors That Impact Learning


I believe that anxiety is the #1 cause of problems in school. High states of anxiety can reduce the capacity to learn. I think this because I can relate my own anxiety issues to my learning experience when I worked in Germany. I was so anxious about not understanding the German language that I shut down during explanations of work procedures on the job. This, in turn, increased my anxiety levels because when I went to perform the job task, I wasn’t sure how to do it. Anxiety becomes a viscous cycle.

There are a number of anxiety disorders to be aware of – phobias, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has excellent information on these disorders and how to treat them. Also be aware of selective mutism which is a childhood anxiety disorder that results in a failure to speak in select social settings. I believe my daughter suffered from this in her early schooling years.

Sensory Issues

Sensory processing involves seven systems – tactile (touch), vestibular (balance), proprioception (where your body is in a space), visual, auditory, gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell). When these systems don’t work together, this results in an under-reaction or over-reaction to stimuli. Think about what occurs daily in a classroom and the senses involved in learning and coping in the classroom environment. If a student is struggling with sensory processing, then learning is impacted with increased stress levels and possibly challenging behavior.

Sensory problems can look very different depending on the student. A good book to start with if you are looking to identify specific areas of sensory need is Answers to Questions Teachers Ask About Sensory Integration. Don’t underestimate the necessity of keeping the senses functioning well and optimally.

Physiological Factors

Many students on the autism spectrum suffer from sleep disturbances (night waking, difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early in the morning), a limited or restricted diet, a lack of exercise due to difficulties with motor planning, and toileting issues (withholding, constipation, or diarrhea). Think about having any one of these problems and how it has impacted your day in the past. If these problems are chronic and on-going, they are going to affect a student’s day. Talk to the parents and see if your student suffers from any of these problems. Sometimes making an accommodation for a student can make all the difference in having a good day. Think about offering quiet time, a body break, bathroom time (many students won’t ask to go even if they have to), or trips to the water fountain. Neither of my children has ever asked to have a drink of water at school and will only drink something if it is offered.


Comorbidity is the presence of more than one disorder along with the primary disorder. This could be autism and…depression, ADHD, dyspraxia, bipolar disorder, and the list goes on. Educators need to be aware of comorbid conditions because it may not be enough to think about autism as these other conditions will also affect learning and daily planning. Mental health issues are still being overlooked and unaddressed in the ASD population. To learn more, have a look at Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome.

General Intellectual Difficulties

The statistic for intellectual difficulties among people with ASD is 80% are below normal intelligence and 20% are above. Now, be careful of this statistic because in Canada we use standardized norms testing which means results are based on how the “normal” population scores. Test results are not based on the results garnered from a specialized population such as autism. Standardized testing does not give a clear picture on what these students can actually achieve or what their intelligence levels are since it is the neurotypical population that determines what is a measure of intelligence.

Personally, I would look more at what the student can accomplish with modifications or accommodations in place rather than the IQ score. If a student is not being challenged in any way because the program is being based on an IQ score, it will be more than likely you’ll have behavior problems and an unhappy student. How often is a nonverbal student deemed to have limited intelligence and this is often not the case?

Before planning any curriculum or lessons, keep these factors that impact learning in the forefront of your mind. Be prepared to change the game plan if what you’ve created is not working. Parents, students, teachers and educational assistants need to work as a team to set the stage for learning. It may be easier than you think!

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  1. […] way how autism affects learning in school is that it complicates some of the sensory processing of the child. This in turn makes it harder for them to cope up with the demand needed for learning and results […]

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