Children with autism are often described as visual learners and have been said to “think in pictures”. For this reason, teachers and therapists often prescribe picture-based communication systems in order to support their learning. However, recent findings of a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders contradict this notion, putting into question the key rationale for using these systems.
“In the study, children with autism, children with developmental delay, and typically developing children were seated in front of an eye-tracking computer and a set of common objects. A teacher appeared on the screen and gave instructions, such as “pick up the ball and put it in the box.” She gave half of the instructions using her speech alone, and half by pointing to pictures of the objects as she spoke.”
Information was gathered as the computer tracked the children’s eye movements while a video camera recorded their actions. The children with autism looked at the videos in the same way as the other groups of children. There were no finding of these children linger on the pictures longer than the other groups of children, or avoid looking at the teacher’s face.
“This means that if children with autism make greater use of visual information than do other children, it wasn’t apparent in this study in terms of observed differences in their pattern of attention to pictures and faces.”
When measuring the children’s ability to follow the instructions, the children with developmental delay and typically developing children performed better when pictures were used. The children with autism did not perform better with pictures. This was despite the children with autism being of similar age and having a similar language comprehension level to the children with developmental delay.
Interestingly, the comparison groups of normally developing and developmentally delayed children that showed a visual learning style, not the children with autism.
“There has been an explosion of phone and tablet-based apps providing picture-based communication systems for children with autism, based on the belief that these are well suited to their visual learning advantage. So should teachers and therapists stop using picture-based communication systems with children with autism? The simple answer is no. There is growing evidence that picture-based communication systems can be effective for some children with autism, and there are several alternative explanations for why they may be effective. More attention needs to be given to these.”
An alternative explanation to the finding of the study is that Picture-based communication systems may clarify the process of communication for children with autism.
“When a child is taught to hand a picture of a drink to his mother to request a drink, for example, he can touch and see the picture in his hand. He then watches it as it moves through space into her hand. The exchange is physical and consistent, not fast and fleeting like spoken words. As she recognises that he wants a drink and reacts, the power of communication is demonstrated by his attempt to communicate being rewarded. The use of pictures, in this case, is just one possible ‘ingredient’ in the intervention.”
The study results suggest that teachers and therapists should consider the range of possible tools when deciding whether to use picture-based communication systems with children on the spectrum rather than assuming he or she is a visual learner. The study results also highlight the need to understand individual differences in people with autism.
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