It’s common for autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to affect a child’s cognitive skills – in different ways and to varying degrees. Cognitive strengths can include attention to detail, or memorizing vast amounts of information about a certain subject. Cognitive challenges tend to be related to “theory of mind” and executive functioning skills.
Autism and Theory of Mind
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to understand that others do not share the same thoughts and feelings that we do. It is also being able to recognize that others have their own thoughts and feelings, and understanding how they affect their behavior as well as our own. It usually emerges around age 4, but its foundation begins in infancy.
Because of delayed or absent ToM, children with ASD may believe that others know what they are thinking or feeling, and have trouble seeing things from others’ perspective.
Challenges with ToM are a main reason children with ASD struggle to navigate social interaction.
Autism and Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills (EF) are a hefty set of cognitive skills that help us regulate, control, and manage our thoughts and behavior. It’s common for children with ASD to have difficulty with the following:
- Planning – A child may struggle to plan the steps involved in various tasks, from putting on shoes to completing a puzzle.
- Working Memory – This involves being able to hold information in the mind long enough to use it (in order to follow verbal instructions, for example, or answer comprehension questions after reading).
- Attention – Children with ASD may have an uncanny ability to focus on something, but often struggle to shift attention from one thing to another and back again. It can also be difficult to filter information in order to decide what to pay attention to (a child may be so focused on a bright light behind you that she cannot pay attention to what you are saying).
- Initiating – Children with ASD may struggle to begin tasks or come up with ideas on their own.
- Control emotions and behavior – Children with ASD may lack impulse control, which can show up as big feelings, acting out, or behaviors like rocking, spinning, or flapping hands.
- Flexibility – Struggling with transitions, and unexpected changes in routines or plans, is common for children with ASD.
Tips for Parents
As with any developmental disorder, intervening as early as possible is key. Talk to your child’s early intervention team about strengthening her cognitive skills, and follow her therapists’ lead to support cognitive goals at home.
Also keep these tips in mind:
- Because ToM is so closely linked to social-emotional development, head over to our article on autism and social-emotional development and scroll to the parent tips – all of which relate to ToM.
- To help your child with EF, use visual supports (such as pictures of steps in a routine like brushing teeth or getting dressed), interact with her as often as possible (our BabySparks activities all support EF skills), and have extra patience with multi-step tasks.
Lastly, keep in mind that research shows that with intervention, cognitive skills can improve in children with ASD.