Flashcards for Autism
What is Autism?
Features of autism
Autism is characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours and impaired communication and is often accompanied by sensory challenges. According to the Center for Disease Control, autism currently affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States.
Sub types of autism
There are many sub types of autism, influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and therefore each person on the spectrum has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.
How Students with Autism Learn
Differences in learning
The ways in which people on the autism spectrum learn, think and problem solve ranges from highly skilled to severely challenged. Recent studies using brain scans found that many children on the spectrum may find it far more difficult to tune out irrelevant details (such as the pattern of the tapestry) in order to focus on what is important (such as a fire or approaching danger). In essence, and despite best efforts, all areas of the brain involved in processing information from the environment were equally busy, making the world for those on the spectrum a noisy and unpredictable place.
Traditional teaching and autism
These differences in processing information from the environment as well as in imitation, motivation, and organization can hinder the educational success of students with autism. Therefore, the more traditional teaching strategies that rely heavily on verbal instructions, sequencing chunks of information, demonstration and social reinforcement may prove less effective.
How students with Autism can learn from visual imagery (show +)
There is substantial evidence that many students on the autism spectrum have strengths in processing visual information in comparison to processing language or auditory cues. Visual imagery has been used to teach people with autism to initiate social exchanges (Krantz and McClannahan 1998), to spend more time on tasks and to complete those tasks correctly (Bryan and Gast, 2000) as well as contributing to a reduction in challenging behaviour (Massey and Wheeler, 2000)
Effectiveness of different types of visual imagery for learning (show +)
Visual imagery can be used as a teaching resource in a variety of ways. A visual schedule of planned activities is one example, so too is a series of photos that guides a student how to carry out daily living skills (such as brushing their teeth) without supervision.
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a way for people with autism to communicate without relying on speech. To communicate, people use cards with pictures, symbols or words that represent tasks, actions or objects. Many speech therapists and occupational therapists, as well as parents and teachers have been trained in PECS. Research has shown positive effects from the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). However, more high-quality studies are needed to better understand the effectiveness of this tool.
Flashcards for Autism
Just as visual schedules and PECS are great resources for effectively teaching people with autism so too are flashcards. Flashcards, (or flash cards), are cards that contain information, typically on the front and reverse sides. The front side of the flashcard has the concept to be learned. It may be an image or a symbol or a word and the reverse side provides the answer.
Their history and use today (show +)
Applied Behaviour Analysis
Flashcards are commonly used in many Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs. ABA is defined as an approach to understanding and changing behaviour. There are many scientific studies that support the use of ABA for helping people with autism improve their social, communication and self-care skills as well as manage their own behaviour.
One of the core aspects of autism is social dysfunction. There is no fixed pattern to this dysfunction. It may be that a person with autism seeks to avoid personal interaction or alternatively may monopolise conversation on a single topic. Flashcards that assist with a person’s social abilities might include a series on emotions, that encourage the student to better understand the types of expressions associated with various feelings (such as the furrowed brow for frustrated or the wide eyes for surprised). The benefit of improving a person’s emotional literacy is that it helps them to cue into their own emotions as well as those of the people around them, facilitating better social engagement.
People on the spectrum of autism often have receptive and expressive language challenges that vary with age and developmental level. Likewise, they may struggle with more abstract language concepts such as the correct use of pronouns and prepositions. Flashcards can be used to assist with breaking down these abstract concepts into simpler, more understandable parts. For example, to assist with teaching pronouns a series of flashcards might depict men and women engaging in a range of activities (such as playing the piano or eating ice cream). The gender of the person shown on the flashcard provides an opportunity to focus on the concepts of ‘her’ and ‘him’ and ‘she’ and ‘he’.
What makes an effective flashcard?
Captivating imagery with a clear teaching purpose can be highly motivating for a student with autism. In many instances, the addition of context is helpful. For example, a man is shown running along a track or a child is shown swimming in a pool. However, there are times where an image may be intentionally set against a white background, helping to provide focus and clarity. An example is a set of three flashcards, depicting a mug of coffee either in front, inside or next to a microwave oven. The omission of all other information helps to highlight the difference between the three images and hence to focus on the concepts being taught.
Variety of uses for flashcards
One of the reasons that flashcards are popular for teaching people with autism is because of their varied use. They are ideal for activities that require matching (eg one dog with another) as well as sorting (eg by appliance/clothing/instrument) and touching (eg the item that goes with a shoe). They can be used to enhance expressive language (eg by asking ‘What colour is the hat?’) and as a prompt for enacting a concept (eg ‘Show me feeling scared’).
And thus, although they are typically simple in design, flashcards can be used for teaching increasingly complex concepts. For example, the image of a dolphin may be used to teach vocabulary (eg the word ‘dolphin’), sentence structure (eg ‘The dolphin is swimming’), categorization (eg ‘The dolphin is an animal’) and spatial reasoning (eg ‘The dolphin is in the water’). Granted the immense teaching potential of flashcards, they are suitable for both children and adults. Likewise, they work well for people who are verbal and non-verbal and for mainstream as well as specialist educational settings. Whilst the potential for using flashcards is extensive, their success lies in being specific to the individual’s learning needs.