Cognitive Development in Autistic Children

Cognitive Development in Autistic Children


Children with autism have shown that they performed relatively well in some sections of intelligence tests. This perspective has raised the idea that autistic children do not experience cognitive delay (National Research Council, 2001). The observed challenges in the assessment, as well as low scores in tests, were as a result of “untestability” or “negativism” (Clark and Rutter, 1977). With time, it was clear that despite several areas regarding development of intelligence being higher, most areas were mainly deviant or delayed in terms of development and there was a chance that a lot of autistic children functioned in ways that are considered mentally retarded. Research about normal cognitive development has been centered on the knowledge acquisition process or symbolic development, acquisition of skills, acquisition of concepts, and questions about the nature of intelligence. Most researchers arrived at the conclusions that children with ASD have different developmental patterns, both as individuals and as groups. ASD affects a lot of aspects involving learning and thinking. The cognitive deficiencies, as well as mental challenges, are intertwined with difficulties in communication and social. Also, most of the theoretical findings regarding ASD is focused on concepts like communication, cognition, as well as social understanding. Therefore, educational strategies and interventions should be personalized to meet the needs of each child, rather than assume a typical learning sequence. This paper is going to discuss cognitive development in terms of educating children with Autism.

Literature Review

In relation to cognitive abilities in young children, prior research on autism development was aimed at the basic abilities regarding sensory and perception abilities. Although children with ASD may be seen as being able to perceive sensory stimuli, they may have abnormal responses to such stimuli (National Research Council, 2001). For instance, when testing the peripheral hearing pathway, brainstem auditory evoked response hearing testing may shoe it is intact despite the child having an abnormal response to auditory stimuli. The use of developmental scales for infants for this population is sometimes limited by the fact that they generally have small foreseeable value for the ensuing intelligence because the intelligence in nature at this time seem to be unique compared to future years (Piaget, 1952).

According to numerous research on sensorimotor intelligence in autistic children, learning capability by rote appear to be less impaired compared to the one which involves the use of manipulating more symbolic items (Klin and Shepard, 1994). The efforts to use the more conventional sensorimotor development notions of Piaget have shown a general development of object permanence despite the deficits in vocalization and imitate gesture capacities. (Sigman and Ungerer 1984). Sensorimotor skills in some younger autistic children are impaired and may seem less deviant regarding imagination and symbolic play aspects that usually develop at the preoperational period. This population shows diverse play activities although their play is varied less, least developmentally sophisticated, and less symbolic in comparison to other young children (Sigman and Ungerer, 1984). Such challenges may be the initial manifestations of what will present as future challenges in planning and organization. Young autistic children, therefore, show certain areas of deficits which mainly involve representational knowledge, and are usually evident in-play social imitation and play area. As a result, these children can take part in a much representational play, particularly split symbolic play which encompasses the capacity of metarepresentation, social attention, knowledge, and orientation, which have proven to be an area of difficulty among them (Leslie, 1987).

Regarding the stability and intelligence tests usage, IQ scores are considered to have been significant in the research on autism and ASD. Until now, intelligence test scores, mainly verbal IQ, are considered the major constant predictor of adult functioning and independence (Taormina, Fenclau and Marshall, 2012). Although there is a common fluctuation between 10-20 points in the score, scores of nonverbal IQ  are considered solid particularly after they begin school. Nonverbal intelligence is, therefore, a significant prognostic factor as it operates accompanied by the availability of communicative language.

Conventional intelligence measures in school-age children tend to be more readily applicable compared to younger children. The intelligence tests have demonstrated that autistic children have shown challenges in knowledge acquisition and information processing aspects (National Research Council, 2001). The tasks which encompass short-term memory, perceptual organization, and spatial understanding are usually less impaired not unless there is involvement of more symbolic tasks (Goldstein, Johnson, and Minshew, 2001). Also, the capacity to broadly apply and generalize concepts seem to be much limited among autistic youngsters compared to other children.

The use of IQ scores has been used in in treating autistic children, particularly in recovery. Nonetheless, the results may be challenging to clarify because of several reasons. To start with, the variation in young ones and variations within an individual child over some time makes it hard to evaluate a large number of autistic children by the use of the same test in several instances. Within a group of autistic children, some of them may not possess the necessary skills to participate in the test entirely while some may make great improvements that the test may prove inadequate to assess the skills. Also, the difficulty in finding necessary measures and utilizing them as needed has a direct consequence in measuring treatment response. For instance, children with autism show a predictable variation regarding their performance on several tests (Lord and Schopler, 1989). Autistic chilren will have a lot of challenges in assessments where language and social elements are heavily weighted and will have fewer challenges with nonverbal tests which have fewer demands for motor skills and speed.

Studies conducted on normally developing children have shown developmental and IQ tests can have practice effects especially if the parent is present during administration because children may be taught some test items by their parents. Also, examiners can improve the scores by assessment order, motivation, and varying breaks (Schopler and Mesibov, 2013). Researchers can say children have reached full “recovery” when they have measured the posttreatment IQ which is easier rather than assessing the absence of deficiencies in social play or behavior which are associated with autism. IQ scores can mainly be used to predict the child’s academic success and achievement although they should not be used alone. Also, adaptive behavior acts as a stronger predictor of several elements of future outcomes (Lord and Schopler, 1989). Moreover, IQ scores are composite measures that are hard to break into consistent elements and as a result of the several sources for their variability as well as ack of a certain relationship between intervention methods and IQ scores. They, therefore, provide significant information which are however inadequate progress measures regarding treatment.

The general issues in cognitive assessment of children with autism include significant scatter whereby there are lower verbal abilities compared to nonverbal ones especially in school-age and pre-school children. Therefore, the entire intellectual functioning indices may be misleading (National Research Council, 2001).  The other issue is regarding reported correlations on test manuals among several assessments which are not applicable despite the scores usually becoming more predictive and stable. Finally, the score of some older autistic children may fall with time thus emphasizing the aspects of generalization, conceptualization, and reasoning.

The theoretical models of cognitive dysfunction in autism include the theory of mind, a focus on executive functioning, and central coherence theory. The theory of mind suggests that autistic children do not understand or perceive intentions, feelings, and thoughts of others (Leslie and Frith, 1988). It helps autistic children be highly productive on the social aspects of autism. Executive functioning involves cognitive flexibility and planning. Central coherence theory views the core challenges in autism as rising from simple impairment in whole contexts. It identifies the basic cognitive deficits.


The general measures of intellectual functioning like IQ scores are predictive and stable in autistic children. IQ provides limited information and should therefore not be considered as the main outcome measure. The specific cognitive goals among children include communicative, social, as well as adaptive elements which are important to assess progress effectively. The direct assessment of children’s academic skills is necessary when children are learning to take part in academic activities.

Finally, more research should be carried out on the development of more measures in areas of cognition, including generalization and acquisition of problem-solving, cognitive skills, as well as the effects of cognitive skills on children’s families and their lives. Also, research should define the necessary skills sequence of skills which children with autism should be taught through educational programs and other ways of selecting such sequences and individualized programs for children.

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