5 Ways to Help an Autistic Teen Study

Studying can be challenging for anyone, autistic or not.

My husband can study while watching a video of a lecture, with an earbud in his other ear playing a YouTube vlog. Perhaps the extra input takes some of the tension off of his studying.

Myself, I need to have a textbook in front of me with a handful of colored highlighters ready to mark what I feel is important. I also must study in a comfortable chair and quiet space, with no interruptions. When I feel like a need a break, I’ll get up and walk outside for 5 minutes.

How Executive Functioning Affects Studying

We all have different studying and learning styles – audio, visual, and in print. Our success with learning depends largely upon how we reflect on our past experiences with studying, and how we repeat what has worked for us. This is a part of executive functioning.

In autistic individuals, executive functioning can greatly affect studying. In teens that struggle with this, it may show up as having difficulty picking up on a subject, struggling with organizing or planning the time to study, or reasoning with the materials presented.

Presume Competence in Your Child

As a parent guide, you can encourage your teen and help them develop executive functioning by presuming competence. This means that you believe that your child possesses the ability to learn and develop (and they can!). You believe your child is capable and that he or she will thrive.

When you have confidence in your teen’s potential, you innately give them the chance to develop, and you gain the ability to be your child’s greatest support and cheerleader.

When presuming competence in your teen, you do not take on the role of a compensator. Compensating reduces your child’s ability to learn and to be challenged by their own experiences, and this limits their wanting to seek out more in life. It reduces their “Ah-ha” moments, their seek-promoting experiences, “Look what I did. I want to make that happen again!” To your teen, your overcompensation is processed as I don’t believe you are capable. Help your teen gain confidence by not attempting to do the work for them.

5 Ways to Help an Autistic Teen Study

As you help your autistic teen, you are guiding them to realize what helps them to study – you are promoting their autonomy, dynamic intelligence, and personal identity. Your efforts help your teen overcome the challenges common with autism, such as ADHD. Your guiding efforts support the development of mental resources, habits and mindsets, and you help your teen gain knowledge.

Here are 5 ways you can help your autistic teen study:

1. Ask the Teacher for Assistance

Ask for study guides. Study guides highlight important concepts and improve comprehension. Study guides can help your teen organize information, and in many cases, these materials can be used as self-quizzes and learning checks. Ask the teacher if alternative learning methods and materials are available, such as videos or apps. Your teen may find audio and visual tools easier to process than text.

Christa Holmans, Neurodivergent Rebel, software developer Paul Austin, and Haley Moss, lawyer, discuss their school experiences as autistics:

Going to the professor and asking him to go over an exam, “being an adult”, was difficult for Haley, but she acknowledges that an individual cannot do better unless they talk through it (unless they ask). Paul agrees that a person is going to get farther than they would if they had struggled alone. Going through the steps of gathering questions and taking them to the professor could be exhausting in itself for people, per Haley, but in her situation, she knew that asking questions was a needed step and that it involved executive function (i.e., adaptation, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, and organization).

“I think for autistic people who do need help…it (asking the questions) can help relieve some of the cognitive burden…” – Haley Moss

2. Break the Field of Study Down Into Smaller Segments

This can help your teen absorb and develop reasoning by focusing on smaller areas or sections versus an entire chapter (much less an entire textbook). Breaking studies down into smaller pieces helps to avoid processing overwhelm, which is especially common in autistic individuals.

3. Encourage Breaks

Help your teen honor their own body and mind cues. As the parent guide, you can model this. As you model studying, you may start to feel (and gesture) discouragement, stress, confusion, or tiredness, signaling that your body or mind needs a break. Have your teen follow you – which may involve taking a 5-minute walk, or even a moment outdoors – whatever it takes to reset. And then, “I feel better now! Back to work!” Remind your teen that they can rely on their resources and tools, whatever benefits them as a break. When studying begins to feel overwhelming, set a timer and step away.

4. Encourage Self-Regulating Tactics While Studying

Your teen may self-regulate their behavior or self-stimulate their mind through stimming. They may engage in fidgeting, doodling, or listening to music. Provide your support but remind your teen to utilize the tools that they have developed to cope with studying and self-regulating. Self-regulating can also be associated with the environment, which often means studying in a quiet space without interruptions.

5. Set a Routine

Have your teen to set their own study schedule – at an optimal time for them (which could be before dinner, after dinner, or an hour before bedtime). But schedule it at a regular time and develop a routine. This ensures studies are kept up with and are not put off until the last minute. If breaks are included in the schedule, extend the study time out accordingly.

You Are Not Alone

None of us want to feel that we are on an island alone as a family navigating autism. You aren’t alone. Find your RDI® consultant today. 

Click to enlarge infographic.

autism, echolalia, and apraxia infographic

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