Why is learning so difficult for children with autism?

By October 3, 2018 May 14th, 2023 Autism

Children are very curious about new things

Children are born to learn. They are inquisitive about new things and are attracted to new and interesting things. As a consequence of this curiosity, they learn new things very quickly. They learn new actions, new words, new concepts at an extraordinary fast pace. Children learn these new things by watching other people make the actions, say the words and use the concepts. Then they imitate what they see others do. Early learning is that simple!

There is a social context to learning

Children don’t learn these things by doing them by themselves. Instead, there is a social element. Babies and children want to do what others do, and they want to do them with other people. They look for the laughs and smiles that happen during these learning opportunities. This early social motivation provides a wealth of opportunities for young children to learn new skills.

Children are selective about what they learn

The other factor in play here is that children are selective about what they learn, who they learn it from and when they learn it. Children don’t incorporate everything they are exposed to. They take the most interesting parts then use and learn what appeals to them.

There is an emotional context to learning

Children learn when there is an emotional connection to the person they are learning from, when they see positive effects of when they are learning. Children are more likely to imitate what someone else is doing if that person is looking at them rather then imitating what someone is doing who isn’t looking at them. The combination of:

  • social curiosity
  • playfulness
  • affective engagement
  • interest in what the new actions can lead to

that occur in everyday activities lead to early learning.

What is different in children with autism?

Autism disrupts early learning experiences. Early social learning doesn’t happen in the same way for young children with ASD and this directly impacts all of their learning

Children with ASD are less likely to do the following things, and they are less likely to do them at the same frequency as other children. This includes the ability to:

  • observe and imitate others
  • play with other children
  • initiate interactions that are purely social because they tend to initiate interactions to get their needs met
  • Repetitive behaviours emerge in the second year of life that leads to difficulties with change and adhering to routines.
  • They pay less attention to what other people are saying and doing, and they miss out on learning about the world around them
  • Children with autism attend to focus on objects in their world and not people
  • They have sensory issues that affect their behaviour and learning
  • Early deficits in social skills cause learning issues.
  • They make less effect to get the attention of others and direct it to what they are interested in, which decreases their opportunity to learn from the response that other people make
  • Children with autism often insist on the same routines, so they avoid new experiences and miss out on learning new skills and responses in new situations
  • They can have difficulty staying on task or tune out things that are happening around them

Starting autism specific interventions early in a child’s life is critical to increasing these early learning opportunities for children with autism. The Early Start Denver Model is an autism specific early intervention for children with autism.

What is the ESDM?

Early Start Denver Model or ESDM is a model of intervention for young children with autism. It targets the key features of autism that interfere with a child’s ability to learn, make friends and participate in the world around them.

The ESDM is a comprehensive, developmental, behavioural early intervention program for young children with autism. What exactly does that mean?

  • It is comprehensive because it addresses all areas of development. The ESDM program addresses communication and social skills, but it also targets gross and fine motor skills, and personal independence skills. We want every child to improve across all areas of development
  • A behavioural program refers to the method of writing a child’ program, monitoring their progress and teaching the child to ensure that change occurs and that we can show where the child has progressed.
  • The ESDM is developmental in that it follows the general developmental expectations for all children. It does, however, target the areas of development that are more challenging for children with autism

Who is on the ESDM team?

Our ESDM team consists of Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists and Psychologists. The Senior ESDM Therapist oversees the ESDM program in the clinic. She reviews every child’s program weekly and meets with the parents at the end of each quarter. The ESDM therapists are highly skilled in delivering the program on a daily basis. The Speech Pathologist provides input and support to each child’s speech, language, social and communication goals.  The Occupational Therapist gives input and support to the child’s gross motor, fine motor and sensory areas. The ESDM team meet regularly to ensure that each child progresses in all areas of the program.


OneOnOne Children’s Therapy is located in Bondi Junction in Sydney. Our team of therapists is trained at the highest levels of fidelity so we can improve children’s lives. If you want to find out more about the ESDM, then call our clinic on (02) 80657837 or email us.