symbolic functioning may be manifest in problems with play at one time, and in language at a later time. In addition, individuals with autism may attempt compensatory strategies, either spontaneously or through instruction, so profiles of ability may also change over time.

Children with autistic spectrum disorders have unique patterns of development, both as a group and as individuals. Many children with autistic spectrum disorders have relative strengths that can be used to buttress their learning in areas that they find difficult. For example, a child with strong visual-spatial skills may learn to read words to cue social behavior. A child with strong nonverbal problem-solving skills may be motivated easily by tasks that have a clear endpoint or that require thinking about how to move from one point to another. A child with good auditory memory may develop a repertoire of socially appropriate phrases from which to select for specific situations.

Autistic spectrum disorders are disorders that affect many aspects of thinking and learning. Cognitive deficits, including mental retardation, are interwoven with social and communication difficulties, and many of the theoretical accounts of autistic spectrum disorders emphasize concepts, such as joint attention and theory of mind, that involve components of cognition, communication, and social understanding. Thus, educational interventions cannot assume a typical sequence of learning; they must be individualized, with attention paid to the contribution of each of the component factors to the goals most relevant for an individual child.


Early studies on development in autism focused on basic capacities of perception and sensory abilities. Although children with autistic spectrum disorders appear to be able to perceive sensory stimuli, their responses to such stimuli may be abnormal (Prior and Ozonoff, 1998). For example, brainstem auditory evoked response hearing testing may demonstrate that the peripheral hearing pathway is intact, although the child’s behavioral response to auditory stimuli is abnormal. In infants and very young children, the use of infant developmental scales is somewhat limited, since such tests have, in general, relatively less predictive value for subsequent intelligence. Indeed, the nature of “intelligence” in this period may be qualitatively different than in later years (Piaget, 1952).

Several studies have investigated sensorimotor intelligence in children with autism. The ability to learn material by rote may be less impaired than that involved in the manipulation of more symbolic materials (Klin and Shepard, 1994; Losche, 1990). Attempts made to employ traditional Piagetian notions of sensorimotor development have revealed generally normal development of object permanence, although the capacities

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