Tony Attwood - Author of The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome

Tony Attwood - Author of The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome

Should children with Autistic Spectrum disorders be exempted from doing Homework?

A major cause of anguish for children with an Autistic Spectrum
Disorder, their families and teachers is the satisfactory completion of
homework. Why should this group of children have such an emotional
reaction to the mere thought of having to start their homework and such
difficulty completing assigned tasks? There may be two explanations. The
first is based on their degree of stress and mental exhaustion during
their day at school and the second is due to their profile of cognitive

The stress of being at school

As with their classroom peers, a child with an Autistic Spectrum
Disorder has to learn the traditional educational curriculum but they
encounter additional learning experiences and sources of stress than do
other children in their class. They have an additional curriculum,
namely the social curriculum.
They have to use their intellectual
reasoning to determine the social rules of the classroom and the
playground. Other children do not have to consciously learn social
integration skills but these children have to decipher the social cues
and codes and cognitively determine what to do and say in social
situations. Often their primary feedback is criticism for an error with
little recognition from others when they make the correct response.
Learning only from your mistakes is not the most efficient way to learn.
Thus these children have to concentrate on an extra curriculum that
leaves them intellectually and emotionally exhausted at the end of the
school day. They also have difficulty reading and responding to the
emotional signals of the teacher and other children, coping with the
complex socialising, noise and chaos of the playground, the unexpected
changes in the school routine and the intense sensory experiences of a
noisy classroom. Throughout the school day they rarely have an
opportunity to relax.

It is essential that we recognise the
degree of stress experienced by such children, as the signs can become
evident in their behaviour and mood. The signs include the child who is
described as a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in that the indicators of stress
are not conspicuous at school but the child is a very different
character at home. They may be quiet and compliant in the classroom but
intolerant and aggressive immediately they return home. Some children
become extremely anxious in the morning before going to school and
school refusal or walking out of school can be a sign of unbearable
Other children can express the signs at school by episodes of
extreme anxiety or anger, with incidents of panic or disruptive and
explosive behaviour. Others suffer chronic stress, which contributes to a
clinical depression.
When I talk to children with autism and Asperger’s
Syndrome who are having difficulty learning the social curriculum and
coping with the stress of school, they often explain that they want a
clear division between home and school. Their comment is "School is for
learning, home is for fun or relaxation" Thus the prospect of
interrupting their much needed and deserved fun and relaxation with
homework is more than they can cope with.

Profile of Cognitive Skills

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder have an unusual profile of
Cognitive skills that must be recognised and accommodated when they are
undertaking academic work at school and home. One aspect of the profile
is impaired Executive Function. The profile is similar to that of
children with Attention Deficit Disorder in that they can have
difficulty planning, organising and prioritising, a tendency to be
impulsive and inflexible when problem solving and poor working memory.

Other features include a difficulty generating new ideas, a need for
supervision and guidance and determining what is relevant and redundant
as well as poor time perception and time management. There is also the
likelihood of an unusual profile on standardised tests of intelligence
especially with regard to verbal and visual (or Performance Scale)
intelligence. Some children are verbalisers and have a relative strength
in reading, vocabulary and verbal concepts while others are visualisers
and ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. The child’s cognitive and
learning profile is usually recognised by school authorities and special
provision made for the child in terms of an assistant in the classroom
to facilitate their academic progress. The teacher knows how to adapt
the curriculum for a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder but this
knowledge and service are not usually available at home.

following range of strategies are designed to minimise the impaired
Executive Function, accommodate their profile of cognitive skills and
help the child complete their homework assignments with less stress for
the child and family.

Create a learning environment

The area where the child works must be conducive to concentration and
learning. A useful model is the child’s classroom with appropriate
seating, lighting and removal of any distractions.
The distractions can
be visual such as the presence of toys or television, which are a
constant reminder of what the child would rather be doing or auditory
distraction such as the noise from electrical appliances and the chatter
of siblings. Ensure the working surface only has equipment relevant to
the task. Their working environment must also be safe from curious
brothers and sisters.

A daily homework timetable can be made by
a parent with guidance from the teacher to define the expected duration
and content of each homework activity or assignment. This can be
extremely helpful if there are problems with the child’s allocation of
time to each homework component. Sometimes the homework can take hours
when the teacher intended only several minutes on a specified task.

A timer can be used to remind the child how much time is remaining to
complete each section of homework. It is also important to ensure that
time scheduled for homework does not coincide with the child’s favourite
television program. If it does, they may have priority use of the video
recorder and can watch the program after their homework.

regular breaks are necessary to promote concentration, the work can be
divided into segments to indicate how much work the child has to
complete before they can take a momentary break. The usual mistake is to
expect too much prolonged concentration.

Teacher’s preparation of the homework

The teacher can highlight key aspects of the homework sheet, written
material and questions so that the child knows which aspects are
relevant to their preparation of the assignment. They can ask the child
to formulate their plan before commencing the assignment to ensure their
work is coherent and logical, especially if the homework is an essay.
If the assignment takes several days to complete, it is important that
the teacher regularly reviews the child’s rough drafts and progress,
which also increases the likelihood that it will be completed on time.

Memory problems

If the child has difficulty remembering exactly what was set for
homework and remembering relevant information during homework, a
characteristic of impaired executive function, a solution is to buy an
executive toy. A small cassette recorder used for dictation can provide a
record of the teacher’s spoken instructions and the child can add his
or her own comments or personal memo to the recording to remind them of
key information. The child and their parent will then know exactly what
was said and what is relevant to the task. Another strategy is to have
the telephone number of another child in the class to ask them for the
relevant information.

A homework diary and planner can help the
child remember which books to take home and the specific homework for
each evening. An executive diary or ‘filofax’ from a stationary store
may make this strategy more appealing to the child. The techniques are
explained as being appropriate for adult executives rather than for
children with learning problems.


The child may have difficulty getting started or knowing what to do
first. Procrastination can be an issue and a parent may have to
supervise the start of the homework. Once the child has started, this is
not the end of the supervision. A parent will also need to be available
if the child requires assistance when they are confused and to ensure
that they have chosen the appropriate strategy. There can be a tendency
for such children to have a closed mind to alternative strategies and a
determination to pursue an approach when other children would have
recognised the signs that it would be wise to consider another approach.
A technique to show that there is more than one line of thought is to
provide the child with a list of alternative strategies to solve the
particular problem. The child may need to know there is a plan B.

Parents and teachers soon become aware of the degree of supervision
required which can be a major problem for a parent with other family
commitments when the child is doing their homework. Supervision is also
necessary to help the child prioritise, plan, assist with word retrieval
problems and maintain motivation. Motivation can be enhanced by
specific rewards for concentration and effort.

Emotion Management

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder are notorious for their
difficulty coping with frustration and criticism, and their inability to
manage their emotions.
They can become quite agitated when confused or
having made a mistake. An adult will need to be available to help the
child remain calm and logical. The adult will also need to model
calmness, which can be difficult when both child and adult are confused
as to what to do. It can end in tears for both parties.

Cognitive Style

Special consideration should be given to the child’s cognitive
strengths and weaknesses. If the child’s relative strength is in visual
reasoning, then flow diagrams, mind maps and demonstrations will enhance
their understanding. If their strength is in verbal skills then written
instructions and discussion using metaphors (especially metaphors
associated with their special interest) will help. Additional strategies
include the use of a computer and keyboard, especially for those
children who have problems with handwriting. Sometimes a parent acts as
an “executive” secretary and types the material for the child and proof
reads their answers. Homework may be a collaborative rather than
solitary activity. The parent is not being over protective or neurotic,
they just know that without their involvement, the work would not be

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder often enjoy
having access to a computer and may be more able to understand material
if it is presented on a computer screen. Material presented by a person
adds a social and linguistic dimension to the situation, which can
increase the child’s confusion. Teachers should consider adapting the
homework so that a considerable proportion of the work is conducted
using a computer. Word processing facilities, especially graphics and
grammar and spell check programs are invaluable in improving the
legibility and quality of the finished product. If the parent is unable
to help the child solve a particular problem, a solution is to come to
an arrangement with the teacher where by the teacher is contacted by
telephone without hesitation as to the time of day or night and they can
talk directly to the child. Regular use of this approach can lead to a
significant reduction in the type and amount of homework.

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder require special
consideration when learning new material. Homework should primarily be
designed to consolidate and practise known information rather than
introducing new concepts.

Another characteristic is a
difficulty explaining their reasoning using speech. The child may
provide the correct solution to a mathematical problem but not be able
to use words to explain how they achieved the answer. Their cognitive
strategies may be unconventional and intuitive rather than deductive.
One may need to accept their correct solution even if the logic is
unclear to the neurotypical mind.
One problem with this characteristic
is that it may be difficult for the parent to correct the alternative
reasoning when the child has a “mental block”.

Teaching a child
with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder requires special skills and a parent
is not expected to have those skills. As a parent, one is also more
emotionally involved than a class teacher and it can be difficult for
them to be objective and emotionally detached. One option is to hire a
homework tutor to provide the skilled guidance and supervision. However,
this may be beyond the financial resources of most families.

A controversial suggestion

If homework is associated with such anguish, what can be done to reduce
the despair of the child who is exhausted from their day at school, the
parent who tries to motivate their child and the teacher who recognises
that homework is not the most effective means of education for such
children? If the regular amount of homework is demanded of the child
then everyone must recognise the considerable degree of time and
commitment that is necessary from all parties to ensure it is completed
satisfactorily and on time. One option is to enable the child to
complete their “homework” at school. It can be undertaken at lunchtime
and before or after classes in their home class or the school library.
However, they would still require supervision and guidance from a
teacher or assistant. In High School, some children have been able to
graduate taking fewer subjects and the extra time available in the
school day dedicated to homework.

If all these strategies are
unsuccessful, what is the alternative? ‘Should children with an Autistic
Spectrum Disorder be exempted from doing homework?’ If the strategies
outlined in this article are unsuccessful or unable to be implemented,
then my reply is ‘yes’. Sometimes this advice is to the great relief of
the child, their parent and probably their teacher. You can quote me on


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