Noel Janis-Norton & Miriam Chachamu
Understanding and Helping Children with Autism
and other Atypical Learning Styles

In almost every classroom, there are one or more children who have difficulties with learning or behaviour. In many cases, the children who find it difficult to learn are the same children who frequently misbehave. These children don’t only have problems at school, but also at home, at the playground, at Scouts, at Granny’s, at church, on the sports pitch and at parties.

It has been shown that children with neurologically-based learning difficulties, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Dyspraxia and Dyslexia, often have a temperament which makes it difficult for them to succeed in ordinary situations. These atypical learners can learn and behave, but it will probably require a different approach, one that takes into account their unique strengths and weaknesses.

There is a great deal of overlap amongst these four conditions. In fact, children who are eventually diagnosed with autism are often initially diagnosed with one or more of the other three conditions.

In this article I first explore the temperament characteristics that are often seen in children with all four of th ese diagnoses.

Then I offer parents and teachers some strategies for managing their children’s behaviour and emotions in order to guide children with this type of temperament to do their best and to feel good about themselves.

Then I explore the specific characteristics of children with each of these four conditions and suggest strategies to help the child overcome or manage his or her specific issues.


Temperament can be defined as a person’s innate tendency to respond to the environment. Temperament falls on a continuum, with a few very easy-going children at one end, most children somewhere in the middle of the continuum and a small number of children with challenging behaviour at the other extreme. At this extreme end there is a cluster of characteristics that often go together: children are more than usually sensitive, intense, impulsive and inflexible. These children act or speak before they think about what the consequences might be; they often have poor social skills, they fidget a lot, are very loud, are easily distracted. Often their communication is not clear, and they can be very immature emotionally. Some of them are also very active.

Many of these children are sensitive to light, sound, taste or touch - they experience everyday stimuli in a much stronger way than most of us do. Some of them find it difficult to see in strong light. Others might be sensitive to noise: they are likely to be disturbed by noises that most of us hardly hear, for example passing cars or footsteps outside of the classroom. A large proportion of these children experience touch in a much stronger way than most of us. As a result, they are likely to overreact when they are being touched. For example, they may think that a classmate hit or pushed them when the child was just passing by and brushed against them unintentionally. Such sensitivity can get them into trouble with their peers. Many children with learning difficulties are either bullied or become bullies themselves.

In addition, many children with learning difficulties are very intense by nature. They have strong emotional responses to everyday disappointments and irritations, and their mood can fluctuate quickly between anger and cheerfulness.

They find it very hard to tolerate criticism. This is partly due to the hyper-reactivity that is typical of an extreme temperament, but it is also because they are likely to hear a lot of criticism and telling off during the course of a normal day. That’s because their misbehaviour causes adults and also other children to be annoyed with them. Not only are they naturally sensitive to other people’s reactions, but they are also getting quite a lot of negative attention just for behaving in a way that seems natural to them.

Many children and teens with neurologically-based learning difficulties are also impulsive; they speak or act before thinking, and they find it hard to understand the connection between their actions and the effect of their actions. They seem to not learn from experience; they often make the same mistake, or misbehave in the same way, over and over again, even if they get punished for it. This annoys the adults around them even more because parents and teachers cannot understand why a child who is clearly intelligent keeps misbehaving. Many adults interpret this behaviour as defiance, rather than realising that it is in part due to the learning difficulty.

There are far more boys with these four conditions than girls.

The cause for being a sensitive, intense, impulsive, inflexible child is biological in nature. The child with these learning difficulties is not behaving this way just to annoy us and make our lives more complicated. It is just the way his brain functions! Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to help this child improve his behaviour, learning and his self-esteem.

However, raising a child with this type of profile will require a lot of work from us, as parents or teachers. We also need to remember that changing these entrenched behaviour patterns will require a huge effort from the child as well, and that won’t be easy for him.

Behaviour Management Strategies

Before we can even help with the specific learning difficulties that these children have, we need to help them manage their behaviour. These children need to have a very positive, firm and consistent upbringing. We need to use all of the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ skills: Descriptive Praise, Preparing for Success, establishing rules and routines, Reflective Listening, consistency, etc. It is not easy to keep a positive attitude while being firm and consistent, but this is just what the atypical learner needs from us. Please refer to my books, CDs, the articles on our website and our Youtube channel if you would like to know more about how this can be achieved.

As well as using all the CEHP&T skills, here are some additional points to remember when dealing with a child who has an extreme temperament:

  • Set rules and routines and stick to them much more consistently than you normally would. Children with learning difficulties find it hard to function when expectations are not clear.
  • Do not have expectations based on your child’s age. Rather, start from the stage he is at now.
  • Give immediate praise. Also, make your rewards and consequences small and immediate.
  • Keep your instructions simple and specific. If you give more than one instruction at a time, have the child repeat it or write it down. Otherwise he is likely to remember just one of the things you asked for, or possibly none of it.
  • Use checklists for more complex issues such as a morning routine or tidying his room.
  • Most children with learning difficulties cannot perform evenly every day. Like all of us, they will have good and bad days. Unlike us, they will perform much worse than we would like them to on their bad days.
  • Make sure that the child’s learning area is quiet and clear of distractions. Children with learning difficulties find it harder than you would expect to concentrate when things are happening around them.
  • Do not accept your child’s learning difficulty as an excuse for misbehaviour. (Children have been known to say: “I can’t do that, I’m autistic”). It is true that behaving well is more difficult for them, so they will need us to help motivate them to work on it constantly.
  • Make sure that your children eat what is good for them. In addition to providing healthy nutrition, you might want to investigate the possibility of allergies and food intolerances, which are much more common in children with learning difficulties.
  • Make sure that your child doesn’t get too tired or hungry. When she is hungry or tired, her self-control is likely to be reduced even more than with most children.
  • Prepare as much as you can before any change in routine. Children with learning difficulties do not respond well to surprises.
  • Create a place where it is safe for him to play on his own.
  • You need some time for yourself as well! Leave your child with a sitter or with other members of the family. You need to create a support system for yourself so that you can have some time to relax and do things you enjoy. Otherwise, you are unlikely to have the energy and the patience that is needed for staying positive when raising a child with an extreme temperament.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
(including high-functioning autism, also known as Aspergerís Syndrome)

A person with autism will present the following symptoms:

  • Defective way of relating to self and others
  • Language and communication difficulties
  • Repetitive or stereotyped behaviours

The severity of the symptoms varies widely from person to person, which is why it is considered a spectrum disorder.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome have some of the features of autism, or they may have most of the symptoms but quite mildly. Some people who have this syndrome have gone on to be very successful in their chosen field, and until recently were not diagnosed with anything but were seen as brilliant, eccentric, absent-minded, socially inept, and a little awkward physically.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome may have a very wide vocabulary but not truly understand the nuances of language. Children with this condition are very interested in facts. Typical areas of interest are computers, machines and science.

In social situations they tend to be awkward and to feel uncomfortable. Most of them want to have interactions with their peers, but they have trouble learning how to do this successfully. This is because they find it difficult to understand how other people think and feel. They are, however, able to learn social skills when taught explicitly.

What can we do?

Most people agree that there is as yet no cure for autism, although there are parents and professionals who have had extraordinary results in reversing symptoms using various alternative methods. In addition, children with autism can be taught, and their problematic behaviours can be managed and improved, by using the CEHP&T strategies. The speed of their learning will vary according to the severity of their condition, and also according to the consistency of the teaching.

We can use our methods to teach social skills, from saying hello and making eye-contact to more complex skills, such as using appropriate language and tone of voice. We can also teach children with high-functioning autism to better understand how other people think and feel. We can also help them to become aware of their own feelings and to express themselves constructively.

Many children on the autism spectrum are physically awkward. The physical awkwardness can be treated the same way we deal with dyspraxia (see below).


A child with Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder has difficulties with attention and concentration, is impulsive and is often hyperactive.

Examples of inattention are not noticing important details, becoming easily distracted, being disorganised, forgetting daily routines, not remembering to follow instructions, not finishing schoolwork or homework.

Examples of hyperactivity include fidgeting in her seat, running or climbing in inappropriate situations, difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly and the appearance of being constantly in motion. Impulsiveness involves not waiting for her turn, often interrupting, grabbing instead of waiting.

This behaviour is very difficult to manage in a classroom. The pupil with ADHD is not only a problem for himself, but he disturbs pupils around him as well.

At home the child with this condition can disrupt family life, creating chaos, upsetting siblings and making parents wring their hands.

What can we do?

Start by putting into practice the CEHP&T strategies (from my books, our website and our Youtube channel) and the advice I have given above for children with an extreme temperament. Some children are also prescribed medication which helps them to calm down and focus more easily. This is a controversial topic. Most children with ADHD can learn to manage well with the right support, but some children do benefit hugely from medication.


Developmental dyspraxia is defined as an impairment or immaturity in the way the brain plans when and how the body moves. Fine motor skills are usually affected; gross motor skills are less often affected. Dyspraxia can also affect muscle tone.

Children with dyspraxia are clumsy, and have problems with activities that require coordination, such as writing, tying shoe laces or sports.

Children with this condition are often embarrassed by their lack of skill, and unfortunately they are often made fun of. So they can become good at avoiding activities and tasks that they are not good at. As a result, they don’t get the practice that would help them to improve their skills.

What can we do?

Children with dyspraxia need a lot of physical activity to help them strengthen their muscles and improve their coordination. They also need to be taught specific skills that don’t come naturally to them, such as doing up buttons, tying shoe laces, holding a pencil correctly, making a sandwich, presenting written work according to the teacher’s guidelines, etc.

Most dyspraxic children will benefit from both occupational therapy and physiotherapy. There are many exercises and games parents can play at home and at the park that will improve coordination, for example catching soft balls of different sizes, kicking a ball, making shapes out of clay, etc.

Break every task you are teaching into very small steps, and don’t try to teach too much at one time. It is also important to stay encouraging and positive at all times!

Many dyspraxic children are very disorganised with time and space. They benefit greatly from routines and checklists.


Here is the definition of dyslexia from The Dyslexia Institute: ‘Dyslexia causes difficulties in learning to read, write and spell. Short-term memory, mathematics, concentration, personal organisation and sequencing may also be affected.’

Dyslexia usually arises from a weakness in the processing of language-based information. Biological in origin, it tends to run in families, but environmental factors also contribute. Dyslexia can occur at any level of intellectual ability. It is not the result of poor motivation, emotional disturbance, sensory impairment or lack of opportunities, but it may occur alongside any of these.’

What can we do?

The effects of dyslexia can be alleviated by skilled specialist teaching. Dyslexic children can also use modern technology to help them learn, bypassing the need for extensive reading.

There is not one single way to teach all dyslexic children to read and write, as different children learn in different ways.

In my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework’, I explain in detail methods for helping dyslexic children to read, spell and write. Briefly, here are some important points about teaching children with dyslexia:

Dyslexic children benefit from involving all their senses in the learning process. For example, in the early stages of learning to read it is very helpful for them to create letters from different materials so that they can feel them. It is also useful to practise shaping the letters using big arm movements.

Children learn to read more easily by creating their own personal stories and then reading them. Many dyslexics find it easier to read silently, while others need to hear the text in order to understand it.

Dyslexic children need more repetition than other children do. It is best to repeat the material with some variation every time in order to keep learning interesting and so that the child learns to transfer the new skill to other situations.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to get started?

To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ resources and services can help you or your family, please browse our website or email: admin@calmerparenting.co.uk

We offer support materials (books, articles, audio CDs, our YouTube channel), parenting courses, workshops, private consultations (by Skype), family learning sessions, home visits, school visits and webinars.

For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher-training. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

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© Noël Janis-Norton and Miriam Chachamu 2003
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