Will this help my child? That is the question we always hear from parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis (ASD) when they come across our cognitive training and assessment programs. We’ll start with the short answer and then we’ll dig in a little deeper. The short answer is we can’t say for sure.

There are some things about autism for which there is widespread consensus. And there are other things that are still not well understood, or for which there just is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Autism Speaks characterizes ASD as, “a group of complex disorders of brain development.” And those anomalies of brain development often result in some common symptoms, including difficulties with verbal communication and social interactions. But ASD is truly a spectrum, and each individual brain is unique.

Many children with autism have less well developed cognitive skills. And, as with other aspects of autism, parents are looking for ways to help with that development.

Following is a list of cognitive skills that are often areas of deficit for individuals with autism. Many of these cognitive skills relate to executive functions, the way the brain directs focus, envisions future events, assesses cause and effect, and regulates one’s actions.

  • Inhibitory Control
  • Divided Attention
  • Flexible Attention
  • Planning
  • Working Memory
  • Short-term Memory
  • Sequential Processing
  • Sensory Integration

On the other hand, individuals with autism often have stronger than normal cognitive skills such as the following:

  • Visual Processing
  • Sustained Attention (intense focus)
  • Long-term Memory

In fact, researchers have shown enhanced activity in parts of the brain related to visual-spatial processing in children with autism. In tasks that involved finding embedded objects, normally developing children used more working memory while ASD individuals relied largely on visual systems. Understanding a child’s strengths as well as their weaknesses is key to helping them overcome many of the challenges they will face.

Another important consideration is the wide variation in cognitive ability within the disorder. Thus, while many individuals with autism display these cognitive deficits, there are large individual differences.

One very encouraging area of scientific research on autism has been the degree to which cognitive skills can be developed and the ability to enhance overall cognitive functioning. A study published in the journal Child Development followed cognitive development over time for children with ASD. Elizabeth Pellicano, a senior lecturer of autism education at the Institute of Education in London, who carried out the study, found that most children’s skills improved substantially over time. Pellicano says, “These findings are encouraging. They stress the importance of understanding the breadth of cognitive skills – a set of weaknesses and strengths – in children with ASD. A key question for the future is whether there are approaches that can facilitate progress in some of these areas.”

One of the first questions parents ask is, “How do I know what my child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses are?” Until recently it has been very hard and/or very expensive to get an answer to that question. Now, it is possible to answer that question with a scientifically valid online cognitive assessment that a parent can administer. The Mindprint Cognitive Assessment is appropriate for ages 8-21. Armed with this information, Mindprint then suggests specific strategies and tools to help build on the child’s strengths and support weaker areas.

So, for example, if visual processing is a strength and verbal memory is a weakness, then strategies such as creating visual images (on paper or mentally) to remember important information is one possible strategy. Amber Wild, mother of a son with ASD, used the cognitive assessment and said in an article written for Autism Speaks, “The online cognitive assessment and follow-up put the power in [my son’s] hands and in mine.”

Another approach that has shown some promise is cognitive training. We often get the question “Will this help my child?” from parents of autistic children. So, several years ago, we decided to try to find out more about how our cognitive training program worked with children with ASD. Like everything else with autism, it worked well for some, and not for others. One child liked to turn the program on and off. Another liked the sound of the “failure” noise so would “lose” on purpose. But those who were able to persist in the program saw improvements in a variety of cognitive skills. Younger children (6-8) who were able to persevere experienced gains in sensorimotor and perceptual processing skills. Older children (9-12) in general experienced gains in attention, perceptual processing, thinking skills and life management. While the study does not provide clear-cut guidance on which students will be most successful, it does capture the experiences of children with a broad range of ASD diagnoses.

In a report by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Donna Kennedy, Director of the Gillen Brewer School in New York (many of whose students have ASD, said, “The majority of kids in our program have atypical development and come at things in a very skewed way. Cognitive training unpacks the process and help teachers identify what needs to be taught explicitly in order to provide a more efficient strategy.”

We may not always be able to answer the question, “Will this help my child,” up front, we will always support families in finding the answer for their uniquely developing child.

About the authors


Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience, helping parents unlock their child’s learning potential. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?

Elizabeth Pellicano, The Development of Core Cognitive Skills in Autism: A 3-Year Prospective Study, Child Development, 2010; 81 (5): 1400

Carolyn Long, et. al., Cognitive Skills of Young Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder Using the BSID-III, Autism Research and Treatment, 2011; Volume 2011

Howard Ring, et. al., Cerebral correlates of preserved cognitive skills in autism: A functional MRI study of Embedded Figures task performance, Brain, 1999; volume 122

National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Neuroscience and Special Education, inForum, included in What Works in Special Education, 2011