Multiple-intelligence theory & autism

Consider Autism.  Although a hugely complex disorder, characterised by multiple symptoms, the defining feature of autism is a deficit in socialisation and communication. People with autism struggle to develop the communicative abilities that develop so readily by-and-large in the rest of the population.

Children with autism, too often, are expected to cope in environments that rely heavily on social cues, social interaction, and established forms of communication that they just can’t understand/process. A typical school environment – even in some very good special schools with high autistic populations – relies massively on regular communication between pupil and teacher. All day, every day.

In essence this is not a bad thing. In order to improve the quality of life as experienced by children with autism, of course we want them to develop social skills, communication skills, and thereby increase the quality of their interactions with others.

But in the vast majority of cases, children with significant autism simply are not ready to be immersed in social worlds that, although we take it for granted, are immensely difficult to interpret and understand. Is it any wonder that children with autism often get so frustrated, so angry, so upset, and engage in behaviour that teachers and carers find challenging?

Placing children with significant autism into such environments – heavily reliant on social cues and two-way interactions is kind of like asking a builder to start building a new house with the roof first. It’s going to fall down if you haven’t built the foundations and the walls to keep it up to begin with.

So what are the implications for education? How do we build the foundations, and the walls of communication and socialisation for our children with autism?

There are many possibilities. All require educators to ask some fundamental questions about the way we teach children with autism. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory may yield a promising line of investigation.

The theory takes into account the possibility that people learn in many and varied ways. This is intuitively very appealing. Often it is said that you will learn new information best if you receive it in more than one media, ie. if you read, hear, and write new information, you are more likely to process it effectively – learn it – than if you simply read the information. Obviously this scenario varies from person to person, but Gardner adds some meat to the bones of such an argument.

If people learn in different ways; interpersonal learners, intrapersonal learners, bodily-kinesthetic learners, musical learners, spatial learners, naturalistic learners, logical-mathematical learners, linguistic learners, then surely we should be taking this variety into account when we plan not only lessons, but our classrooms, schools and our curriculum?

I was recently listening to Temple Grandin talking about how her autism allows her to ‘think in pictures’ – to be a visual thinker and learner. You can find the link to this talk by Temple here.

Typically, schools serve two or three types of learner well – linguistic (those who learn well from spoken or written language), logical-mathematical (those who learn well using logical/mathematical reasoning) and interpersonal (those who work well with others, be they teachers or peers). Which category do children with autism fall in to? They struggle with language, so generally not linguistic. Maybe logical-mathematical, but only to the extent they can understand what is required of them. They struggle with any social situation, so certainly not interpersonal.

Just maybe then, curriculae and lessons for children with autism need to explore the gamut of other possibilities – using space, movement, music, their bodies, to engage and captivate where traditional approaches fail to do so. This would be similar to building the foundations and the walls on our house. Then, and only then would we be confident that we were in a position to begin constructing the roof.



  1. My son, who is now 10 and in 5th grade, is on the autism spectrum. In my personal investigation he seemed to fit best into semantic-pragmatic disorder which is a language processing deficiency. I notice early on that I could see by his eyes that he had heard me talk to him and on some level understand my commands, but he was unable to carry out simple commands that other toddlers could do. At age 2, I put him in a music and movement class through our day care/nursery school and we had fantastic results. He continued to have interventions through 4th grade and is now begging me to take him out of “resource” because he functions so much more “normally” and with higher intelligence than the other kids. I completely agree that reaching and teaching kids with autism in a multiple intelligences approach is the way to go. My son has a high musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence…once we started connecting with him that way in the learning environment, at an early age, consistently, he developed his other intelligences quite fully. I also recall reading about some Canadian studies where autistic children were being reached through water/swimming classes. Seems to me those kids needed a bodily-kinesthetic approach.


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