How long does it take you to learn something new? Not necessarily master it to perfection, but learn the basics to be able to do something on your own? It is something that varies for different people, including myself. I write this post as I am in the middle of learning to drive. It has got me thinking about learning new things.
I was 22 when I decided that I was ready to learn to drive, and that came from it being an absolute necessity for me to do so. Before I finished full-time education, public transport got me from A to B. When you’re going to another village for school or the other side of a town for university, then you really don’t need to worry about using a car.
However, I am learning to drive now. I am learning because not learning is hurting opportunities to get work. One can only travel so far on a train or bus in x amount of time. I have to wake up early and leave early to be in a school on time. It’s not realistic, and I need to learn. But why is this? Why might this be the case for other autistic people?
Learning new skills can be hard for some, harder for others
Learning new skills, for an autistic person, can vary, like for any person. There are some things that I can simply follow and I will know how to do it straight away. There are things that I also take longer to learn, and need to take at a slower pace, in order to get it right. This is, I think, the same for most people.
Learning to operate a microwave, for example, was simple for me. Learning how to use an oven was less simple for me. To you, these may seem like two similar things. You put an item of food in, you press buttons, and wait for it to finish. It took me longer than most people of my age to learn how to use both things. From my perspective, this is down to fear.
Fear of getting something wrong, of breaking the thing, or causing harm to myself. These were irrational things that made it harder for me to learn these skills. That was what put me off learning to drive at 17, and only learning now.
Other times, you don’t learn new things because you are resistant to change. The ‘if it ain’t broke’ mentality. If you are used to operating a certain way that you can do it on autopilot, you tend to stick to that method. New methods may be more efficient, or easier for someone, but they stick to what they know. That was my life before I began learning to drive. I could use public transport until it became strenuous for my continued rollout to working life.
Sometimes, being Autistic makes it easy to learn things
The common misconception about autistic people is that because we may be delayed in certain areas, we are delayed in all areas, including learning. It is true that some low functioning autistic people may never learn, or struggle to learn basic life skills. Some people will need personal support to function.
As I always say, however, autism is a spectrum, not one condition. Higher functioning autistic people can, in some instances, learn at a pace equal to, or surpass, neurotypical people. My reading age in high school was one of the highest because I read a lot of books independently of school. I had, and still have, a large collection of books. This, I attribute, to being put in high sets in high school English.
And in creative writing, I can write poetry in styles and methods that I try out just once and can repeat. I absorb knowledge from books easily, and learning facts, figures, and trivia has been something I have always been good at. Why I do better in that area is because of my autism.
A trait that is often associated with ASD is a compulsion to follow strictly set rules, rotas, and behaviours. I am one of many people who do this. I stick to the same interests and activities because that is what I am comfortable with. One of those activities is reading, specifically in reading non-fiction text.
I also follow instructions very rigidly. By following instructions, and understanding them, I can perform tasks with relative ease. This rigidity and compulsion to follow things help a lot in learning new skills. I have found, since learning to drive, it is easy to translate that rigid behaviour into driving behaviour, and driving properly too.
Help Autistic people learning new things
This blog series is popular with people because it offers an ‘insiders guide’ to autism, from an admittedly one-sided perspective. I can only tell you what I would do to support myself. On the other hand, as Autistic traits are a commonality in ASD, then this section might be helpful for parents/carers/friends/partners of autistic people. If you know someone who is autistic, then help them in the following ways:
- Accept that the learner may only be used to doing things a certain way. They may feel uncomfortable learning a new skill.
- Take your time. Go at their pace. New skills, experiences, and changes to lifestyle seem sudden and unplanned to people who follow their own scheme of running their life.
- How does this person learn best? Do they read, do they like to watch, or actually do a thing? That method may be best, and it can be mixed with other methods of teaching.
- Patience is key. They need calm and they need support in learning new things. Knowledge should be open and accessible to everyone, and shouting, getting frustrated, and not taking breaks doesn’t help.
As of August, I am driving on main roads, and learning to acclimate to driving on roads with other cars. I am learning this at my own pace, with a great driving instructor. In September, I will be looking into doing more learning support roles in schools and colleges, where a new intake of students will be moving to the next level of their education.
People struggle in new situations, and people with autism will have to learn new names, environments, and methods of learning skills. With patience, and understanding the strengths of people with autism, and other conditions, we can help them. We can work together to do this.