4 Stages of Cognitive Development…as it Compares to Children with Autism

Junganew Blog

As I attend open houses with my daughter seeking out the college of her dreams, it brings me back to my undergraduate years when I was a Psychology major at Wagner College. I ponder on the stages of cognitive development and compare this to my little ones with autism.

1. Sensory Motor intelligence:  As infants, we are exposed to an influx of sensory stimulation.  Here is where the process of learning about our world, via internal sensory feedback or external sensory feedback.  Internal sensory feedback is when we recognize we are hungry.  As babies, we cry.  And as adults, if we are very hungry, we may cry as well. :). External sensory feedback is when we receive information through visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and kinesthetic input. A combination of sensory information leads to cognitive, emotional, and motor responses.  In autism, however, some of the sensory input may be too much information for the child’s system or not enough information, manifesting as a child who lines up cars, flaps, spins, or even smells everything.  The child is really incorporating one sense they can handle and feel in control with, while disregarding other senses that may be too much information, making them feel out of control.  They are interpreting the world differently than the neurotypically developing child, yet they are still interpreting the world.

2. Preoperational Thought: Here is the second stage of cognitive development, where individuals represent thoughts via imitation, symbolic play or drawing, language, and speech production. To process this, neurons are firing in the brain.  In autism, however, these neurons are either under active or overactive, causing difficulty in imitating, utilizing symbolic play, drawing, language, and speech.  Yet, we tend to regard this as though our children with autism do not receptively understand.  How can we know that for sure?  Perhaps, motorically, this child has difficulty imitating.  Or, perhaps the symbolic play we choose to introduce to our kids is being hindered by the sensory input causing an emotional reaction.  We must always assume that our children with autism can learn.  They may learn differently, but nevertheless, they can learn.

3. Concrete Operational Thought: Here, an individual is able to categorize, understand causal relationships, and solve problems as it relates to the physical world. In short, an individual reasons about real objects and the relationships between them. Thinking exists based on exposure through theoretical knowledge and/or personal experience. Yet, many individuals with autism (and lots of neurotypically developing children) who do not have opportunities for exposure to specific experiences, demonstrate a lag at this stage.  Here is where education is crucial. Children who are exposed to more and more education and opportunities for practical application excel at this stage. Our kids with autism may try to gain understanding of their environment by repeating what they hear, or as we call it, scripting.  They may gather information through flapping or spinning.  Let’s take these strengths of verbal, auditory, and kinesthetic input and educate our kids.  We simply can’t stop teaching and moving forward with exposure to learning.  Let’s pick our battles, and help our kids to move forward rather than focusing only on behavior programs because they are not acting the way we expect.  Yes, we want to facilitate socially appropriate citizens, but sometimes, we have to question how we can use the place they are, and build from there to help expose and educate.

4. Formal operational Thought: This stage allows individuals to create laws and rules for problem solving. It is based on reflection of the philosophy of the world we live in. There is a focus in planning and incorporating strategies. In children with autism, the perception of the physical reality may not match the reality one would expect.  This is related to the previous stages being altered, causing this stage to manifest in a fragmented fashion. Again, we need to assess if the reasons are related to motor, sensory, and/or emotional.  From there, we can create opportunities for learning, while accepting the individual differences that make us all unique.

When I look into the eyes of my clients, I see a child.  I don’t see autism or any other label we as a society choose to give.  I see a child who requires a different way of learning, but can learn nonetheless.  I see differences which should be embraced.  Just as I seek out different colleges for my daughter, and respect her choices of which school best fits HER needs, we all must respect that ALL of us have different needs.  Each of us is special.  So, I guess we all have special needs.