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Dr. Heather MacKenzie

Heather’s views about autism and related conditions:

Every child with autism* wants to learn and wants to be in this world. It’s up to us to figure out how to reach them and make the world a more comfortable place.

I’ve spent many years working to understand and appreciate autistic ways of thinking and perceiving the world. I learned that, if you honor their natural learning preferences and strengths, they could do things beyond anyone’s expectations. The children also feel pride in their accomplishments and a new sense of competence.

I developed the Learning Preferences and Strengths (LPS) model to enhance learning and development in children with autism.  The LPS model honors and nurtures each child’s learning preferences and strengths and uses them to advance development in other areas.

People with autism* can have difficulty learning some things.  They may have difficulty with communication, social skills, and behavioral and cognitive flexibility. But … we shouldn’t look at these solely as difficulties.  They can be more productively viewed as Learning Preferences that can be coupled with their Learning Strengths and used to enhance learning and comfort.

The Learning Preferences and Strengths (LPS) model provides a framework that  constructively accounts for:

  • the person, her/his interests and affinities – a starting point for understanding the person with autism, not just the autism
  • learning preferences – that is, how s/he likes to gain energy, gather information, make decisions and relate to the world
  • learning strengths – what modalities are more efficiently processed and meaningful to her/him
  • his/her developmental needs

It also helps us Predicting Problem Behavior

boys readingIn terms of Learning Preferences, people with autism prefer to:

  • have some alone time; being around other people too much can drain their energy and be stressful.
  • take time to warm up to people and experiences, stand back and see what is happening before taking part.
  • pay attention to details other people may miss; sometimes, this attention to detail can capture too much attention and cause people with autism to miss other important features.
  • understand the logic and reasoning for things before deciding if they want to try them out.
  • have things decided and to stick with a plan; changes are not easy to handle.

In addition, people with autism have significant Learning Strengths  that typically include:

  • visual/spatial abilities: seeing is truly believing; being able to see something improves understanding and the ability to remember.
  • musical/rhythmic abilities: using melody and tempo can help the person take in and remember the information and understand it.

The LPS model is discussed at greater length in my book, Reaching and Teaching the Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.


  • yes, I use ‘person-first’ terminology. It doesn’t matter to me if you have purple skin or a diagnosis of autism, you’re a person first.