Why Common Core is All Wrong for High-Functioning Autistic Kids

by Katharine Beals

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. This principle, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, applies to a society’s education system. How well does the system treat its most vulnerable students?

Does it, for example, expect children with significant intellectual disabilities to meet the same academic standards as everyone else—before letting them graduate from high school?

Precisely this expectation underlies the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For all but the 1% or 2% of students who are exempt due to severe disabilities, [1] the standards are a one-size-fits all. The only thing that determines which standards you face is what grade you are in—or (since few students are held back) how old you are. But with approximately 2.3% of students having IQs at or below 70, the 1-2% exemption still leaves a significant number facing standards they have no hope of meeting. An 18-year-old with an IQ of 70, for example, will be expected to “graph polynomial functions, identifying zeros when suitable factorizations are available, and showing end behavior.” (CCSS math goal HSF.IF.C.7.C).

In this particular case, the injustice is quite obvious: it’s like requiring a wheelchair-bound child to run laps.  But other disabilities bring challenges that are equally intractable. Among them are so-called “high functioning” disabilities like “high functioning autism” or Asperger’s. About one third of the autistic population—or between .3 and .5 percent of people overall—have average to above-average IQs. Many at the higher end of the spectrum—think Temple Grandin in real life, or Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory—will, in fact, readily graph polynomial functions and identify zeroes by the time they are 18. But most will be completely stumped when asked to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.” (CCSS literacy goal RL.11-12.5).

High functioning autism involves a general neurological disability

Neurologically speaking, autism turns out to be just as general an intellectual disability as low IQ is—even when IQ scores are high. As recent research by neurologist Nancy Minshew has shown, autistic individuals, regardless of IQ, have a serious deficit in their ability to process complex information. Included in this complex information processing deficit are a host of general impairments, including impairments in the ability “to detect structure or inherent organization,” i.e., to figure out how things are structured or organized. Also impaired are “higher-order language comprehension,” “social cognition,” and the ability to draw inferences from context. (Minshew, 2006)

These last three impairments are best illustrated by a specific example. Picture Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory knocking on Penny’s door in the middle of the night. Penny opens the door and says “Sheldon, do you have any idea what time it is?” Sheldon answers “Yes. My watch is linked to the atomic clock in Colorado. It’s accurate to one-tenth of a second.” He has failed, abysmally, to draw inferences from social context and comprehend Penny’s nonliteral message. Inferring nonliteral language—including irony, sarcasm, and other indirect messages—is notoriously difficult for even the highest functioning individuals on the spectrum.

Underlying all these impairments, Minshew and others have found, is a hard-wired neurological reality: specifically, a “functional underconnectivity among cortical language regions” that impairs the processing of complex information and particularly affects higher-order language comprehension. (Minshew, 2006)

The Common Core Standards tap directly into the fundamental disability of autism

Unfortunately for students on the spectrum, the kinds of tasks we now know are most impaired in autism are also the kinds of tasks that distinguish the Common Core’s English and Language Arts Standards from all past standards.

And these tasks—complex though they are—begin early. Thus we have, for 2nd grade reading, the requirement that 7-year olds: [2]

Acknowledge differences in the points of view of characters, including by speaking in a different voice for each character when reading dialogue aloud.” [RL 2.6]

And, for 5th grade reading:

“Explain how a series of chapters, scenes or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem.” [RL 5.5]

And for 8th grade reading:

“Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.” [RL 8.3]

Acknowledging differences in points of view and deducing aspects of character are higher-order social cognition tasks; explaining how things fit together to provide overall structure taps into the ability, also impaired in autism, “to detect structure or inherent organization.”

While the ELA Standards do not specify which texts children must read and when, they do stipulate what is appropriate for a given grade level. Indeed, included in the standards is a list of exemplar texts that indicate the “the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require for all students of a given grade band to engage with.” Among the exemplar texts for 8th grade, for instance, is Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, along with a sample task aligned to one of the 8th grade reading goals:

“Students summarize the development of morality in Tom Sawyer… and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through character, setting, and plot.” [RL 8.2]

Multiple connections and themes; the conveying of morality through character: these tap directly into the complex information processing, social cognition, and inferencing deficits of autism.

Moving on to the end of high school, the ELA Standards include:

“Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.” [RL 11-12.2]

“Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)” [RL 11-12.4]

“Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).” [RL 11-12.6] [3]

Inferring structure, figurative meanings, and tone; calculating points of view: once again we’re tapping directly into the core deficits of autism. And tasks once reserved for the highest level literature classes are now requirements for everyone.

The CCSS goals thus impose a range of scholastic challenges that are as prohibitive to autistic students as they are without precedent. Put another way, never before have autistic children been confronted with educational expectations that so particularly tap into what it means, cognitively, to be on the autistic spectrum.  So precisely do the ELA tasks map to the tasks with which autistic students struggle that it is as if one of the primary purposes of the CCSS is to screen kids for autism.

Can these challenges be accommodated?

To those in favor of applying the Common Core Standards to all or most students with disabilities, the answer is accommodation. Some accommodations, for some disabilities, are obvious: sound amplification for hearing impaired students; enlarged screens for visually impaired students. Other accommodations aim at specific learning disabilities: text-to-speech apps for students with dyslexia, for example.

But autism is different. As a complex information processing disorder, it is, as Minshew observes, the opposite of a specific learning disability. Specific learning disabilities include impairments like dyslexia, which mainly affects reading and leaves other intellectual skills intact. Autism, in contrast, impairs a broad range of intellectual skills. In this way, it is more akin to a general cognitive impairment like low IQ. At the same time, however, high functioning autism is a disorder specifically of higher-level cognition, and thus, doesn’t entail poor performance on the simpler sub-skills measured by IQ tests. At the higher functioning end of the spectrum, autism is, indeed, invisible to the standard cognitive assessments that schools use to determine special needs.

Difficult as the cognitive impairments of autism are even to pin down, how do we go about accommodating them? If we’re going to require autistic high school students to “analyze the impact of [Shakespeare’s] word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful,” what sorts of accommodations would help them accomplish this? Or are we talking about the equivalent of somehow creating accommodations that enable a profoundly deaf child to analyze the tone and beauty in Beethoven’s quartets?

Is it, in other words, even possible to create accommodations that make complex information goals attainable for students with autism? And might alternative educational goals be, not only more attainable, but also of greater urgency?

Common Core Tests and the Accessibility of the High School Diploma

This brings us to another issue. Intimately linked to the CCSS is a new generation of state-wide tests: tests that many states ultimately plan to require students to pass in order to graduate from high school. In New York State, only about a third of students were deemed “proficient” on the tests this year, and students with disabilities did particularly poorly (9 percent proficient in math; 5 percent in English). Though we lack disaggregated statistics for students with high functioning autism, we have good reason to worry about how many of them fell into the 95% of disabled students who failed to meet the English proficiency standards. However cognitively capable they are of passing traditional high school classes, of doing well on traditional standardized tests, and of advancing through college, significant numbers of them may soon fail to get their high school diplomas.

We have entered uncharted waters. Never before have complex information tasks been imposed on all but 1 or 2% of students as a condition for completing high school and proceeding to college or career. Worse yet, this is happening before educators have had a chance to grapple with the finding that autism is a disorder, specifically, of complex information processing. As of yet, we have no idea whether this disorder can reasonably be accommodated. Nor do we know whether schools can actually teach students—be they autistic, or generally cognitively impaired (or, even, for that matter, mentally typical)—how to process complex information.

Personally, I’m a big fan of complex information and higher-order thinking. In theory, it seems like a great idea to include higher-level cognitive tasks in what we expect our teachers to teach and our high school graduates to learn. But as long as major uncertainties persist about what is teachable and what can be reasonably accommodated, complex information processing has no place in any one-size-fits-all standard for K12 students.

Katharine Beals is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an adjunct professor at the Drexel University School of Education. She is the author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Catherine Johnson for a number of helpful suggestions.





Minshew, N. J.,Webb, S. J., Williams, D. L., & Dawson, G. (2006). Neuropsychology and neurophysiology of autism spectrum disorders. In S.O. Moldin & J. L. R. Rubenstein, eds, Understanding Autism: From Basic Neuroscience to Treatment, (pp. 378-415).


[1] Depending on whether a state follows older No Child Left Behind Act guidelines or new guidelines from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

[2] Here, and throughout these excerpts, all bold facing is mine.

[3] The other CSSS ELA goals for Grade 11-12 also include complex information processing tasks:

“Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.” [RL 11-12.1]

“Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).” [RL 11-12.3]

“Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)” [RL 11-12.7]

Katharine Beals

Katharine Beals

Katharine Beals

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