While it can be challenging to communicate with any child of any age, children with autism undoubtedly pose a unique challenge. Their emotional, cognitive and behavioral development is far different than that of a normal child. This naturally makes it difficult for a parent or educator to provide assistance that will enable the child to progress physically, academically and mentally.

While there are many theories on development for normal children and children on the autism spectrum, two of the best known researches in these fields are the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the late American psychologist B.F. Skinner. While the theories proposed by these two men have their differences, they are similar in many ways and provide important insight into the behavior of normal and autistic children. Following is an overview of the cognitive, social/interactional, emotional and moral dimensions of childhood development as addressed by these two leading psychologists.

Cognitive Development

After extensive study and experimentation, Piaget summarized the four stages of cognitive development in normal children.

The Stage of Sensori-Motor Intelligence (0-2 years)

At this stage, a child’s behavior is primarily based on motor skills. He or she does not yet have the ability to think conceptually; however, cognitive development is being constructed.

The Stage of Preoperational Thought (2 – 7 years)

Language, representation and conceptual development are proceeding at a rapid pace. Even so, a child’s reasoning is either not entirely logical or not logical at all.

The Stage of Concrete Operations (7 – 11 years)

At this stage, children gain the ability to use logical thought to solve concrete problems.

The Stage of Formal Operations (11 – 15 years)

During this stage, a child gains the ability to apply logical reasoning to all types of problems.

There is a common misconception that Piaget’s theory is separate. In fact, the opposite is the case. Piaget was the first to acknowledge that each child is unique and that one particular child may reach a particular stage before or after his or her peers. (Wadsworth, 1984) Additionally, Piaget pointed out that both autistic and non-autistic children could experience behaviors from different stages at any given time. (Wood, Smith, Grossniklaus, 2001)

Piaget was adamant that each child had to go through all four stages of cognitive development.  (Wadsworth, 1984) This assessment included children with learning disabilities such as autism. In fact, Piaget stated that each and every person is autistic to a certain degree. He attributed the difference in levels of autism to the predominance of assimilation over accommodation. (Piaget, 1962) In simple terms, the level at which a child is able to not only assimilate but also accommodate the information he or she takes in determines the child’s level on the autism spectrum. A child who can accommodate little to none of the information he or she receives would likely be non-verbal while a child who has only mild accommodation problems would be diagnosed with Asperger’s. This would imply that children with autism would simply progress through the four stages of development at a different pace than a normal child.

Piaget also made it plain that teachers should wait until a child has reached a particular stage of cognitive development before attempting to teach him or her certain concepts. (McLeod, 2015) This would seem to run contrary to the common practice of including children with ASD in the same grade as their non-ASD peers.

Social and Interactional Development

Jean Piaget’s thoughts on social and interactional development were tied to his four stages of cognitive development. He found that as children gained cognitive skills, they were better able to understand important social concepts and interact harmoniously with others. (Wadsworth, 1984)

In his lectures and writings on applied behavior analysis, B.F. Skinner taught that healthy social development in children was impossible unless a child’s home and school reinforced good behavior and punished bad behavior. (Doherty and Huges 2009). He ascertained that a child who was punished for doing wrong would be unlikely to commit transgression again; conversely, a child who was not punished for doing wrong or was punished for doing something that was not wrong would not be able to develop socially and interactionally as they should.

It is B.F. Skinner’s applied behavior analysis’ procedures and techniques that have been widely used to help children on the autism spectrum learn to communicate. They include a focus on the separate training of each verbal operant, an emphasis on mand and intraverbal relations, separate training for speaking and listening and the use of automatic reinforcement in analyzing and training verbal skills. Skinner’s insight has also helped educators to realize that failure in verbal communication may not be entirely due to a child’s autism but rather to an incomplete behavioral analysis of the language task.

Even so, researchers have noted that while Skinner’s emphasis on behavioral intervention is spot-on, there is no guarantee that even intensive behavioral intervention will work with every single child on the autism spectrum. The age at which the intervention takes place, a child’s place on the autism spectrum and the nature of the behavioral program all have a bearing on its success. (Sundberg, Sundberg, 2001)

Emotional Development

Piaget taught that a child’s emotional development is closely tied to his or her cognitive development in infancy. However, as a child gets older, emotional development becomes closely related to his or her moral and social development. This applies from early childhood up to adolescence. (Hesse, 1987) However, he does not give much more information. In fact, it has been accurately said that Piaget ignored emotional development entirely except when it related to cognitive development. (Nadel, Muir, 2005).

Skinner, on the other hand, addressed emotional development in the context of “nurture over nature”, a theory that modern experts describe as accurate but warn needs to be tempered due to the fact that further research makes it clear that each child possesses innate mechanisms that interpret social interaction. (Rochat, 2010). Piaget’s theory on the close relation between cognitive and emotional development seem to be the most accurate; those who teach autistic children will likely find that mental development (or regression) undoubtedly influences the behavior of a normal or autistic child just as much as behavioral interventions.

Physical Development

Piaget described the physical development of a young child in detail. In his theory of cognitive development, he noted that the first two years represent a period of sensory-motor development. He divided this period into six smaller periods, outlining how a normal child’s increased ability to move around and reach objects and people affects his or her mental development. Increased sensory stimulation enables a child to process new information in relation to information he or she has already learned (Wadsworth, 1984).

Modern research has made it clear that some children with autism may experience sensory-motor problems while others experience normal physical development. (Stone, Turner 2005) This is clearly in line with Piaget’s teaching that children may display characteristics from different stages of cognitive development at any one time. While some autistic children are clearly at an early stage of cognitive development as it relates to physical development, other children on the ASD spectrum exhibit physical behavior in line with their age while struggling to reach a stage of cognitive development that their peers have already reached or even passed.

Moral Development

Both Piaget and Skinner emphasize the close link between social development and moral development. Skinner believed that socializing with others was a child’s primary means of moral development. In other words, both normal children and children with ASD learn morals from those around them. As he expounded on applied behavior analysis, he put forth the theory that a child’s behavior could be altered solely by altering the environment around him or her.

Piaget held similar views when it came to the training of young children. When interviewing children using the Clinical Interview Methods, he discovered that young children used figures of authority to determine right from wrong. However, Piaget differs from Skinner in that he emphasizes the fact that children do not only learn moral via socialization. As they get older, factors such as justice, welfare, rights and the development of a child’s own intelligence and knowledge base enables a child to create his or her own principles of morality. (Psychology Notes HQ, 2014)

Yet again, Piaget places an emphasis on moral stages of development. He notes that normal children ages 4 – 7 typically view rules as being unchangeable. Furthermore, they only follow them for egocentric reasons; alternatively, they may even make up rules as they go along. Young children in this group do not understand that there may be exceptions to rules or that a person’s motive should be taken into account. About the time a child turns 10, he or she begins to understand that rules can be adapted or changed as the need arises. They also begin to understand that rules are formed by mutual consent for the good of all involved. (Flemming, 2005 – 2006)

While skinner made no differentiation regarding the process by normal children and children with ASD learn morals, his work made it plain that children with autism need certain types of behavioral intervention that a normal child would not require. Piaget, on the other hand, emphasizes the many similarities between egocentrism and autism. (Piaget, 1962). This makes it clear that he saw autistic children as being stuck in an early stage of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg, who admired Piaget’s work on moral development in children, patterned his theory of moral development on Piaget’s work. Kohlberg, like Piaget, noted that the first stage of any child’s development is egocentric and guided primarily by resulting consequences of any given type of behavior. (Flemming, 2005 – 2006) Kohlberg’s work is supported by contemporary research and is in line with Skinner’s emphasis on behavioral conditioning as it applies to children with ASD. (Morelli, n.d.)

Application for the Preteen and Early Teen Years

Skinner’s and Piaget’s writings make it clear that each child is different. It is simply impossible to judge a normal or ASD child based on rigid criteria because a child’s development is determined by his or her cognitive, emotional, physical, moral and social stage of development in conjunction with past experiences and applied behavioral intervention (or the lack of it). Even so, there are some clear guidelines that apply to children in the preteen and early teen years (approximately 10 – 14 years of age).

According to Piaget, a normal child in his or her early preteen years should be able to use logical thought to solve concrete problems. As a child enters his or her teen years, he or she should be able to solve all types of problems using a logical thought process. (Wadsworth, 1984) This assessment is in line with Kohlberg’s work, which is endorsed by modern researchers. An autistic child, on the other hand, should not be expected to be at a stage of formal or logical operations. Instead, a teacher should expect that a child with ASD would be at an earlier stage of cognitive development.

Skinner’s comprehensive study of human behavior should also be taken into account when comparing a normal child with an autistic one. Educators who, through experience and training, have learned how to handle a regular or autistic preteen or teen should expect to see positive results in at least some of the stages outlined above. Taking social skills into account is imperative when dealing with autistic youth in particular, as the inability to communicate clearly should not be mistaken for problems in cognitive development.

Both Skinner and Piaget provide invaluable counsel and advice in dealing with children at all stages of development. These guidelines, when applied appropriately, can help any child make mental, physical and academic progress in the right setting.



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McLeod, S. A. (2015). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html

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