Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew
©2006 Ellen Notbohm
Future Horizons, Inc. ISBN-13: 978-1-932565-36-2
I THINK DIFFERENTLY
Teach me in a way that is meaningful to me.
My raised-on-ROM children don’t know whether to be amused or aghast at how their parents grew up in an era without CDs, DVDs, cell phones or computers. My first computer predated Windows and used a revolutionary spreadsheet program called VisiCalc. Back in those frontier days, you either had an Apple MacIntosh or an IBM personal computer. The Macs and the PCs were Hatfields and McCoys. They not only didn’t talk to each other, they couldn’t talk to each other. They didn’t “think” alike.
Your student with autism is like a Mac in a PC-dominated environment. He is hard-wired differently. Not incorrectly – just differently.
Macs and PCs couldn’t communicate with each other because, bottom line, their operating systems were not compatible. Everything about Mac’s architecture and command structure was different from the PC’s. If you have been a lifelong PC-only or Mac-only user, you may consider yourself fairly computer-competent, and chances are you are not aware just how foreign it feels trying to navigate around the other system. I found out. During Bryce’s third grade year with Jackie, I volunteered for a year-long project that involved transferring some of the kids’ writings to computer files. Snap! I thought, I can do this at home in my abundant (winking here) free time. Then I was told it could not be done on my PC at home; it had to be done on Macs, in the classroom.
I’ll spare you the details of the learning curve I never truly conquered. Week after week, I thought I had learned enough about the Mac operating system to do the project, only to run into new language or command obstacles. The project that was supposed to be enjoyable became a jaw-clenching exercise in anxiety. Why? Because 15 years of day-in and day-out banging away on a PC had entrenched the Windows operating system so deeply in my gray matter that I was completely blindsided by how hard it was to put it aside, even temporarily, and learn to interact with a system that “thinked” differently. My own “processing speed” slowed to a crawl.
Welcome to life as a student with autism, whose basic operating system is different from just about everyone else who is not on the autism spectrum. Macs and PCs made their debuts in the early to mid 1980s. Only recently have their incompatibility issues been resolved. Your student doesn’t have 20 years. We need to adapt our teaching to his operating system, now.
No sugar coating here. Learning to relate to the autism way of thinking will be challenging because we have to be willing to step outside ‘normalcy.’ Collectively we are a social-driven society, all of us thinking and processing social and environmental inputs in a similar manner. Across all currents of life, our neuro-typical thinking patterns are naturally shared and naturally reinforced. To be able to truly understand a fundamentally dissimilar way of thinking requires you to suspend all you know and go somewhere you didn’t even know existed. That takes courage. But that’s where we must go if our goal as teachers is to be effective with our students with autism.
At the beginning of this endeavor is one critical distinction. This different architectural thought process has nothing to do with your student’s ‘abilities.’ We will never know the true extent of those abilities unless we establish communication via the architecture he has in place. The Apple Mac in Bryce’s third grade classroom wasn’t in and of itself incompetent or “challenged.” The computer didn’t fail, I failed to comprehend its operating system and input data in a format it could process. We must disabuse ourselves forever of the idea that our student with autism “could do it if he only tried harder.” Also throw away the idea that all you have to do is “try harder.” If we aren’t trying through compatible channels, we can try until we cry and it won’t ever matter. We have to try smarter, not just harder.
This difference in architecture impacts the skills embodied in what we call critical thinking (classification, comparison, application), executive management (attention, planning and memory functions) and social pragmatics (perspective-taking). These skills are missing from your ASD students’ hard-wiring. But it is emphatically not true that they cannot be developed. Under patient and consistent instruction and coaching, children with ASDs can and do expand their social competence, improve executive functioning and achieve a functional degree of flexibility in thinking and conversing. Living proof of that is stomping around our upstairs bathroom right now, marinating himself in “man spray” and practicing lunchtime banter.
Books such as Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron’s Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships or the anecdotal insights of Jennifer McIlwee Myers recounted later in this book, offer up raw eye-opening accounts of how children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome must navigate the journey to adulthood against strong current, up the fish ladder of the neuro-typical world. For some, the approach will be logical in the extreme, perhaps even to the point of appearing cold. For others their journey will be fraught with emotional turbulence, self-doubt and self-loathing, as they valiantly attempt to fit into society while inherently lacking the essential understanding of how to do so. No two ASD children are alike, but all their stories echo a common denominator: individual teachers had the power to make or break their will to stay the course and achieve.
HOW THINKING IS DIFFERENT IN AUTISM
At every turn in every day, we have the opportunity to help our student with autism understand our neuro-typical patterns of communicating and relating, and teach those skills that are so elusive to the autism way of thinking. Keep in mind always the spectrum nature of autism. While the traits that follow may be characteristic, they will vary widely in degree from mild to profound.
The One – and Only? – Learning Channel
Your student with autism has one-channel wiring in a polyphonic world. He likely processes most information via the one learning intelligence that works best for him; in most students with autism, this will be visual or tactile; less commonly, auditory. He struggles to process multiple sensory modalities. For instance, he can listen, or engage in movement activities, or talk, but he may falter when required to process more than one of these tasks at a time. It can be especially difficult to listen and write at the same time, or even to converse and make eye contact at the same time. The seamless integration among the senses that happens within the neuro-typical brain is missing in his brain.
Equally difficult is shifting back and forth between modalities (such as from visual to auditory and back again), and filtering out irrelevant sensory distractions: being able to distinguish the teacher’s voice over the buzz of the flies on the windowsill, the garbage truck rolling by the window outside and the band practice down the hall. One-channel processing coupled with the inability to filter contributes to the ASD student’s hyper-focused and repetitive behaviors. Constantly under a barrage of sensory chaos, he becomes physically as well as emotionally exhausted. Those single-focus or repetitive behaviors are calming and soothing to him.
A Zillion Parts in Search of a Whole
The neuro-typical brain thinks general-to-specific. Your student with autism thinks specific-to-general. Consider how acute that difference is. For him, each bit of information taken in exists in separate, discrete “boxes” in his brain. For us, bits of data naturally, effortlessly sift into categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories. Did you have to consciously learn that banana, apple, grapes and watermelon make up the category “fruit”? Bet you didn’t; category “fruit” just made sense.
Our brain organizes the information we take in and even cross references it for us. Not so for your student with autism. Categorical thinking is difficult for him and must be taught. His brain is like a cavernous warehouse filled with bits of unrelated information. As his teacher, you need to help him learn to organize, label and associate all that information. It all begins with teaching the child to think in categories.
In the young child, the categories are few and unrelated. This is partly why your student will often respond with answers that relate only vaguely to the question. He has only a limited number of categories in which to slot the new information, and in his mind, it has to fit into one of them. His critical thinking ability will develop and expand over time if, as more information is taken in, he learns from us how to put it into categories. Those categories then become subcategories of other larger categories, and so on.
As you let this characteristic of the autism architecture sink in, you may – and should — find it overwhelming to conceive of every piece of information in your head existing independently of any other thought. What would it be like to have no ability to sort, to organize, to create associations? It’s no wonder your student has difficulty learning. Wouldn’t you?
Your student’s inability to form categories has an equally formidable cousin: the inability to generalize information. As we’ve discussed, for the child with autism, every new experience exists in a vacuum. There’s no ‘whole’, no umbrella under which different-but-related ideas or experiences can gather. He does not generalize a new experience to prior experiences or knowledge, until he is taught to do so. If you teach him to safely cross the street at the intersection of Main and Smith Streets, that ‘learning’ does not automatically apply to the situation that has him standing at the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Johnson Drive. To his way of thinking, it’s not the same.
Teach him: to categorize. Start with simple, concrete categories like colors, clothes or vehicles and build to categories that are less concrete, like function, proximity or social categories like feelings. Explain why an object fits into one category or several, but not in others. Have him compare and contrast similarities and differences.
Teach him: to apply concepts. Help him understand that categories can represent concepts, and that information can be inter-related, that you can take what you know about particular situations and people and objects, and use it in other settings and situations.
Teach him: to identify cause and effect. Like information, the actions and reactions of people and objects don’t exist discretely either. Relationships can be affected by choice. Start with simple, concrete examples and work up from there. If you leave your Hot Wheels out in the rain, they will rust. If you bop Alex, he won’t want to play with you. If you ignore Erica, her feelings will be hurt. Actions elicit reactions and many of the consequences of his actions are within his power to control and affect. Teach him: isn’t that great?
I Need to See It to Learn It
Many of your students with autism will be visual/spatial learners – they think in pictures rather than words. Your student with autism might tell you:
I need to see something to learn it, not just hear it. Words are frequently like steam to me; I know they are there but they evaporate before I have a chance to make sense of them. I need more time to process information than typical children. Information delivered in words comes and goes in an instant, and I don’t have instant-processing skills. When information is presented to me visually, it can stay in front of me for as long as it takes to decode. Otherwise I live the constant frustration of knowing that I’m missing big blocks of information and expectation, and am helpless to do anything about it.
Whole Chunk Learning
Your student with autism may be a “gestalt” learner, absorbing information in chunks, rather than the more widely accepted, analytical step-by-step learning process. He watches and watches from the sidelines as other children pick up and perform skills and tasks he can’t do. Then one day, he just up and does it. His language development may begin the same way, with echolalia (memorized “scripts” or whole blocks of language) rather than one-word-at-a-time learning.
Processing information in whole pieces like this compromises the child’s ability to assign inferential meaning to the parts of the whole. He may be able to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” or “O Canada”, but have no concept of what a “national anthem” is. Unfortunately, today’s academic curriculum is largely built upon an analytic learning structure – the very antithesis of optimal instruction to the child with autism who learns in a gestalt manner. Though not adequately recognized, gestalt learning is not a “lesser” way to learn. It is valid, it is acceptable, it is another way to learn.
Over and Over and Over Again
The behaviors of children with autism are frequently characterized by excessive selectivity and hyper-focus (rigidity and repetition). Their extreme dependence on routine and sameness is a result of a thinking architecture that has difficulty processing change. Even small variations from expectation – taking a different route to school, having a substitute teacher, changing the student’s desks around, create cognitive chaos that can domino-affect the entire course of the day.
Our student with autism might explain it this way.
You may call my insistence on sameness “rigid,” but I urgently need predictability and routine; they are my life-lines to being able to handle the ins and outs of daily life that you take for granted. These “known quantities” are how I cope with the constant anxiety of living in a baffling environment that seems to be in constant and random motion. I DO want to learn to interact with you and my surroundings. So please respect my fears and ease me out of my inflexibility gently, until I learn the skills that will make me more functional, and you learn the ways to modify my environment so that I can learn. Within the safety of my comfort zone, create relevant, concrete, hands-on experiences that help me see and live the benefits of flexibility. Help me move out of that zone one baby step at a time.
Teach him: to think flexibly and cohesively. With thoughtful planning on our part that includes frequent, incremental opportunities for practice, he can learn to take life’s little speed bumps without bottoming out. Where he is excessively selective and hyper-focused, teach him – through your words and actions – that
- there is more than one way to view a situation
- problems can have more than one solution
- ideas can be expressed and exchanged in different ways
- there is more than one “right” way to do most things
- there is meaning in communication beyond what we see and hear.
Teach him the power of having a Plan B or C or D, that problem solving is easier when we remember to ask “I wonder?” questions and that knowing when to ask for help is just as important as getting the answer right. Teach him to expect unpredictability as part of life and social interaction, and that “rolling with the punches” is not only necessary but can even at times lead to fun and unanticipated enjoyment.
A One-sided Coin
Your student with autism thinks in concrete terms. On its most basic level, that means he will interpret what you say in a very literal manner. Tell him to “shake a leg” and don’t be surprised by him doing just that. He’s not being impudent – he’s following your instruction. Metaphors, idioms and figurative language are not part of his mindset.
In the classroom this can result in difficulty with problems that ask the student to summarize or synthesize, or pick out the theme or main point. It affects the manner in which he is able to retrieve information: He might respond well to prompted retrieval, such as a multiple-choice or matching quiz. Difficulty skyrockets when he is faced with tasks entailing open-ended recall without aid of prompting or cueing.
On the more advanced level, his concrete thinking means that abstract concepts and groupings will be hugely difficult for him. Think of the game show $25,000 Pyramid. Your student with autism might be able to come up with categories such as zoo animals, types of trucks or foods that are vegetables – concrete subjects. But he would struggle mightily with abstract categories such as things that go around, things that make you sneeze, things that live in water. Or, even more nebulous: things that make you happy, things that are opposites, things that are luxuries.
Everyone Thinks Like Me – Don’t They?
Perspective-taking abilities, or what professionals refer to as Theory of Mind skills, are notoriously impaired in your student with autism. Until they are taught differently, children with impaired perspective-taking assume that everyone in the world shares their same way of thinking, has their same thoughts about a person, event or situation, and shares their same points of view. That inability to generalize applies here, too. So, explaining a different point of view in one instance doesn’t mean he ‘gets’ that all people can have different ways of thinking in every different instance.
Perspective-taking is a social skill that involves knowing and understanding that the same words, events or objects may look, sound or feel different to different people. It is considering the thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs of others before we speak or act. Many of the social/emotional gaps in your student with autism stem from this impaired perspective-taking. He can’t anticipate what others might say or do in different situations, nor understand that what one person does in a given situation, another person may never do! Your student may not even understand that other people have thoughts and emotions, and thus he may behave in ways that come across as uncaring or self-centered.
Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech/language pathologist and veritable guru of teaching perspective-taking to individuals with ASDs, is the author of two monumental books on social thinking, Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME and Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Aged Students. Both are invaluable, and when I am Queen of Everything (ala Mary Engelbreit), I shall make them required reading for all teachers and parents. In her books, Winner defines the critical elements of perspective-taking as the ability toactively consider and adjust to:
- The thoughts and emotions of others as well as one’s self, even if there is no direct interaction taking place
- Similarities and differences in religious, political and cultural beliefs of your own as compared to others
- Using prior knowledge and experiences as they pertain to communicating with others
- The motives and intentions of one’s self and others, even if there is no direct interaction.
Without teaching these Theory of Mind skills, your student with autism may never experience the results and rewards of healthy perspective-taking ability detailed by Winner:
- To interpret the needs and wants of others
- To provide responses that are considered empathetic
- To safely navigate around persons who may have ill intentions
- To interact with nuance so that others do not perceive you to be too demanding or too straightforward
- To share in the passions or delights of others even without sharing the same level of interest in the topic purely because one can enjoy the underlying relationship that is evolving
- To engage in acts of socially related critical thinking and personal problem solving.
Teach your ASD student: that people have different ways of thinking, feeling and responding. That we not only respond to others but we initiate contact with others. That we share and reciprocate actions with others, not merely attempt to control our own situation. That we take social cues from others without imitating their exact behaviors and words. That we engage in cooperative and reciprocal give-and-take, not just parallel activity with others.
Remember that perspective-taking ability is unrelated to intelligence: having a high IQ or advanced language capabilities is not an indicator of perspective-taking abilities. In fact, Temple Grandin has observed that the children on the lower functioning end of the autism spectrum often seem to have a greater sense of perspective-taking.
And never, never forget: he does not understand the reactions his behavior produces in others.
START TO SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY
Remember the old cliché, “everyone learns to put their pants on one leg at a time?” Bryce didn’t. When he was learning to dress himself, he found it more expedient to sit on the edge of the bed, roll back, throw his legs up in the air and put his pants on both legs at the same time, all in one movement. He visualized it differently, applied a different motor-planning sequence, and came up with his own unique, efficient approach to a typical skill. The fact that 99% of the world puts their pants on one leg at a time doesn’t make his way “wrong,” and in fact his way might even be “better.”
Teaching our children with autism will be an exercise in spitting into the wind if we are not willing to accept and respect that they think differently, then find effective ways to adapt our teaching accordingly. If we can’t manage to be flexible in our own approach to teaching him, if we don’t accept his basic mental functioning as valid and worthy of our effort, if we reject or disregard him at his very core level — we can’t expect him to respond with any degree of motivation or desire to connect to us or our world.
The sweet spot is a meeting place somewhere in the middle. We shift our thinking enough to be able to teach to his way of thinking in a meaningful way. Then he can learn to be more comfortable with our way of thinking, and to feel competent in a neuro-typical world. Little by little the familiarity between us grows. Macs now communicate with PCs, and the dawning of the 21st century brought about the first annual Hatfields and McCoys Reunion Festival. There’s never been a better time to learn to take that different perspective, to “think differently.” You and your student will both learn things you never knew you never knew.