A common refrain I hear when adults talk to children after they have done something incorrect or unexpected is, “Don’t you know that you shouldn’t do that?!” or “Why did you do that, we told you not to a million times?!” Often, and probably more than adults would like to admit, when the child does “that thing,” in the moment, they truly do not know they are doing something incorrect, even if it is the same thing they had previously done or closely resembles it. To the child, it really is different. Immediately trying to get the child to see how this event is similar or the same as the previous incident, having them “understand” what they did and repeat it back verbally, along with extracting sincere promises to refrain from doing it again in the future, may not create the desired change. If the child continues doing the same thing, the adult responds the same way, the child acknowledges their “wrong” along with a heartful pledge to never do it again, maybe even with grand ideas of what to do differently in the future, yet the whole process repeats itself, we can suggest an alternate approach.
This is especially true when interacting with autistic or neurodiverse children. Autistic children may focus on details and less on the “big picture.” While this often leads to autistic individuals performing extremely well at “detail-oriented” jobs, such as data analysis or accounting, navigating social situations may require additional applications of detailedness, such as recognizing and responding to social nuances in a specific manner. Additionally, putting all the “pieces” together to see and act on their interrelatedness may not be outwardly indicated by autistic individuals.
It is important to note that differences between neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals can very well be tied to the brain itself. In a low-level visual processing study for vision acuity (low-level visual processing has to do with early aspects of visual processing, such as the effects of a light stimulus on a retinal cell) conducted within the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre (Ashwin et al., 2009) a group with high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum demonstrated scores more than double the scores of the control group, and at the same level as eagles. At face value, these results indicate an obvious and highly significant advantage that individuals with autism possess for observing details.
With the knowledge that individuals with autism visually process differently than neurotypical people, to get “frustrated” with an autistic child who walks into a room and immediately notices the intricate details of the light fixtures and then promptly tells you about them instead of greeting relatives waiting in the room and tell him, “You need to say hi to Aunt Gertrude” is potentially trying to change the neurological activity of the child, which might not be possible or advisable, and even detrimental to the child’s unique and indispensable inherent qualities. Moreover, if the child indicates his preferences to us, is that not important and valuable, too? Perhaps, a response to the child can be, “That’s so interesting! Let’s go over to Aunt Gertrude and after saying hi to her, you can tell her all about it.” This way, the child’s perceptions and qualities are being acknowledged, while simultaneously demonstrating how the child can receive the desired attention.
I once worked with a boy in second grade, who, when shown a picture of a tree with a squirrel on one of the branches and a bear on its hind legs with its forelegs resting on the tree trunk, was asked, “What do you see?” He responded, “A squirrel.” Although his answer was technically correct, since a squirrel can be seen, there are a couple of different things we can pinpoint. First, the specific words used in a question can truly matter and directly influence the perceived meaning of the question. In this case, the question was really meant as, “What’s happening (in this picture)?” The answer to this question is a variation of the same thing, something along the lines of either the squirrel is trying to get away from the bear or the bear is trying to get the squirrel. Second, if the question was only meant to be exactly what was said and limited to what one can see in the picture, a few things should then seemingly be stated, such as the bear and tree, etc., not just the squirrel.
So, when this same boy did things in class that were not to the teacher’s standard, and the teacher spent a few minutes telling him what he did wrong and reviewing class expectations, when he did the same thing again (and again), responding in a manner that evaluates the totality of the boy’s abilities and provides him with tools to build on those abilities would likely produce meaningful change going forward. Instead, the teacher insisted on implementing the same non-effective methods with the same exasperation and got the same results … Clearly, the boy had a different way of perceiving things. Meeting him where he was to build upon his strengths while shoring up his weaknesses may have paid future dividends.
When working with children using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles, and events such as these occur, one way to approach the situation is to model, role-play and consistently practice various situations and responses that enable children to sufficiently acquire the tools they will need to apply when faced with real-world scenarios. If we instead expect children to implement what was told to them about a prior event, when they very likely literally see this current event as different from the previous scenario, we might be setting up the child for failure. When we recognize and support each child’s hidden as well as visible abilities, and teach them for their independence rather than submission, we can truly appreciate each child for who and how they are, which makes all the difference in the world.
David Borowski MA, BCBA, LBA, is the director of clinical development at Hidden Gems ABA. Hidden Gems ABA is now providing services in their newest location: Bergen County, New Jersey. To contact them, please call 201-500-9915 or email [email protected]
References: Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Rhydderch, D., Howells, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Eagle-eyed visual acuity: an experimental investigation of enhanced perception in autism. Biological psychiatry, 65(1), 17-21.