The other day in my middle school classroom, my student Luis, who is on the spectrum, was helping to practice taking inventory. Luis was tasked with writing down how many bottles of each paint color we had in our closet. As I checked over his list I noticed something amiss. Yes, there were three bottles of red paint, but each was almost empty. Yet Luis had marked down that we had three bottles of red paint.
I realized Luis saw three bottles that were labeled “Red Paint,” and so he was in fact following my directions. However, he had missed entirely the context in which we were working. We were taking inventory to determine how much actual red paint we had so we could keep it stocked for future classroom arts and crafts projects.
You and I might know this without thinking about it. But it never even occurred to Luis. Many individuals with autism seem to take things literally. One term used to describe this is “context blindness.” Peter Vermeulen, PhD, is a Flemish-Dutch researcher who has studied context blindness for many years. Mr. Vermeulen defines context as “a collection of different layers around the one thing that we want to give meaning to,” (1).
When my niece began to scream and run around the house, my daughter, who is on the autistic spectrum, got very worried. However, my niece had just been given a large gift certificate to her favorite store on her birthday. The rest of the family knew my niece was celebrating. We factored in the context and knew screaming and running occurs when someone is fearful but can also happen with extreme excitement. Our brains automatically factor in context so we can understand the world around us and know how to react. For individuals with autism, this process does not occur.
To further illustrate the concept of context blindness, my autistic daughter grew agitated as a young child when her teacher told the class that Gretchen, my daughter’s classmate, was going to “build a snowman with dad.” My daughter cried and told her teacher “No!” It took me a while to figure out my daughter knew of only one dad: her dad. She did not put what her teacher said into context, that Gretchen would build a snowman with Gretchen’s dad. To my daughter, there was only her dad. Why would her beloved dad go to Gretchen’s house to build a snowman without her?
“Context sensitivity is not located in a specific area in the brain. Context sensitivity is the result of cooperation between different brain cells and brain areas.” (2) Peter Vermeulen, whose dynamic book Autism as on Context Blindness was written in 2016, explains “the human brain, through its evolution, has learned to interpret situations by taking context into account. These basic processes occur within the first 50–400 milliseconds in the unconscious phases of information processing.”
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Neurotypical individuals automatically interpret context constantly depending on many pieces of information, including where they are (a party, their home, a dentist’s office), who they are with (a boss, a friend, a child), and past experiences. Individuals on the spectrum seem to lack connectivity between brain cells and brain areas. Their brains do not often use context when processing, causing issues with communication, social skills, and carrying out everyday tasks.
When your child was little, he/she would likely be read Carol Gray’s TM social stories by teachers, therapists, and you. These stories showed him/her the context of brushing teeth, visiting a doctor or dentist, or going to a friend’s home and receiving a gift. Each of these situations would be meticulously laid out for your child to understand. But now your child may be in middle school, high school, or the adult world. He/She is not usually given social stories anymore. So what can be done to support your older child?
Well, you actually may want to use those social stories again. Social stories “explain all kinds of situations and contexts in a clear and empowering way,” according to Peter Vermeulen. But you don’t need to dust off the old social stories. The social stories TM for older children can be more focused on certain small tasks and situations such as taking inventory, reacting to someone else’s emotional display, and understanding about other people’s families.
In my personal experience, I have found that using a drawing with a caption, a few pictures with speech bubbles, or a quick flow sheet style illustration rather than the traditional social story TM works well too.
Working with my students in middle school and my daughter who is now 19, I have found some excellent ideas for explaining context. First, try to determine as best you can what context your child might need to complete a task or participate in an activity. Then, try one or more of the following options.
- Use an iPhone or iPad app. Older children can pull out their phones and fit right in with neurotypical peers. One Apple app is called Stepping Stones. You use your own photos to create a visual plan to increase independence or show sequential steps to perform a task. There’s no charge for using this app, and it can be downloaded at the Apple app store. Alternatively, you can use the Apple Notes app.
- If you have found your older child enjoys talking books or visual schedules, you can make one or, better yet, find one already made on Boardmaker. Boardmaker features 10,000 boards others have made to save you time if you find them applicable. Visit www.boardmakeronline.com.
- Use paper and pencil to draw, make charts, or write important ideas. These can be tucked in a pocket, purse, or backpack and pulled out when needed.
Of course, all of these ideas are only good if you have anticipated your child’s need to understand context ahead of time. So try to think ahead. When the teacher next door asked if she could borrow Luis to count bottles in her classroom, I added a drawing of a few bottles with guidelines to the Notes app on Luis’s phone. And guess what? He was successful.
Vermeulen, Peter (2009) Autism as Context Blindness, Kansas: AAPC Publishing.
Vermeulen, P. (2011, Nov) Autism: From Mind Blindness to Context Blindness. Autism Asperger’s Digest. WordPress Blog. Vermeulen, Peter, Autism in Context: from neurodiversity to neuroharmony. (2019, October, 16) https://petervermeulen.be/2019/10/16/a-social-story-for-the-rest-of-us.
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills