Changing the things we can and letting go of things we cannot…
If you have an atypically developing child, particularly one with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you have seen the glances, stares, and report outs to you from school. Every judgement feels like a punch in your jaw.
There are three mainstream theories to help explain the various cognitive delays exhibited in children with ASD; executive dysfunction, theory of mind hypothesis, and weak central coherence.
Executive functioning is an umbrella term that refers to initiation/monitoring of action, impulse control, working memory, planning tasks, and inhibition. All of these actions require a separation from the immediate environment. Hill (2004) theorizes that executive dysfunction can specifically explain repetitive behaviors and restricted interests due to difficulties with monitoring of action and impulse control.
Theory of Mind Hypothesis was developed by Sasha Baren Cohen in 1985. According to this hypothesis, children with ASD have challenges distinguishing between the world as it is vs. how others may perceive it (or attributing a mental state to another individual). Due to this, they tend to use logic and language as opposed to social cues.
Central coherence refers to the detail-oriented processing style often exhibited in individuals with ASD. According to Frith (1989), individuals with ASD have fragmented perception due to their intense focus on individual detail rather than the “whole picture.”
We must all advocate for our children that they are in fact stronger as a result of focusing on detail rather than the whole picture and logic and language rather than social cues. While it may seem like an atypical development, it is actually a stronger and more evolved skillset to be mindful of language and logic.
While others who are “typically developing” are conforming to social norms, kids on the spectrum are using their focus, logic, and understanding of language to make decisions. As a society, we must ask ourselves, “Who are the typically developing people?” Is it those who are culturally immersed, or those who are focused on logic and language? Let us appreciate these differences not as deficiencies but rather as great strengths.
First, as parents, we must understand and communicate clearly to others that our child with ASD is on the other side of the glass. How do you communicate effectively with someone with a different world view? You must begin by uncovering and analyzing your own thinking. When we help our children debunk their own myths, we become closer to them because we too are changing our minds and world views. Take a long walk in their minds—become “like” them and begin with these questions. Children with ASD find it challenging to filter their emotions and express them effectively. We must help our children realize we should not only be defined by our words but by our actions as well.
These are universal questions for all children and truly prove the point that every child is atypical in some way. There is no “normal.” There is only the “new normal” where everyone is communicating through a lens of different perspectives—and for children with developmental challenges, a different way of adapting.
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After your child has a negative feeling about another child’s behavior or actions, or even if you feel the glances or stares from parents, go through the process of uncovering empathy. By following these questions, we dig deep into the subconscious of the child and bring out the true emotions and empathy we all have inside of us. These are essential skills for all children, parents, and caregivers to develop.
When the child expresses negative feelings, start the process with questions, then label the emotions in the Redirection Phase.
Phase 1: Meta-Questions
- Do children/others <<enter action/behavior>> in your class sometimes?
- What are the times when you <<enter action/behavior>>?
- What do you think you can do when you are <<enter action/behavior>>?
Phase 2: Redirection of emotion and empathy
- You mean to say you are <<enter feeling uncovered in Meta-questions>> when <<name>> <<enter action/behavior>>. (ex. You mean to say you don’t like it when so-and-so cries.)
- Instead of I don’t want to see so-and-so, say, “I would like to have some space, please.”
- Why do you think he/she is <<enter action/behavior>>?
- How do you think he/she is feeling?
Take solace in knowing every child is different. When you get “complaints,” stares, or judgements, know you are not alone, because you too are on the other side of the glass. Have compassion and confidence in your knowledge of your child when these glances and judgements occur. We cannot change other people’s behavior in the moment; however, we can change our own minds, and eventually everyone else’s. Together, we can change the world to see and even appreciate autism differently.
Cognitive Theories Explaining ASD (n.d.). Retrieved from https://iancommunity.org
Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006) The Weak Coherence Account: Detail Focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), pp. 5-25. doi 10.1007/s10803-005-0039-0
Hill, E. L. (2006) Executive dysfunction in autism. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), pp. 26-32. Retrieved from research.gold.ac.uk.
Tager, H. (2007) Evaluating the Theory-of-Mind Hypothesis of Autism. Current Directions in Psychological Science (16)6, pp. 311-315. Retrieved from http://www.curriculumconnection4sped.com/
This article was featured in Issue 98 – Fresh ASD Guidance For A New Year