My experiences as a creative person, tutor of children, and teacher of creative writing

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Helping Autistic People

I've seen parents come in to talk to the teacher about their autistic son. The mother forcefully wants her son "fixed",  made "normal", while the father just sits there in quiet blankness. Why? Because he recognizes that his son is very like him.

So how do you help an autistic child? What can you do to make it easier for someone who lives in a world of pure logic? I think of the old Star Trek 1 movie, V'ger, where a machine created a world in it's own image; completely logical and predictable. Of course the "biological infestations" of the machines had to be eliminated.

How can you create a more logical world for your autistic child? Try thinking and acting more like a machine. Machines are totally logical. Autistic people come the closest to logical perfection than any other human being. Accept them and allow them to be who they are. Give up trying to make them into some "normal" feeling person. They value logical perfection and want to create and live in their "perfect" world. You can help them:

  • Create and follow precise routines
  • Do not deviate from routine
  • Do not change routine
  • Be exact - leaving in one minute means exactly 60 seconds
  • Use precise concrete language (model Spock in Star Trek) - 3.4 seconds not "soon"
  • Be logical; not emotional
  • Do not engage in emotional behavior (touch, kiss, hug)
  • Allow them to follow their interests
  • Support their interests (unless harmful to themselves or others)
  • Accept their world
  • Prepare Others - what this child can and can not do (not hug, may not respond, may need to go off and be alone); how the child might respond if stressed; assure them that you are working with him and will handle the situation;

Now after you have tried to accommodate their world as much as possible; now what? The fact is that they do not live in some fantasy pure logical world. They do live on a planet "infested" by illogical human beings. In fact, they are human beings with human needs. They need to be loved and accepted. 

How can you help your child deal with a world they see as illogical, unpredictably changing, and full of illogical emotional people?  The same way we all do; through patterns.  I think autistic people struggle with all right brain functions such as seeing the whole picture. They have difficulty perceiving behavioral patterns, future consequences, the relationship between actions and emotion, and understanding the real premises for thought. Their logic may be impeccable, but their premise is all wrong. They do not know what to say to people, what questions to ask, or how to respond in different situations. They are astounded when they inform others that they are the best qualified to do something (based on a single quality they possess), and the other children do not allow them to do it (logical thought; the biggest and fastest should do it; I am the biggest and fastest; therefore I should do it). Since they can not see the whole situation, only just one line of linear logical thought, all other people's reactions will be dismissed as "not logical".  Consequently, they try to "correct" illogical behavior, but most feeling human beings withdraw from them because they view this as criticism and do not want to be "corrected". 

Though an autistic person may never really understand the world of emotion, they can learn through experience. They can file facts. They can memorize scripts. They can see consequences when they experience them; such as "when I talk in a soft voice people smile at me". They can learn patterns so life does not seem so unpredictable or illogical. They may not really relate, but they can learn to connect. They can come to feel some sense of control over their life, so that they do not become uncontrollably frustrated and rage. 

Remember that talking is abstract and symbolic. Words stand for thoughts. Words may not mean much to a person who lives in the logical moment, so trying to tell them what to do may not work. You are "illogical". They do not understand what you are talking about. You "make no sense".  Real is what they experience, so help them experience and learn. Help them learn how to cope with our "illogical" world.
  • Practice situations-  positively dealing with situations they have trouble with in their own life; hold out their hand for a handshake to preempt a hug
  • Some may learn from watching others model what to do, and be able to model their behavior
  • Some may learn from watching videos or computer demonstrations
  • Practice what to do and say when a specific change occurs, such as an assembly
  • Prepare ahead for change (this afternoon at about 2pm we will have an assembly)
  • Write out scripts; specific words and actions they can use
  • Write out routines - allow them to carry it with them
  • Put everything in writing - more real to them; something to hold on to, decreases frustration
  • Teach them through their interests - space travel can be a vehicle to teach math, science, English, writing, history etc. 
  • Allow to retreat to a quiet place if they are becoming over-stimulated 
  • Help them recognize when they are becoming stressed
  • Have a plan on how to handle situations they encounter (write out all details)
  • Have reasonable expectations: Do not expect them to be an emotional "feely" person; don't require them to stay in the middle of a holiday social and visit politely with everyone; this will be more than this logical soul can deal with; soon they will become so overwhelmed by sensory input that they will have a  "meltdown" (go into a frustrated rage). 
  • Allow them to learn from experience- demonstrate then have them do; apprentice, intern; experience gives them a whole picture to put their details into; things will make sense
As the child becomes an adult, hopefully they will have memorized many patterns and be able to function in life. They will always be who they are. None of us want to be made over into something we aren't, could never become, and don't want to be. Autistic adults will still have the same strengths and weaknesses. They may have difficulty dealing with anything which requires global thought, such as budgeting money, or job interviews. If they are able to see enough of the whole picture to realize that they need help (as we all do in some way), then they can use their tremendous abilities to compensate for their weaknesses, such as memorizing responses which will enable them to achieve their goals in life. 

Love them for who they are.