If you’ve ever traveled to another country and tried to navigate your days without a translator, stumbling over the local language and customs, you might just have a little glimpse into the daily life of a child on the spectrum.
Trying to make sense of a world where everyone else seems to understand each other even though the rules seem to constantly change is frustrating at best, and on many days it can feel quite demoralizing.
Children with autism experience the world this way because from early on they are wired to process information differently. Understanding how they process can help you as a parent not only better communicate with them but can also help you draw on greater empathy during life’s more exasperating moments.
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What might your child say if they could articulate their struggle?
I Think From the Bottom Up
This may be one of the most important things you can understand about me.
Most neurotypicals (probably you!) think top-down. That means you build a big picture first, and then fill in the details, like this:
Knife, fork, spoon. These are all types of silverware.
Sandal, loafer, sneaker, pump. These are all types of shoes.
Great Dane, Pomeranian, Husky. These are all types of dogs.
But I start with the details, and then move outwards. So today I see something walking towards me and you say, “that it is a dog”. This something is white with spots, short hair, and comes up to my hip.
Now I think that a dog is something white with spots, short hair, and comes up to my hip. Tomorrow if I see something orange and tiny with fuzzy hair I won’t know it’s a dog unless you tell me.
Once you do, I now add that to the category, but if the next thing I see is very large with brown and white hair and a big droopy face, I might not know that it’s a dog.
I’m seeing the details first. Once I start categorizing all of these different things that count as “dog”, I slowly start to build the concept. It may take many, many examples before I understand the broader category of “dog”.
This also happens with skills. Maybe you taught me how to take turns on the swing set, but that doesn’t mean the skill will automatically transfer to the slide or even playing Sorry or Candyland.
This may seem like a weakness, but it’s not!
Bottom up thinkers like me often excel in research and data analysis, fine arts, data entry, coding, developmental biology, assembly, software testing, design, and other careers requiring detail, logic and/or repetition. Some even seek out people like me for their teams!
If you want to help me grow in top down thinking, Stephen Shore, Linda Rastelli, and Temple Grandin give some great tips for how to teach your child to handle abstractions that you can check out.
I Take Things VERY Literally!
Sometimes you and I may have communication struggles because I understand language in its most literal sense.
“Everyone is going to Grandma’s for Christmas,” you say.
“Not everyone!” I might insist. “Lot’s of people won’t go to Grandma’s. Mr. Michaels. Laura Ryan. No one in my class is going.”
Sometimes people think I’m just being obstinate when I respond this way, but I am truly struggling to process the conversation.
That’s why when you say, “Daddy’s in the dog house today,” I may run outside to check.
You might notice that sometimes I ask so many questions during a conversation that it can be exhausting. This is simply my way of trying to make certain I truly understand what you are saying.
It might take a while, but with practice both of us will learn to communicate with each other better.
It’s Harder For Me To Remember Sequences
Have you noticed that sometimes I start something you told me to do and get stuck halfway through the task?
Maybe you asked me to do the laundry, and explained in detail what I should do.
So I collected the clothes from each bedroom.
I brought them to the basement.
I opened the washer and put the clothes in.
But I can’t remember what my next step is.
Whether it’s giving directions to get from my house to school or a list of chores that need to be done today, I will be more successful if you write out the steps.
Picture charts can be helpful to keep me on track with getting up or going to bed routines. Color-coding where things belong in the kitchen or my bedroom also helps.
The National Autistic Society (UK) has some great ideas to help me with these things, so check out their suggestions…it will probably make life less stressful for both of us!
It’s REALLY Hard for Me to Imagine Something From Your Perspective
I’m at the park and I see a classmate. I love Chinese history, so I decide to tell my classmate everything I’m learning about the Qin Dynasty. Because, if I find this fascinating, she should too, right? So I talk about it. For a long time.
Maybe she’s polite for a few minutes, but she doesn’t actually want to listen.
Pretty soon she says, “Well, that’s nice, but I want to go play on the swings.”
Kind of hard to keep the relationship going this way, right? The problem is, I won’t know what I did wrong.
It’s hard for me to understand that others may think, feel or believe something different than I do. In fact, I might even assume that you know what is going on in my mind or have the same plans as I do and be frustrated when you don’t. (The scientists call this Theory of Mind.)
Because of this, interactions with me can seem off-putting or irritating. I may even say something that hurts your feelings.
This isn’t because I’m just a selfish or unkind person. It’s that my brain doesn’t naturally process things the same way yours does.
This struggle can also make me vulnerable to being taken advantage of, since I tend not to expect that others would lie to me.