Navigating the world of autism is like learning a strange language in a strange land, but the experience can teach important life lessons for all who make the journey. Autistic minds do not work the same way as everyone else’s minds, yet they are brilliant and funny and focused. As one instructor from the Judevine Center in St. Louis remarked, “My time with these kids changed the way I see the world. It honed my ability to find humor in the ‘everyday.’”
Autism is a general label applied to a complex disorder characterized by a broad spectrum of symptoms like aphasia (the inability to communicate verbally), repetitive behaviors, and difficulty with social interaction. Although the onset of autistic behavior can begin between six months and three years of age, the most common time of onset is between two and three years old. Earlier diagnosis and intervention increases the chance that an autistic individual will be able to lead a more normal and inclusive life.
Although each individual on the autism spectrum is unique, there are universal lessons to be gained from understanding the autistic mind:
1. Stay calm whenever possible. Autistic individuals typically have turbo-charged senses. Imagine sitting in a restaurant and smelling the different shampoos of fellow diners, hearing the traffic outside in the street, the clank of cutlery, and the wind whistling through the vents. Autistic people have very little ability to filter out most of that sensory overload, and typically will tap or rock, or do whatever other behavior helps them stay calm.
2. Manners need to be tuned to the current environment. One of the most unusual lessons people learn when dealing with autistic individuals is that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ convey that there is a choice to be made. The autistic brain is a very concrete one, which often makes manners and pronouns difficult to grasp. If the individual does not particularly want to comply, it is likely they will just say “no” and go back to a preferred activity. Concrete, direct communication works best.
3. Grandmas are the smartest people ever. One of the first lessons autism professionals learn is ‘the Premack principle,’ commonly known as ‘Grandma’s Rule.’ The Premack principle is used in scheduling, particularly with children. It requires that the teacher or parent begin with an ‘ambivalent activity’ and follow it with something the child dislikes. This is immediately followed by a like, with the disliked activities trading off with liked activities. Creating storyboards about the day’s activities with pictures works extremely well for most parents, as it appeals to their child’s concrete brain. Premacking a child’s schedule helps parents lead their kid through the day with less emotional upset.
4. The importance of time is how it is spent. The concept of time is extremely difficult for the majority of autistic children, and is best taught by tying it to a reward. The intrinsic knowledge that this is ten minutes is almost always missing from an autistic kid.
Parents learn to “sequence,” using the Premack Principle. “First we’re going to brush our teeth, then we’re going to wash our face, and after that we’re going to get dressed.” If a child dallies on the dressing part, their caregiver reminds them what comes next. “After you get dressed, then you eat breakfast, and then we’ll drive to school.”
Although sequencing all day long can be tiring, it helps parents avoid tantrums when children are pulled away from beloved activities. Sequencing also helps alleviate the fear of not understanding how long a beloved or hated task is going to last.
5. Positive reinforcement fixes everything. The overwhelming sensory input can be overcome by autistic individuals and their families with a lot of hard work, and plenty of positive reinforcement! Parents are advised to divide tasks into stages. For example, restaurant dining might begin with a simple car trip to the restaurant and home. Perhaps parent and child will even get out of the car and walk around. If it is a non-busy time of day, they might even practice and sitting at the table for a few minutes. Eventually, that child will be able to sit through a full restaurant meal. This same process can be used for anything important, as long as the task can be broken down into small steps that can be reinforced with whatever the child adores. Parents should prepare to do each step multiple times.
Until recently, no one has claimed to be ‘cured’ of autism. Georgiana Thomas was famous for undergoing a complete behavior change after attending Dr. Berard’s auditory retraining. Temple Grandin went into the field of animal husbandry after inventing a squeeze machine that calmed her own stress. There are books and articles written by and about each of these women. Recently, Raun Kaufman went on Fox News Radio and explained how he recovered from the disorder via the VIPP-AUTI, a ‘Video feedback Intervention to promote Positive Parenting adapted to Autism.’ The VIPP program was developed in the Netherlands.
Although everyone may not have experience with someone with autism, there are life lessons autistic individuals can teach us all, simply by interacting with their world. The experience can be rewarding.
By Jenny Hansen