I was once an impudent preschooler who ignored clear directions. Or so I must have seemed to my teacher. My classmates and I were gathered around for an activity, the nature of which I cannot recall. I do remember that it involved the children being asked, one at a time and more or less at random, to present themselves for individual participation.
Imagine being the teacher in this situation. You make eye contact with a little boy at the front of the group and ask him to take his turn. His response, if you can call it that, is to sit tight and stare at you blankly. You politely repeat the same directive, hoping this will clear up any confusion. Still nothing. “Let’s go,” you say, snapping your fingers. “Today!” Your pupil at last responds to your command, and you are happy to have avoided any further embarrassment.
Before explaining my behavior, I should mention an important detail I left out: The teacher had already called upon me for this same activity, and I had responded.
At that point in my life, I had internalized a basic rule – namely, that everyone must learn to take turns. If someone else’s turn comes first, we must wait. Once our turn comes and goes, we must move aside and let others have theirs. Even the rules surrounding eye contact could not supersede this rule. Though it looked like the teacher was addressing me, surely, she must have been looking at the peer sitting next to me, or perhaps the peer behind me.
Most people might respond with an admonition to the effect that even for a five-year-old, common sense ought to have kicked in at that point. Maybe so. But the matter was in doubt, so I went with what seemed the safest rule applicable.
Chances are that most teachers with students on the autism spectrum have experienced something similar. Out of respect to them, I must concede before proceeding any further that I have never been an educator – at least, not in the formal sense. Far be it for me to make any presumption of telling teachers how to do their jobs. But I hope to offer, based on my own experience as well as on my study of subjects providing a variety of perspectives, some general principles educators can use and adapt as they see fit.
An important consideration in any substantive discussion of how human beings learn, and how they receive and communicate information, is the age-old philosophical differentiation of form and matter.
Matter is the material with which one works (the oils used in an eagle painting, for example); the form is what is done with the material (the eagle itself). The two are closely intertwined in our experience: Matter becomes known to us when presented under a certain form, and form becomes known when individualized in particular matter.
Another way to think of it is that form regards universals, whereas matter involves particulars. Both come to us through sensory experience.
A look at early childhood may prove helpful. As children develop, they move gradually from the concrete to the abstract. A child with a dog name Rusty will know for the rest of her life that the dog (form) is an existing creature, because from her earliest years she has known Rusty (matter). Likewise, she knows the general concepts of mother and father because she has her own mother and father.
Here we have a quite literal understanding of in-formation, or the internalization of forms from sensory experience. It is important to remember that this does not merely involve learning facts. Rather, it is about how we relate to the things and people in the world around us, and even to ourselves. And as with most of what transpires in the world we live in and move through, there tends to be an emotional component in the process.
Now consider the experience of a child with autism, which is often enough marked by sensory dysregulation. Out of this are born negative emotional responses to various sensory stimuli. Given the sense-based origin of human knowledge alluded to above, I would submit that the inability to take in sensory information beyond a certain point provides fertile ground for similar difficulties with processing and organizing intellectual information.
Just as a child on the spectrum will seek shelter from an overwhelming sensory environment through withdrawal into confined quarters, solitary activities, etc., so s/he might seek to navigate the often confusing world of ideas, social norms, and “common sense” rules by holding onto such over-generalizations as the one I had adopted, albeit unconsciously, as a preschooler.
Myles and Simpson (1998) comment on this phenomenon in relation to social skills among people with Asperger Syndrome: Indeed, many of these individuals attempt to rigidly and broadly follow universal social rules, because doing so provides structure to an otherwise confusing world. Unfortunately, this is often not a successful strategy because there are few, if any, universal and inflexible social rules (p. 4).
Yet there appears to be a contradiction, given that an aversion to generalization has been noted among the autism spectrum population:
Once an activity has been learned, children with Asperger’s Syndrome can fail to transfer or generalize their learning to other situations. . . . Parents and teachers may have to teach and remind the child of the different circumstances relevant to a particular skill (Attwood, 1998, p. 118).
These observations are, however, compatible. What appear to be generalizations in autistic thought are indeed attempts to organize, or give form, to the material of one’s experience. Yet they are on the nearer side of everyday experience, and do not take in the full picture; true formal generalizations are on the far side and are more all-encompassing. The former, while more restrictive and isolating, are often havens of security for children on the spectrum.
Consequent upon this reality are such scenarios as the one between me and my preschool teacher. For that reason, it is well to keep the form-matter relationship in mind in terms of how it relates not only to developmental experience, but also to instructional practice.
Form, for teachers, pertains to what they wish their students to learn; the matter consists of each child’s latent potentiality, as well as any additional factors that will impact their learning one way or another.
All else being equal, children with autism are as capable as anyone of learning, following instructions, and relating to their fellow human beings. The key is to understand the matter one is working with in their case, and to focus on building the trust needed to help them want to move beyond their safe havens.
This begins with being willing to meet these children where they are. One way to do this is to stay with the concrete, which is the overlap between the autistic child’s safe havens and formal generalizations. While this includes being specific in one’s instructions, I would extend its application to include attentiveness to the context in which instructions are given. In my case, it might have been better if my preschool teacher had said, “Dan, I’d like you to take another turn,” or “Dan, how about you go again?”
Such measures sound rather simple, but I can appreciate how difficult the pressures of contemporary education might make even these. But even small movements in this direction can bring great dividends in the long run. In the meantime, it is important that teachers have patience – not just with their students, but with themselves as well.
Take it from the defiant preschooler for whom patience with himself has been a lifelong necessity.
Daniel Crofts is a 37-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome. He has an MA in English/Literature from the State University of New York College at Brockport and experience in the fields of freelance journalism, substance abuse prevention, online higher education, and service to children, youth, and adults with developmental disabilities. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Atwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Myles, B.S., & Simpson, R.L. (1998). Asperger syndrome: A guide for educators and parents. Pro-ed.