Often those on the autism spectrum present behaviors which may seem odd, antisocial, or nonsensical to us. In order to help these individuals, the well-meaning urge for many to correct these behaviors comes to the forefront. Today I would like to delve slightly deeper into why correcting these behaviors instead of accepting and relating to them may be a mistake.
We know that children on the spectrum have sensory integration difficulties, and therefore, perceive the world very differently. This thought is a key component to this conversation. Our perceptions ignite our opinions, our interests, our choices, and ultimately our behavior. Judging a child’s unusual choices of behavior can be a huge detriment to our work with these kids. Think about this. Our own perspective on others may be incorrect at times. Here is an example. Recently, a person our family sees weekly at church walked by my early-teenage daughter without speaking. Later, she confessed to my daughter that she did not recognize her and had assumed that she was someone else. The church member’s difficulty was a perception problem. Her perception of my daughter is a continuation of how she has known her as an elementary aged child. Although this person is a typically functioning adult, her thoughts on who she would see as my daughter overshadowed the person she actually saw. How many of us have worked or interacted with children? The interaction or work ceases for a period of time as we move on, and we run into that child a few years later. What we see is unbelievable and incomprehensible as to who this person is now because the image of the child we knew previously looks so different from the aged one we see presently. Our schema of the person is wrong, due to the fact that we perceive the child as we last remember them. Time has continued, and growth has occurred, but our perception remains the same.
Since children on the spectrum cannot count on what they perceive to be reality, the ability to think abstractly is absent. if one cannot conceive what comes next because it is an abstract perception, then transitioning from one activity to the next may feel like stepping off a cliff. For example, this week, as I worked with a non-verbal autistic boy whom I have worked with a couple of years, he came to my studio. I had used my baby grand piano weekly with him. My piano needed to be replaced and was replaced by a much smaller digital with a different size and shape. For him, this change occurred between one session and the next. Baby grand, no baby grand. He came into the session and sat down. As I began to play the guitar, his usual request by gesture, he began to get sad. I was not sure what was wrong exactly, but he did not appear to be in pain. I went to the piano and reflected his sadness musically. His crying became deeper and more profound as he pounded his fists on his seat, but as we continued, he got to the other side of his crying and seemed to recover before the end of the session. The following session is a small group session, including another child and himself. We left the studio and invited the other child. As we walked back into the studio, he took me by the hand and led me to the piano to play, putting my hands on the keyboard. He was now demonstrating energy, enthusiasm, happiness, and eagerness. This was a completely different mood from the last session. Was he sad about this instrument that he could not recognize in its much smaller image, or was it something else? I may never know. This change of mood was certainly not a typical reaction for this little boy.
When we honor a person’s behaviors, whether we understand them or not, and make the attempt to understand through their perspective, their way of functioning in the world, we open a door to a relationship where communication can occur. After all, is this not the main difficulty with autism? The first criteria for autism (as referred to by the DSM IV) “marked impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures and gestures to REGULATE SOCIAL INTERACTION.”
If we use these behaviors displayed as a way to get to know these children from their perspective, haven’t we already taken the first step to aid in forming social interaction, a relationship, a communication of “I hear you”? This may lay the groundwork for more back and forth interaction. Is this not the real difficulty in autism? If our systems allow us to regulate ourselves, aren’t we the ones responsible to allow a different way of being and attempt our best to negotiate a relationship and social interaction? How can a continuous flow of social interaction begin to affect the neuroplasticity of knowing what comes next or abstract thinking?
Antoinette Morrison, MT-BC