One of the hallmark characteristics of people with autism is difficulty responding to multiple pieces of information at the same time.
This challenge has been referred to as context blindness
and often causes difficulty for our friends with autism, especially in the social and work arenas.
The holiday season gives us plenty of opportunities to look at the importance of context in regulating our own behavior.
Let’s say we walk into a party. Neurotypical people quickly take in multiple pieces of information such as the type of people present, their own familiarity with the people present, the way people are dressed, the way people are standing/sitting, the food areas, the drink areas, the music being played, the way people are grouped, etc.
We use this information to determine how we should “behave” in the situation.
All of this information helps us dictate the formality of our communication, the way we move through, into, and out of groups, and possibly even the way we eat and/or drink in the situation.
Neurotypical people have more or less skill in dealing with so many different pieces of information. Most of us have learned enough to navigate successfully through social interaction.
But what if you were only able to respond to one piece of information at a time?
Imagine the challenges this would bring in social situations!
This is a daily occurrence for people with autism.
Even those with formal social-skills training often struggle in the “real world” because the context is different and there are so many different pieces of information to attend to and respond to.
“What are YOU looking at?”
A child I worked with was at the gym waiting for his mom. He was watching two older boys who were also waiting outside the locker room. One of the boys looked at him, hands on hips, and asked in an angry tone of voice, “What are YOU looking at?”
The child with autism didn’t attend to the tone of voice or body language, which would have told him to find an adult, but instead responded with factual information: “You and your friend.”
The older boy thought he was being a smart aleck and punched him.
Take the middle school child who was in the hallway at school when a girl told him his shirt was “rad.”
He didn’t know what the word meant, but after years of teasing, he thought it was something bad.
He then went into the classroom where the teacher was talking about what an ugly day it was outside (referring to the weather).
The boy spoke up and pointed to the girl, saying she was being “ugly” (an expression in the South meaning being mean). He had been taught to tell an adult when he felt he was being bullied.
The teacher, thinking the student was joking, laughed and told the girl he gave her permission to “kick his butt” after class.
The rest of the class knew the teacher was joking, but not the child with autism. He quickly ran out of the room thinking he was going to be kicked. The event ended tragically for the student with autism when he was chased down by security, wrestled to the ground, and handcuffed.
The experience was so traumatic for him that he refused to go back to school.
Preventing tragedies and harm
Had the student understood the context of what was happening—
including the compliment he was receiving and the joke the teacher was making—
AND if the teacher had understood the challenges of people with autism
and had dealt with the issue in a more empathetic and problem-solving manner, the situation could have been avoided.
When working with someone with autism, it’s helpful to keep these tips in mind:
- Use concrete language whenever possible.
- Avoid slang.
- Recognize that the child might not understand the meaning of jokes.
- Rather than tell the child what to do, point out the multiple pieces of information that they need to determine what to do in a given situation.
- When a child with autism is escalating for no apparent reason, question them in an empathetic manner to try and figure out how they're interpreting the situation.
- Explain misunderstandings calmly and clearly.
- Practice social skills “in context” whenever possible.
What works for you? Please share in the comments!
Tracy Vail, MS, CCC/SLP, is a speech language pathologist, an autism consultant, and a CPI Certified Instructor. As president of Let's Talk Speech and Language Services
, she works with children on the autism spectrum in a variety of settings including public schools, private schools, and private practice. In addition to her clinical work with kids, Tracy travels around the US and worldwide providing training and consultations for parents, teachers, organizations, and school systems to increase their effectiveness in helping children with autism.