A WAY TO THINK ABOUT AUTISM
The way we think about a problem determines how
we will approach and deal with it. For example, one day Jesus told
his disciples that rich people (whom the disciples assumed were
blessed by God) would have a very difficult time getting into Heaven
because of their love for wealth. The disciples could not understand
how anyone would overcome this problem and get to Heaven. Jesus
said to them, "With men this is impossible; but with God all
things are possible." Jesus changed their outlook with one
A more-local example: For most of us, a flat tire
would not be a trip-ending problem. We know we have a jack, a spare
tire, and the ability to change a tire or at least can get someone
else to change it. However, if we have never experienced anything
like a flat tire, or have no idea how to change a tire, or do not
have the jack or spare tire, or if we have no idea what is wrong
with the car, . . . our trip is over! Similarly, if we believe Autism
is an impossible-to-handle problem or that people with Autism cannot
learn, our "trip" is over as well. What we believe about
Autism and the people who have Autism will determine the approach
we use in teaching them.
a child is a person, not a 'behavior'
What we must believe about a person with Autism
is that he is a person first, not a "behavior." He is
a person with Autism, not an "autistic" person. I am not
saying this to be "politically correct". It just helps
me to see the person before I see the behavior. If I am dealing
with a behavior, I will work on getting rid of the behavior or changing
I will be less friendly and understanding with
a "behavior" than I would be to a "person" who
happens to be displaying a behavior. Do you see the distinction?
We need to see the personality of the individual with Autism as
separate from the Autism. We need to know that even if the Autism
could be magically removed, the personality of the person would
still be there, for better or for worse.
Years ago I trained caseworkers who worked with
parents who had abused their children. My message to them, as difficult
as it was to put into practice, was to "find something you
like about the parents." This message certainly applies to
those of us working with persons with Autism. Look beyond the behavior
to the personality, to the personal qualities, to the "soul"
of the person with Autism.
the autistic child as more normal than abnormal
We also need to understand that persons with Autism
are more normal than abnormal. The person with Autism has normal
feelings and reactions, but may have a very different way of expressing
those feelings and reactions. Many persons with Autism communicate
their emotions through their behavior.
The symptoms of Autism include behaviors that all of us engage in
at one time or another. The difference is one of quality, that is,
how often the behavior is performed, how long is the behavior engaged
in, and is the behavior performed to the exclusion of other behaviors?
The person with Autism tends to perform certain
behaviors that, in moderation, would be considered normal or typical.
The person with Autism may lack the ability to use cues around him
that tell him whether or not his behavior is socially acceptable.
The person with Autism may lack the ability or
interest to change his behavior to fit social expectations. For
example, when I was a kid, I was shy and had a hard time looking
people in the eye (one of the symptoms of Autism). As a teenager,
my first job was a pinsetter in a bowling alley. Since I never had
contact with people (only bowling pins and balls), I had no problems
with this habit. However, when I got my next job as a counter person
at McDonald’s, I had to force myself to look people in the eye.
The difference between myself and a person with
Autism (even though we had similar behaviors) is that I could use
the cues around me to correct the behavior. I also have a habit
of biting my cuticles, however, I can stop myself long enough to
complete this article; a person with Autism may prefer to bite his
cuticles (or other body surfaces) to the exclusion of anything else.
understanding the needs behind behaviors
Understanding the need behind the behaviors in
Autism can help us to teach other ways to meet those needs. For
example, a person who bites his hand for hours at a time may have
a need for oral or tactile stimulation. It may be that chewing gum
or a vigorous arm massage will meet this same need for sensory stimulation
but in a more socially acceptable way. Sometimes behaviors in Autism
are performed to the exclusion of other behaviors because the person
is not aware that he has a choice. Teaching other behavior options
(that still meet the basic need) gives the person more choices.
More choices mean more freedom.
The biggest "handicap" a person with
Autism may have is our assumption of what the person can and cannot
do! We need to raise our expectations for persons with Autism, not
lower them. Do not allow a person’s IQ score to determine what activities
you will present to the person (and thereby limit the person). Remember
how an IQ score is obtained. An IQ test requires social interaction
(strike one for a person with Autism), communication (strike two?),
and behavior that does not interfere with testing (oops, strike
three?). All persons with Autism can learn, but they may learn in
different ways. This belief helps me to look at what I am doing
to support the person’s learning, rather than just look at what
the person is or is not doing. When we say a person cannot learn,
we are actually saying that we cannot teach him!
A case in point: a child I worked with recently
was quite violent with me. He would bite, pinch, and hit me whenever
I tried to teach him anything. I began to doubt that I could ever
help him. However, finally (with God's help) I stumbled upon something
that was truly motivating for him, which I could use as a reinforcer
for his working. The end result was that he worked for a full twenty
minutes each session to earn the reinforcer without any aggression!
The young man's behavior was not the problem. My lack of knowledge
as to what was truly motivating for him was. That is not to say
that another person can be blamed for another person's bad behavior.
It merely says that behavior is a two-way street. The person has
a part to play (the behavior) as does the teacher or parent (the
a better teacher and trainer
Thinking about Autism in this way has helped me
to be a better teacher and trainer. It has helped me to look a little
deeper, to look at what I am doing to help or hurt the situation,
and to always have high expectations for those persons with Autism
I work with. It will not cure the Autism, but it may help to expand
the person's world even just a little bit. And that's a good place
to start. Now get out there and do some good!
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories
Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this
article. This personal story remains under his copyright and is
used with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as
it is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive