Many approaches have been developed to help autistic children focus on their ‘impairments in social communication, and rigidity of thoughts and activities’. And it seems logical as that is what we see. However, can we rely on the analysis of these behaviours when we develop programmes to help people with autism?
Let us take a couple of examples;
A child (we’ll call him Nick) enters the room and touches the walls, furniture and objects; being offered a glass of juice, he ignores it while smelling the person who has approached him.
Or consider another situation.
You approach a young adult (let us call her Mary) with a cheerful ‘Hi, how are you?’ greeting but she looks out of the window, ignoring your attempt to communicate with her, not even acknowledging your presence in the room.
Do these individuals seem to have social and communication problems? Absolutely!
Do they need help? Of course, they do.
But if the main focus were on the development of social and communication skills, the outcome would be disastrous.
So how shall we analyse these behaviours?
Shall we count how many times Nick smells things and people, taps objects or touches furniture; and how many times Mary ignores you or other people, and then create sophisticated graphs, tables and statistical charts to explain them?
Or shall we find out why they do what they do? If we identified that Nick is blind and Mary is deaf, we would not need the statistics of their ‘bizarre behaviours’ in order to understand the problems (and their behaviours). We could explain their social and communication ‘impairments’ as consequences of Nick’s inability to see and Mary’s lack of hearing, and our approaches to help them would be different. In both cases, the main task is to understand what the problem is, adjust the environment to their needs and introduce the appropriate strategies to communicate with ‘socially and communicatively impaired’ individuals. Their conditions would suddenly become less disabling (Daria 2008).
For many decades it has been suggested (and now – at long last – in DSM-V, the ‘sensory symptoms’ are officially recognised as essential for the diagnosis of autism) that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) do have differences in sensory perception.
Everything we know about the world and ourselves has come through our senses. If one (or several) of the senses is lost (for instance, blindness or deafness), the other senses develop to compensate and create the balance. With autism the situation is very confusing. It is not that their senses work or do not work, it is that they work differently. What complicates the issue even more, is that these differences (and difficulties) are ‘invisible’ to outsiders (‘they are not blind, are they?’) and are very difficult to imagine by those who assume there is only one possible way to perceive the world (‘you either see or you don’t, there is nothing in-between’).
The real world and the perceived world (i.e. our mental image of the world) differ
Though we live in the same physical world and deal with the same ‘raw material’, differences in sensory functioning create invisible walls between autistic and non-autistic people. The metaphorical descriptions of children and adults with autism, such as ‘aliens’, ‘Martians’ become factual! They do live in a different world! The same stimuli look, sound, feel, smell differently for them. When we want to show our love and affection by hugging the child, he pulls away as the pain from the touch is unbearable. So what is our interpretation? – ‘He doesn’t love me.” We are often ‘deaf’ to the sounds our child cannot tolerate (e.g., sounds of fans working, kettle boiling). We are ‘blind’ to a 60-cycle flickering of fluorescent lights that makes the room to pulsate. Just because we are ‘deaf/blind/dumb, etc.’ to the stimuli our little ‘alien’ perceives with extreme acuteness, we describe his/her behaviours as bizarre, odd, inappropriate.
However, as the systems work differently their responses to sensory stimuli are ‘normal’ (from autistic point of view), though different and unconventional for us, living in a parallel world.
As these children literally live in a parallel (differently reconstructed) world and are misunderstood (= mistreated), they are likely to display behavioural problems, such as self-stimulation, self-injury, aggression, avoidance, rigidity, high anxiety, panic attacks, etc.
Likewise we never find it strange or bizarre if the blind child touches things to recognise them, we should not demand from a child whose sensory-perceptual problems are not straightforwardly visible to ‘behave himself’ and ‘stop mouthing and smelling objects’ (when he tries to recognise things).
We do not waste time and effort to teach visually impaired children to recognise colours. We see our task to help them function using compensatory strategies, and adjusting the environment to make it easier for them to orient in space. We accept and respect their disability that, if appropriately addressed, does not interfere with the quality of life.
Let us do the same for our autistic children and try to imagine what it is like to see through their eyes, to hear through their ears, etc. It is crucial to understand how the qualitative differences of sensory perception associated with autism affect each particular child.
Often it is not the treatment and the number of hours you work with your child, but in ‘what perceptual world’ you both are, i.e. whether you are in one and the same perceptual world or in two parallel ones. It is important for those who work and/or live with autistic individuals to be able to identify these differences/ difficulties and to understand how they might relate to the problems autistic children experience in learning and functioning. This will enable the provision of more effective programmes of education, treatment and support.
BUT (there is always a ‘but’) no two autistic children appear to have the exactly same patterns of sensory-perceptual experiences, and what will work for one is unlikely to work for the other.
Daria, T.O. Dasha’s Journal: A Cat Reflects on Life, Catness and Autism. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. [http://www.freewebs.com/dashasjournal/book.htm ]