If we think about the brain of someone with autism like a city, the different parts of the brain are wired up just like the different suburbs of a city are connected by roads. At about two-years old we build a Geelong to Melbourne bypass, we’ve had lots of experience driving through the many different roads to get to Melbourne and now we just want a quick and easy route straight there. The brain actually culls the connections that it hasn’t needed. But someone with autism doesn’t build this bypass highway. The brain remains over-whelmed by connections.
So when they are in a situation where they have to make a quick decision, a whole city of complex roads stands between them and the answer. Which road should I take? I have hundreds of options! When they get older they usually acquire a GPS, they learn to cope a bit better and to know the better roads to take but it still takes time to plug the address into the GPS so they prefer to always take the same streets (routine is good!) So when a neurotypical is asked a question and fires off an answer very quickly they are using their Geelong bypass, when someone with autism takes longer to answer they are taking the back roads. This doesn’t mean they don’t know the answer, it is just harder to get to it and we need to leave them longer to answer or ask in a different way (visuals, role modelling, scripting).
Now I want you to take a second to remember a time when you came across a road block. A road you normally take is under construction and you need to take a detour but you don’t know this part of town well and you end up lost and getting later and later for your appointment. Some of the roads in the brain of someone with autism are under construction and their frustration arises from knowing the information is not getting through. They can build up the roads through early intervention and different teaching styles but it is harder work than usual. If you then change your facial expression or body language even slightly in response, they will have to add this new information into the system and will get more over-whelmed. Even a smile in encouragement when you see them struggling will create over-load in some individuals on the spectrum.
This explains why new concepts are difficult for people with autism, why they like routine, and how overloaded their brain is with sensory information. There are too many roads. And don’t we all like to travel the same road to work each day? So we need to introduce new things little by little, if we want to get to Melbourne we’d just go one road at a time, going one block further each week.
- Give me scripts for social situations and role play them with me.
- Wait three times longer for a response. Do not rush in and fill this void with more words, this will only confuse me more.
- Give me one instruction or one sentence at a time.
- Use the ABC model with pictures to explain why something happened (Friend took your toy-You felt angry-You hit your friend-Your friend got scared and upset-You got into trouble).
- Give opportunities to break routine in non-threatening ways so that I get practice and build up examples of when flexibility is not harmful, then I will be less likely to blow up when routine is changed without warning (this happens in life!)
See the next blog “Mummy why is it hard for me to talk to people?” in this series of Autism Awareness“Mummy, why does Harry do that?” Explaining autism to family members and friends.
Keep travelling down that road…you will get there,
Be aware and share! You never know whose life may change a little for the better if you do