The Curious Autistic Brain
Updated: Nov 11, 2018
I've seen many people with Autism/Aspergers (or ASD) and I’ve never been more stumped, called-out, or tripped-up in all my years as a psychologist. It’s frustrating, delightful, challenging and invigorating, all at the same time.
What I’ve learned is this: to be helpful (which is a key component of my job description) I need to immerse myself into the workings of the Autistic brain. I need to make no presumptions based on what I’ve read in a text book. In fact, the best stuff I’ve learned about how the Autistic brain works comes from the hours I’ve spent working with people who actually have an Autistic brain, and them giving me an insight into how they see the world.
If you want to work with someone who has ASD you have to have moments of being non-teacher’y, non-parent’y, non-psychologist’y, and non-“let-me-tell-you-how-this-all-works”. It’s the bounce from those moments that allow you to step in and actually be helpful. You have to be willing to go into their world so as to guide them out to learn the rules and rumblings of yours. Oh, and you have to cope with being stumped, called-out and tripped up, it happens a lot.
A quick example…
A few years back I was working with a young adolescent boy on his social skills, in particular his ability to do perspective taking and have effective interactions with others. He started the session with a very detailed story about his current project of building a back yard hide-out. Correction- I had started the session with “how’s your week been?” and that question slammed us straight into an elaborate story for which he even grabbed my pad of paper to enhance with intricate drawings.
I asked questions and delighted with him in the puzzles of angles and design features of natural materials. He was excited, and it was a little contagious. Until it wasn’t, which for me was 6 long minutes later. Of course he was clueless to the fact that I didn’t care much for details on the exact way he had decided to plane the wood. Nonetheless, I let him continue and responded with interjections of “mm-hm” and “uh-huh”. Until he looked up and for the first time in that session spoke to me “Why are you making those noises? It’s annoying.”
“Oh, it’s just my way of showing you I’m listening.”
Pause. Is he considering now the purpose of my communication and learning what those noises mean?
“You're not showing, you're telling. You're using your voice, not actions.” Tripped up. He was right.
“And anyway, why do I need to know you are listening?”
Um. Stumped. He probably doesn’t, from his perspective. Except that in social interactions with others that’s what we do. In a social interaction story telling is two-way, the teller and listener interact with each other around the story. I reframed from answering with my wisdom and entering into an argument. I rarely win a debate with the ASD brain, and in this 50 minute session there wasn’t time. It wouldn’t have been helpful. I also reframed from launching into teacher’y mode (clearly he wasn’t in student mode).
He didn’t wait for my answer in any case, the allure of the fact he hadn’t finished telling about the doorway structure was too strong. So I sat silently as he continued. After a minute I moved slightly further away and started fiddling with my shoe, gradually facing my body completely away from him. After about another minute he stopped. I kept fiddling with my shoe.
“This feels weird now.”
I turned around to face him, “what’s weird?”
“I said this feels weird, not that something is weird.” Called-out. He was right.
“So, why does this feel weird?”
“I don’t know. You’re the feelings expert, I asked because you should know.”
“Actually you didn’t ask, you made a statement.”
He smiled, we’d been working on questions versus statements and so my pointing this out came as no surprise. He took my point and corrected (with gratitude even).
“Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. So, why did I feel weird all of a sudden?”
And I had my invitation to teach!
Twelve minutes into the session and I knew we are going to kick some goals. I had been with him in his world of wood, angles, design, and length of nails for a bit, and now he was in my world of social rules and other such curiosities.