A few weeks back I was working with a group of educators from Simon Fraser University who are completing a graduate diploma in Supporting Diverse Learners (SDL). I was explaining that we need to build a social ramp for our students with Autism, but that instead of building it with wood or steel, we need to build this ramp with social cognition strategies and our own modeling of acceptance and understanding.
Just telling a child/young adult that they should think this way – or respond like that – is certainly not enough. That they don’t understand some social rules or expectations (let alone the myriad of unspoken social rules) after perhaps being told hundreds of times, has at often resulted in these kids being labeled manipulative, overly dramatic, rude, inconsiderate, arrogant, or just plain troublesome.
Children on the Autism spectrum may not intuitively understand the perspective of others because they are challenged with reading nonverbal social information. This means they may be lacking the natural social ability to understand the thinking or perspective of others, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot learn this as a cognitive skill. They may not intuitively read the body language or nonverbal communication cues of others, but they can learn to use social cognitive strategies and make their way with interventions that teach these connections. They may never navigate the social world with intuitive ease, but given the opportunity and the strategies, they can learn to navigate it relatively successfully.
There was a time, years ago, when people with physical disabilities had to advocate for their rights to access within our able-centric world. There was a time when there were no parking spots, bathroom stalls or ramps for those with physical mobility challenges. Generally now our awareness at a society level for those with mobility difficulties has improved, and we would never accuse a child with a physical disability of being manipulative because they were unable to use the stairs. We wouldn’t tell them how, show them how, give them visuals of how to do it, and then accuse them of being drama queens, or attention-seeking if they were still unable to climb the stairs after being told and shown how repeatedly. Instead, we recognize the challenge and alter the environment and make accommodations to meet the needs of the individual: we build a ramp.
The challenge for us, all of us, is to get our own minds around how difficult it can be for a child on the autism spectrum to understand and navigate the social world. There is no easy answer of course, but we can use the tools that are being developed, like Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Behaviour Mapping strategy, or Carol Gray’s Cartoon Strip Conversations, or Kari Dunn Buron’s Incredible 5 Point Scale. The tools are there: the challenge for us is to use the tools that are available to build a social ramp for our students with invisible disabilities, and to understand and accept that they experience the world differently.
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)