Research-Based Approaches to Autistic Ways of Learning

Hello! I’m Karla McLaren, and in 2014 I completed my master’s degree in education and curriculum design (with a concentration in linguistic anthropology) at Sonoma State University in California. I focused on research-based suggestions for working with autistic children and adults in ways that support their neurology and their unique learning styles. *See this note about the identity-first language I use here.

In my research, I found some specific suggestions and asked for input from autistic people (and from parents, teachers, or aides who have worked with autistic children in these ways) about these suggestions.

As you may know, most autism research literature focuses on autism as a medical problem, as a deficit, as a lack, and as a loss; however, a small but growing group of researchers is questioning this deficit focus and instead asking about autism in more humane and creative ways.

In fields such as anthropology and sociology, there is a long tradition of studying the ways that we are taught to appear normal, and the endless ways that we exclude people who cannot or will not appear normal. Disabled people, people of color, and sexual/gender minorities live with this exclusion every day, and there is a rich tradition of research that has helped us become deeply aware of the ways that enforcing simplistic ideas of normalcy can injure people.

I’ve been studying autism in this tradition and have discovered specific, research-based approaches to autistic ways of learning and autistic forms of socialization that could humanize and improve education for autistic children and adults. My research is focused on gathering and presenting these autism-positive approaches to the larger community, but first I want to get direct input from the people who understand autism best: Autistic people themselves.

Your input is invaluable, and I thank you in advance for your time and attention.

Please leave comments and questions here. This is a safe space for autistic people and their families, and comments will respect the dignity, autonomy, and self-determination of autistic people.

Thank you!

Introduction

A great deal of autism education and intervention involves “normalizing” autistic children so that their behavior more closely matches the behavior and developmental timelines of neurologically typical (neurotypical) children. This might be supportive if autism were a series of intentional behaviors that were under the conscious control of autistic people, but in practice, these normalizing approaches tend to be suppressive to autistic ways of being and learning.

In 2011, Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Laurent Mottron noted that

“Most educational programmes for autistic toddlers aim to suppress autistic behaviors, and to make children follow a typical developmental trajectory. None is grounded in the unique way autistics learn.”

Linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs, Olga Solomon, and their colleagues performed a decade of research into the ways that autistic children learn. Over the course of several years and several studies, Ochs and her colleagues focused on the social and linguistic lives of autistic children, and discovered what Ochs and Solomon call “an algorithm for autistic sociality.”

This algorithm, based upon extensive observations of the everyday lives of autistic children, is grounded in the linguistic anthropological concept that “each speech community is distinguished by a communicative repertoire … [and] repertoires of social coordination” (Ochs & Solomon, 2010, p. 72). These repertoires are a collection of shared behaviors that people rely upon, often without realizing it, to create “normal” life with each other.

In their research, Ochs, Solomon, and their colleagues focused upon the conditions that facilitate social coordination for autistic children, and those that are poorly designed for the needs of the children.

For instance, enforcing eye contact, focusing on speech over other forms of communication, and using high intensity baby talk (see below) – each of which may work for (hearing) neurotypical children, may not work at all for autistic children.

The work of Eleanor Ochs, her colleagues, and other researchers suggests that the ways we interact with typically developing children may be very poorly designed for interacting with autistic children. They make these specific suggestions, which may be more comfortable and workable for autistic children and other children with sensory sensitivities.

Here are the suggestions for parents, teachers, and clinicians, which I’ll explain below:

  • Use the family’s own language in the home.
  • Welcome the child’s focus on objective knowledge, if that is the child’s area of interest.
  • Do not waste time enforcing eye contact or face-to-face alignment if the child doesn’t enjoy it; eye contact is not necessary, and may actually impede learning and thinking.
  • Learn how to focus on things that are interesting to the child, and join in on his or her interests. Do not try to enforce your interests on the child.
  • Learn how to teach, interact, and share teaching materials and items of interest in a side-by-side or oblique orientation (see below).
  • Welcome alternate forms of communication rather than focusing on speech. Use visual communication, writing, pointing, music, computers, tablets, etc.
  • Speak at a normal speed and manage your pitch, your volume, and your emotional intensity. Make your communication clear and calming instead of stretched out and baby-ish.

This algorithm suggests that enforcing neurotypical behaviors and neurotypical developmental timelines onto autistic bodies may actually interfere with autistic children’s development, their acquisition of language, their social skills, and their sense of belonging in the world.

Each aspect of this algorithm is described on this page. Some of these descriptions are lengthy because I want you to have the background you need to understand each of these aspects, especially if you want to try them, or if you’re using them already and need some research-based support. As you know, each person is an individual, and these suggestions may not work for everyone. However, they’re an interesting place to start.

An Algorithm for Autistic Sociality

 

Domain Parameters

Conditions Promoting Social Coordination

Language Child’s first language with family members
Topic Objective knowledge
Bodily Alignment Non-face-to-face interaction
Mediation Artifacts and/or animals to mediate interaction
Communicative Medium Writing, pointing, music, computers
Emotional Intensity Restrained emotion displays, fewer pitch changes
Tempo Moderate to rapid speech

(From Ochs & Solomon, 2010, pg. 87)

The Language Domain

Many clinicians promote English-only instruction for autistic children, and they recommend that families interact with their language-delayed autistic children solely in English, regardless of the families’ home languages or their skill with English. It was once thought that bilingualism was too hard for children with language difficulties or delays, but studies in linguistics have not supported this idea (see Pearson 1993, and Pettito 2001, below).

Ochs and Solomon observed many bilingual autistic children whose families ignored the instruction to use only English in the home, and found that bilingualism was quite achievable for these children, and preferable to artificially restricting their families’ own language. They write: “Moreover, given that the family is the primary institution for nurturing social and emotional bonds, the importance of the mother tongue and default language of the home for promoting autistic sociality cannot be overstated.”

The Topic Domain

Ochs and Solomon observed numerous instances in which autistic children were drawn to learning about and discussing objective knowledge concerning things such as sequences, numbers, sets of objects, schedules, and mathematical puzzles (etc.). For these children, conversations that focused on emotions or subjective states (or conversations that referred to subjective or emotional states) were often confusing, and tended to reduce their enjoyment and engagement in social interactions.

The DSM-V (2013) describes this focus on objective topics as a central aspect of autistic social impairment:

“Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions” (DSM-V, section A1).

However, Ochs and her colleagues challenge this failure frame, and suggest that focusing on topics that interest children results in longer dialogues, more socialization, and greater social ease. Focusing on topics that aren’t interesting to autistic children (or any children!), or directing them into conversational situations that confuse them unnecessarily interferes with their social development.

Many parents of autistic children disregard the advice of educators and clinicians who tell them to limit their children’s special interest topics (which are negatively framed as “perseverations”), or to allow these interests only as rewards, and only for restricted spans of time – since these special interests are framed as deficits in the DSM-V:

“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest)” (DSM-V, section B3).

However, an increasing number of parents are creating child-focused areas of social coordination by using their children’s special interests (in trains, numbers, cars, movie dialogue, chemistry, elevators, bus schedules, etc.) to engage with them, learn about their interests, and teach them subjects such as math, writing, art, computer skills, conversational skills, and so forth.

Engaging with topics that are of intense interest to autistic children (or any children) provides a foundation for parents, teachers, and clinicians to engage with their innate conversational and social skills.

The Bodily Alignment Domain

The DSM-V lists reduced eye contact as a feature of autism:

“…abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures” (DSM-V, section A2).

Cover of John Elder Robison's book Look Me In the EyeHowever, Ochs and Solomon challenge the assumption that eye contact and face-to-face alignment are requirements for social engagement for autistic children. Face-to-face alignment is the rule in schools and clinics, but Ochs and Solomon note that many (but not all) autistic children tend to avoid face-to-face orientation and that enforcing it is time-consuming and inefficient, and can easily lead to sensory overload and avoidance on the part of the children.

Even so, there is an intense focus on enforcing eye contact in autistic children and adults; this enforcement occurs in clinical and school settings, certainly, but it is also a specific feature of social skills training, IBI (Intensive Behavioral Intervention) and ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) training, and numerous computer programs and apps such as Look in My Eyes and Eye Contact.

Many autistic children and adults report that eye contact is uncomfortable and over-stimulating for them, but these self-reports tend to be ignored in favor of enforcing neurotypical eye contact behaviors onto autistic bodies.

Questioning the role of face-to-face eye contact

Developmental researchers Nameera Akhtar and Morton Ann Gernsbacher (2008) question the role of eye contact and face-to-face orientation. They note that when typically developing infants “are over-aroused (manifested by heart rate accelerations), they actively avert their gaze from their caregivers,” which helps them lower their heart rates and calm down.

Akhtar and Gernsbacher suggest that gaze aversion (looking away) in autistic people could be a self-regulation behavior, and that while looking away, autistic children could be using sensory, vocal, and body language cues (instead of facial expressions) to access social information.

Akhtar and Gernsbacher point out that in everyday interactions, “changes in gaze direction are almost always accompanied by changes in body posture, head orientation, and voice direction,” and all of these bodily cues point to the same item or situation. Eyes and faces are important, but they’re certainly not the only way we provide social information to each other.

Anthropologists Frederick Erickson and Jeffrey Schultz (1997) add that changes in rhythms and body motions, changes in gaze direction, and changes in facial expression seem to combine to create a kind of fail-safe mechanism to help people understand each other. Elise Barbeau and her colleagues (2013) also found that autistic children tend to be able to take in visual information very quickly, with what they call “fast information capture,” and that the children can easily do this with peripheral (sideways) gazes.

This may mean, as Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues (2008) suggest, that the combination of fast visual capacity and a talent for accurate peripheral vision means that many autistic infants and children can pay attention without having to be in a face-to face alignment.

Simply put, many autistic children (and adults) don’t need to be in face-to-face or eye-to-eye contact to pick up important visual and social information. These people can accurately pick up important information when they’re beside someone; therefore, teaching from a side-by-side position (instead of enforcing face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact) could actually help autistic children learn more quickly and more comfortably.

Three British researchers approached this eye contact situation in a very clever way

The question of what actually constitutes neurotypical eye contact behaviors has been challenged by British researchers Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Deborah Riby, and Lisa Whittle (2012), who propose that gaze aversion (looking away), and specifically gaze aversion from faces is a “cognitive load management strategy,” or a way to manage the amount of information your brain is taking in.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues report that “enforcing extended face contact in typically developing children can produce very significant “cognitive interference effects” that slow down children’s ability to process information. These researchers and others have found that training children (and adults) to look away from faces during thinking improves the children’s concentration and their performance on tasks.

Gaze aversion (looking away from faces) is a very important thinking strategy used by people of every neurology.

To test this idea in autistic children, Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues gave a series of verbal math tests to three seemingly very different groups of children: autistic children, neurotypical children, and children with Williams syndrome, which is a rare neuro-developmental condition in which children are uniquely hyper-social, hyper-friendly, and tend to enjoy intense and extended eye contact.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues proposed that, regardless of the difficulty of the math questions, the Williams children would have problems disengaging from eye contact, that the autistic children would have problems engaging in eye contact, and that children from both of these groups would not be able to manage their eye contact as well as neurotypical children did in different parts of the test (listening, thinking, and answering), because they assumed that the autistic and Williams children had poor control of their attention.

What they found, however, was that gaze aversion was similar across all three of the groups, and that autistic and Williams children were very able to manage their eye contact behaviors in different phases of the test.

Surprisingly, Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues found that the autistic children did not look away from faces more often than the neurotypical children did; however, they did look away more often during listening tasks than neurotypical children did, and they looked away less often during thinking tasks.

The total amount of eye contact was similar in the autistic, Williams, and neurotypical children, and the act of looking away from faces was used similarly, and more often, by all three groups when the math questions were more difficult (this tends to confirm the idea that gaze aversion is a cognitive load management strategy for all three groups).

However, the autistic children looked away from faces more often during the listening portion of the test (when the math questions were being given to them verbally), which is the time when neurotypical people expect (and demand) eye contact – while they actually made greater amounts of eye contact than the Williams or neurotypical children did during the thinking portion of the test (when they were figuring out the math in their head), which is where neurotypicals tend to expect reduced eye contact.

The autistic children’s aversion to eye contact was not higher overall; instead, it was backward to what neurotypical people expect. The autistic children tended to look away when listening, and to make eye contact when answering, but overall, they were making eye contact as often as neurotypical (and Williams) children did.

This result tends to challenge the idea that autistic children avoid eye contact due to hyper-arousal or social aversion: “If their GA [gaze aversion] was driven by hyper-arousal or aversion to social stimuli, we would expect elevated levels of GA across all phases of the interaction – not the pattern observed” (Doherty-Sneddon et al, 2012, p. 428).

In a second study from that same year, Riby, Doherty-Sneddon, and Whittle (2012) created a similar study for different groups of neurotypical, autistic, and Williams children in order to test a series of ideas about why autistic children look away during listening tasks more often than neurotypical or Williams children do.

In this study, Riby and her colleagues asked the children to maintain eye contact during all phases of the verbal math tests, and they found that enforcing eye contact reliably derailed the ability to listen, think, or do math calculations for children in all of the groups.

This is something that other researchers have found with (neurotypical) adults: When people are forced to look into someone else’s eyes, their ability to think and process information is severely obstructed. Riby and her colleagues suggest that “Averting gaze may be as important functionally for processing information as holding mutual gaze is.”

Faces themselves were also singled out for their unique ability to confuse neurotypical people and slow down their thinking:

“in typical development there were significant and consistent interference effects associated with looking at faces over and above any dual-task effects. This was the case even when compared to interference associated with looking at moving visuo-spatial patterns” (Riby et al, 2012, p. 289).

In this second study, the children in each group were given verbal math tests in two conditions. In one condition, the children were asked to maintain eye contact constantly, and in the other, the children weren’t given any instructions about eye contact (they were able to look away whenever they liked).

The researchers found that children from all three groups answered more accurately when they were allowed to look away at will, that accuracy was equally derailed in the enforced eye contact trials for all three groups, and that we “should expect that the requirement to look at a face will cause a detriment to cognition” in autistic, Williams, and neurotypical children.

This study again challenged the idea that autistic people look away from faces because they are socially avoiding people. Instead, Riby and her colleagues suggested that the autistic children either simply didn’t recognize the significance of facial cues during listening tasks, or that they “need to begin their computations earlier than typically developing individuals … and thus begin to avert their gaze earlier in the process.”

This idea ties in with information from autistic people and their families about sensory hypo- and hyper-sensitivities and sensory integration issues; it could be that, for autistic children, the act of listening or taking in information requires more cognitive energy and more gaze aversion than it does for neurotypical children, while the acts of thinking and answering require less cognitive energy, so that autistic children are more able to make eye contact during those times.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues from the first study point out that demanding eye contact from autistic children could be precisely the wrong idea:

“Asking for eye contact … is only likely to interfere with concentration, working out a problem, or retrieving information from memory…. [and] The implications for social skills training are huge” (Doherty-Sneddon et al, 2012, p. 429).

Enforced eye contact slows down everyone of every neurology; it makes thinking, concentrating, and remembering much harder, and it is very possible that it will actually hinder the development of autistic children who use gaze aversion as a cognitive management strategy, because it will make social interaction uncomfortable, reduce their ability to learn, and frustrate them for no good reason.

Elinor Ochs and Olga Solomon would agree, and they suggest instead that:

“…non-face-to-face alignments may optimize opportunities for social coordination … in ways that face-to-face interaction does not. As such, non-face-to-face interaction is an important condition in the algorithm for autistic sociality. Non-face-to-face interaction includes a broad range of possibilities, including, for instance, side-by-side and oblique orientation, as well as interaction that transpires out of sight at a distance, for example though writing” (Ochs and Solomon, 2010, p. 81).

Photo of a rectangular white table with different colored place settings. No one is sitting at the table.Side-by-side orientation is pretty easy to describe: You simply sit next to each other (for instance, on a couch) instead of facing each other.

Oblique orientation needs a graphic description: In this photo of a white rectangular table with different colored place settings, imagine that you are sitting in the chair in front of the green bowl (the chair on the left side of the photo). If I sit in the chair in front of the orange bowl (the chair at the front of the photo), I will be sitting in an oblique orientation to you. When we are sitting obliquely, we can see each other peripherally and share focus on something like a piece of paper or a tablet, but we aren’t face-to-face.

The Mediation Domain

Mediation refers to something that people focus on together; for instance, when we watch TV together, the TV is the mediator for us, and when we play jump rope, the rope is our mediator. Ochs and Solomon suggest using physical objects such as computers, tablets, books, or paper and pens in a school or clinical environment, as the focus for joint attention and social interaction.

Along with side-by-side or oblique orientation, this mediated focus allows autistic children to pay attention to interesting things with others while they focus peripherally (and perhaps with fast lateral glances) on faces, eyes, and other bodily social cues “without the overwhelming visual stimuli” and cognitive interference that faces contain.

In a study of the autistic self-advocacy movement, Nancy Bagatell (2010) found, quite by accident, that jointly focusing on a laptop screen with a previously withdrawn autistic man freed him up to share a long, emotionally complex, and meaningful story with her. She also found that, for many of the autistic advocates she studied, nearness to others, but not face-to-face or direct contact, was a preferred form of socialization.

Bagatell writes of her surprise in learning that one seemingly disengaged young woman at a neurodiversity-focused support group for autistic teens and adults reported that she had enjoyed the chance to socialize with others. The young woman said, “We don’t have to talk. We can just share energy to be social.”

Researcher Karen Sirota Gainer (2004) also notes that activities involving joint attention, where people collaborate on a shared focus of interest (such as a book, a screen, or a science experiment) can support autistic children’s development of language and social skills. Ochs and Solomon also report that using specially trained support animals as mediators created enjoyable interactions with other children, family members, and the dogs’ trainers for extended periods of time.

Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues (2008) studied the ways that autistic babies and children learn to pay attention to people or objects, and found that visual and motor dyspraxias (delays or difficulties with vision and movement) were a part of autistic children’s atypical eye contact and atypical shared attention tendencies.

These researchers suggest that rather than pulling autistic children’s attention away from things that interest and fascinate them, we should share their focus and rely upon those interesting objects as mediators of language development, social interaction, engagement, and fun.

The Communicative Medium Domain

Ochs and Solomon note that “Although speech is the primary medium of human sociality for the neurotypical population, it is not necessarily the optimal medium” for minimally verbal or nonspeaking autistic children, for whom most intensive clinical interventions focus on speech as an endpoint of communicative skill.

Instead, Ochs and Solomon suggest media that do not require speech, such as music, pointing to letter boards or tablets, or non-face-to-face communications such as writing and computers. In a study of an East Indian educator, Soma Mukhopadhyay, who has become well-known for her success in teaching nonspeaking children to communicate with letter boards, Ochs and Solomon observed nonspeaking children’s success in learning language.

In their decade of research, Ochs and Solomon observed numerous nonspeaking autistic children who communicated very successfully by pointing at letter boards or tablets, at levels that were never achieved when speech was the main goal.

Some writers and researchers (Blume, 1997 & 1998; Grinker, 2010; Bagatell, 2010) have focused on the computer as a particularly valuable medium that supports autistic sociality. The Internet has provided a supportive environment where autistic people have collaboratively created an international community and a cultural touchstone. As Ben, a young autistic man interviewed by researcher Nancy Bagatell (2010) says about computers: “It’s the autistic way of communicating.”

In a study of language style-matching as a predictor of group cohesiveness, researchers Amy Gonzalez, Jeffrey Hancock, and James Pennebaker (2010) write about mimicry as a fundamental social behavior that can predict kinship and empathy and facilitate language comprehension. Gonzalez and her colleagues found that language synchronization, mimicry, and social cohesion all occur in online social groups, and that “there is more to mimicry than synchronization based on physical rhythms” and proximity; it is very possible to empathize and communicate at a distance through letters or computers.

In my three years of participant-observation in the international online autism community, I have witnessed consistently strong synchronization, style matching, social cohesion, and a communal love of jokes and games based on mimicry, kinship, empathy, and group affiliation; the autistic community is an intensely social and empathetic online community.

There are also indications from the research that focusing on the often unconventional communication strategies of nonspeaking autistic children can be a doorway to engagement. In one study (Gernsbacher & Pripas-Kapit, 2012), a young autistic boy answered a math problem (in which the correct answer was six) by offering to draw a hexagram; his answer was correct, but it was rendered in a visual rather than linguistic manner.

In another study, (Emerson & Dearden, 2013), a nonspeaking autistic boy asks to go to the zoo by placing his thumb over the final digit in the year 2009, and approximating the spelling of “zoo” with the symbols available to him. Without the framework of an algorithm of autistic sociality, these communication strategies might be dismissed as mistakes rather than being treated as uniquely ingenious and valid ways of communicating through different kinds of communicative media.

The Emotional Intensity and Tempo Domains

In these two final and connected domains, Ochs and Solomon focus on the problematic features of the baby talk register, which is a highly emotive, sing-songy, and slowed down version of talk used in adult-child (and often human-animal) communication in the U.S. and some other countries.

Ochs and Solomon observed that baby talk pervaded the language of the autism-focused speech therapists they studied, for whom the musicalized and exaggerated stretching out of syllables is a way to model each of the sounds that compose words.

The features of baby talk are thought to simplify communication and create emotional bonds with babies and young children, but Ochs and Solomon warn that a combination of intense emotion displays, pitch changes, and slowed down words “may prove to have the opposite effect for children with autism. These characteristic features in tandem may conflict with autistic impairments in sensory processing and attention.”

Nancy Bagatell (2010) notes that many autistic people report sensory processing differences that include oversensitivity as well as reduced sensitivities, and medical researchers Grace Baranek and her colleagues (2006) reported that “approximately 70 percent of people with autism experience sensory-perceptual differences” which include heightened hearing and hypersensitivity or confusion when too many inputs occur at the same time.

Baby talk register, which is an intense register with frequent changes in volume, speed, pitch, and emotion displays, may be specifically poorly designed for autistic children:

“Family members, and therapists tirelessly work to find the door to autistic sociality, but the door may be obscured by their abiding reliance on heightened emotion coupled with slow speech [baby talk] as the path to orderly social coordination” (Ochs & Solomon, 2010, p. 85).

Ochs and Solomon note that educator Soma Mukhopadhyay, who does not use baby talk, uses a brisk, rhythmic, calm, emotion-, pitch-, and volume-moderated approach (coupled with her side-by-side orientation and mediated shared focus on letter boards or tablets) that “may have the effect of drawing the children into active and orderly social engagement.”

In this and the other domains of autistic sociality, focusing on the communicative strengths, interests, and sensory preferences of autistic children supports them in all areas of engagement, communication, language skills, and sociality.

Conclusion

Neuroscientist Laurent Mottron suggests that many “people with autism need opportunities and support more than they need treatment,” while anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker suggests that neurotypical society “often lacks something – a theory of sociality that can encompass a wide range of human social differences.”

The matrix of autistic sociality treats autistic people as valid people who have valid ways of thinking, communicating, and being social. As a reminder:

  • Use the family’s own language in the home.
  • Welcome the child’s focus on objective knowledge, if that is the child’s area of interest.
  • Do not waste time enforcing eye contact or face-to-face alignment if the child doesn’t enjoy it; eye contact is not necessary, and may actually impede learning and thinking.
  • Learn how to focus on things that are interesting to the child, and join in on his or her interests. Do not try to enforce your interests on the child.
  • Learn how to teach, interact, and share teaching materials and items of interest in a side-by-side or oblique alignment.
  • Welcome alternate forms of communication rather than focusing on speech. Use visual communication, writing, pointing, music, computers, tablets, etc.
  • Speak at a normal speed and manage your pitch, your volume, and your emotional intensity. Make your communication clear and calming instead of stretched out and baby-ish.

A small but growing number of multidisciplinary researchers are challenging the autistic stereotype and finding, in many cases, that our knowledge of autism has been built upon unsupportable ideas about normality, intelligence, sociality, eye contact, empathy, language development, child development, and communication.

Much of this new, autism-positive research suggests that approaching autism in terms of valid human behaviors instead of medicalized deficits can significantly improve the lives of autistic people and their families.

This culturally sensitive focus on autistic strengths and preferences is more supportive to the child, and also more supportive to parents, families, teachers, and therapists, considering how much time and energy it takes to try to extinguish natural and necessary autistic ways of being.

Do you have any experience with these aspects of the matrix? If you try them with your autistic students or children, do you notice a difference? Please leave comments and questions below, and thank you for respecting the dignity, autonomy, and self-determination of autistic people.

Thank you!


References
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Gernsbacher, M., & Pripas-Kapit, S. R. (2012). Who’s Missing the Point? A Commentary on Claims that Autistic Persons Have a Specific Deficit in Figurative Language Comprehension. Metaphor & Symbol, 27(1), 93-105.

Gonzales, A. L., Hancock, J. T., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). Language Style Matching as a Predictor of Social Dynamics in Small Groups. Communication Research, 37(1), 3-19.

Grinker, R. R. (2010). Commentary: On Being Autistic, and Social. Ethos, 38(1), 172-178.

Mottron, L. (2011). Changing Perceptions: The Power of Autism. Nature, 479, 33-35.

Ochs, E., Kremer-Sadlik, T., Solomon, O., & Sirota, K. (2001). Inclusion as Social Practice: Views of Children with Autism. Social Development, 10(3), 399-419.

Ochs, E., Kremer-Sadlik, T., Sirota, K., & Solomon, O. (2004). Autism and the social world: an anthropological perspective. Discourse Studies, 6(2), 147-183.

Ochs, E. & Solomon, O. (2010). Autistic Sociality. Ethos, 38(1), 69-92.

Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, S. C., & Oller, D. K. (1993). Lexical development in bilingual infants and toddlers: Comparison to monolingual norms. Language learning, 43(1), 93-120.

Petitto, L. A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B. G., Gauna, K., Tétreault, K., & Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: Implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 28(2), 453-496.

Riby, D. M., Doherty-Sneddon, G., & Whittle, L. (2012). Face-to-face interference in typical and atypical development. Developmental Science, 15(2), 281-291.

Robison, J. E. (2007). Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. New York, NY: Crown.

Sinclair, J. (2009). Why I dislike “person first” language. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20080616063934/http://web.syr.edu/~jisincla/person_first.htm

Sirota, K. G. (2004). Positive Politeness as Discourse Process: Politeness Practices of High-Functioning Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Discourse Studies 6(2), 229-251.

Sirota, K. G. (2010). Narratives of Distinction: Personal Life Narrative as a Technology of the Self in the Everyday Lives and Relational Worlds of Children with Autism. Ethos, 38(1), 93-115.

Solomon, O. (2010). Sense and the senses: Anthropology and the study of autism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 241-259.

Solomon, O., & Bagatell, N. (2010). Introduction: Autism: Rethinking the Possibilities. Ethos, 38(1), 1-7.

Solomon, O., & Lawlor, M. C. (2013). “And I look down and he is gone”: Narrating autism, elopement and wandering in Los Angeles. Social Science & Medicine, 94, 106-114.

*A note about identity-first language: In my academic work, I use identity-first language (autistic child) instead of person-first language (child with autism). Person-first language is an attempt to foreground the person first, and to add the disability as an appendage, i.e., “person with learning disabilities.”

Though often well meaning, person-first language is a tactic that actually tends to underscore rather than sanitize problematic conditions. For instance, we would not say “man with handsomeness,” “woman with French ancestry,” or “person who is funny;” person-first language tends to be used only when the condition referred to is temporary, feared, or undesirable. Identity-first language challenges the idea that disabilities are something to hide, fear, or be ashamed of.

As Ellen Brantlinger (2009) writes, person-first language “is meant to convey respect for those labeled; however, harmful naming and sorting practices continue regardless of new and improved classifications” (p. 407).

Person-first language has also been very controversial in disability rights circles, and is not the accepted terminology for many disabled people themselves, especially for many members of the blind, deaf, and autistic communities. In these communities, disability-positive and identity-first language is often preferred, i.e. blind person, Deaf person, and autistic person, or simply, autistic (see Bagatell, 2010; Brown, 2011; Cohen-Rottenberg, 2012, and Sinclair, 2009).

Personal note: Though I use identity-first language for myself and in my academic work, if you and I were together and you requested different terminology, I would certainly use whatever terminology you preferred.

54 Comments

Catherine Woods August 8, 2014 at 12:13 am

Thank you so much for sharing these research-based approaches to autistic learning. So empowering! I love the conclusion’s bullet points, especially the first one about using the family’s natural language in the home. Plus I notice in my own interactions with people, the side-by-side, oblique alignment really helps me handle the sensory input of sitting near someone. I also feel both relieved and validated to know that my tendency to make eye contact when thinking is something many on the spectrum do. And it is true that when I listen, avoiding eye contact makes it easier for me to take in whatever sounds I hear, including talking. Again, both a relief and a validation to know! Thanks again, Karla, for all your good work and for your ongoing respect for connecting with people “the way they come.”

Karla August 8, 2014 at 11:57 am

Catherine, thanks for your input, and I’m glad these suggestions feel supportive for you. As I was reading your comment, I was reminded of something I teach people when they lose their bond — which is to be quiet, sit face to face, and look into each other’s eyes without speaking. It really clears away the nonsense conflicts, and reminds people why they care about each other. However, people almost always cry because it’s so intensely emotive and disarming. Looking directly into another’s eyes is an incredibly vulnerable thing, and for people who are already hypersensitive, it can simply be too much.

I love the research that says to teachers and parents: “Learn how to be with this sensitive child and how to support his or her neurology; don’t try to enforce your will or change the child; instead, create world that is welcoming and appropriate.” We understand how to do this with deaf children, blind children, children in wheelchairs, and so forth — but because autism involves social issues, people continually approach autistic ways of being as if they are intentional character flaws that need to be trained out of children (and adults). In many ways, autism eduction is in the Dark Ages, and I’m so glad to have found research that challenges the prejudice and casual dehumanization that underlies so much of autism education and treatment. Thanks for your input.

Now I have to watch myself and see if I make eye contact during listening tasks, because I already know that I make a lot of eye contact during thinking and answering. Hmmmmm.

Diane Hunter August 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Karla,

I am so grateful you are focusing your energy on exploring different ways to be in relationship and support individuals with autism. As a mother of a 12-year-old young man who does not yet use verbal language to communicate, I’ve been exploring his world for 12 years now and he’s taught me so much about what is communicated beyond words.

Regarding your matrix, I support and implement them all.

We don’t use baby talk and “sing-song” language. We speak with normal pacing and keep our sentences clear with space between sentences to give him time to show his understanding. If I make a request it may take his body 30 seconds to a minute to respond when it takes my 9 year old 2 seconds. When we give him this space it creates trust in the relationship and he is leading his experience, we are not making him do something against his rhythm.

Whatever his interests are, we join him in that exploration. He loves toys that make sounds and shaking water bottles, listening to music and we sing to him all the time. He loves watching birds fly in patterns so we take lots of walks in nature and find the birds, read books on birds and watch shows about birds. These are just a few examples.

I find this builds trust in our relationship and then he’s more interested in following me when I introduce something new. The result is he’s very comfortable with transition and follows our requests and does not have any tantrum behaviors anymore. The foundation of our relationship is trust.

Much of our time playing and reading is side-by-side or with space between us, like sitting on a couch opposite with several feet between us. He engages in eye contact when he wants and there is no making him look at us. Eye gazing is viewed as another part of communication and relationship-building.

We use pictures and letters and pointing. We’ve tried computers and tablets but it hasn’t synchronized yet. Will continue to try.

I see his behaviors as a way of communicating. We do not shut them down or try to change them. We observe, listen and consider what me may be expressing.

He’s much more engaged when the pressure of eye contact is not being added to the relationship. We all join him in his world through movement to build trust then add challenges when the relationship is established and he’s giving us a clear yes that he feels safe to explore a new process, experience, or concept. His neurology is very different from a neurotypical individual.

I consider my son my greatest teacher and he touches so many lives being who he is. Thank you for the work you share with the world.

Deeply grateful,
Diane

Karla August 16, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Thank you so much Diane! I’m finding as I share this matrix that many parents discover these approaches on their own, because they simply make things easier and more conducive to communication, connection, and ease. Thanks for sharing!

Chandra August 12, 2014 at 3:12 pm

I am excited that you have taken on this subject for your thesis Karla. I know you will propel the much needed change of our perception of Autism.

I have worked in Childcare for some years now and have observed several autistic children from infants to adults. They are often accompanied by a one-on-one worker, and nine times out of ten these workers seem to isolate and burn-out both the children and themselves rather than support inclusion into school and afterschool care programs. These kids did need a proximal adult at all times but really no more than most kids- until there was a conflict of social expectation (ie. sitting quietly during a movie, or participating in a game of tag, transitioning to and from rooms). These activities require the influence of a group or teacher to change the object of focus.

This is where I found most autistic children struggled. Singing songs worked for some, while making exceptions to routine helped others. Attempting to direct them by commands without first gathering their interests failed every time.

I’m looking forward to understanding more about these wonderfully gifted children in your articles!
Much love!

Karla August 13, 2014 at 11:49 am

Hello Chandra, and thanks for commenting.

I notice that the classroom situations you talk about focus on commanding the children to change what they were doing. Have you worked in any situations where the suggestions from the matrix were used?

Have you worked in classrooms where the teachers and aides learned how to focus on the child’s area of interest instead of always trying to change their focus? Thanks!

Chandra August 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Hello Karla,
Yes, once. We had an autistic boy in our program that did not have a one on one worker due to lack of funds. My supervisor allowed and encouraged him to do what interested him- with the exception of his Ipod which he was limited to use 30mins before pickup. He was content throughout the schoolyear. Never had an issue once!

Jana August 13, 2014 at 4:03 pm

I couldn’t thank you enough for posting this. I’ve been immersed lately in the autistic community in hopes of trying to understand their way of viewing things, rather than the medical and behavioral model that was imposed on us. Although very enlightening, I really hoped to see some research to back up their ideas, especially when explaining them to people. yours was the first research I see, thank you again!!!!

Karla August 16, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Thank you Jana! I was really excited to find this research, because so much of autism research treats autism as a disease to be eradicated and a set of behaviors that are unacceptable. I was looking for research from people who could think more deeply and empathically than that, and voila!

Judy Blake August 17, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Hi Karla –

Great information for your thesis! We need more people like you! If I can ever be of any help – please let me know. I have two sons on the spectrum and have helped researchers for years. The more we know, the more we all learn. I wish you the best of luck and again, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything.

Sincerely,
Judy Blake

Karla August 17, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Thank you Judy! A question: do you have any input on the different parts of the matrix? I’m finding that many parents are figuring out pieces of the matrix on their own, and it’s interesting — because I don’t think any aspects of the matrix are used in many of the more well-known early childhood interventions. Have your sons experienced autism-positive teaching approaches?

A call for input from the autism community - Karla McLaren August 18, 2014 at 12:38 pm

[…] I’m currently writing my master’s thesis in education, focusing on research-based suggestions for working with autistic children and adults in ways that support their neurology and their unique learning styles (note: I use identity-first language in my work; this approach is explained on the research page). […]

ssbluridge August 18, 2014 at 7:18 pm

I can speak to homeschooling an autistic child, but I am overwhelmed with all this information. Ask me some specific questions and I will try to answer based on our experience, if that would be helpful. I also found that what I learned from homeschooling my “different” child directly applies to my work as a staff trainer in health care. Everyone benefits, not just people with labels, when we make things more hands on; allow people to be interested in what they are interested in; stop demanding extroversion; have multiple ways of encoding information; practice stuff over and over; keep communication moderated and not overfull; let things take as long as they take….harder to do in a group setting but absolutely not impossible. My daughter graduated from homeschooling last year and is moving forward in her life in a good way according to HER schedule, which turns out to be completely progressive, but not sequential…including healing from trauma from being in school in her early years, where bad stuff happened.

Karla August 18, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Hello Sheila, and thanks for responding. Specific questions:

What did you do about eye contact?
Did you work with a side-by-side or oblique orientation? (see above)
Did you use the baby talk register? (see above)

Thanks!
Karla

Georgie August 30, 2014 at 11:34 am

When my autistic son was 10 he could no longer cope with the pressures and expectations of school so we withdrew him and I taught him at home for a year.

We worked side by side as he was most comfortable with that set up.

We studied subjects that interested him to a level he was happy with, a much greater depth than neurotypical children of his age would have coped with. Four years on his history teacher was amazed by his subject knowledge.

His use of language has always been beyond that of his peers but his reluctance to, “get things down on paper” has meant that he’s often been put in the bottom set.

If he’s interested in a subject there’s no stopping him however if he’s not interested and can’t see the benefit for him in it then he’ll put virtually no effort in at all.

He avoids most social situations as he finds it hard to predict what’s going to happen, he knows people will expect him to talk to them and look them in the eye whereas he’d rather talk at them about one of his interests whilst looking at the wall! He says he spends the time that other people are talking thinking about what he’s going to tell them next!

Most of his social interaction outside school is done through his xbox, he’s quite happy with this set up.

Self service check outs in supermarkets are great for him!

We try very hard to see the positives in being autistic in the future workplace, attention to detail and intense concentration being two of the main ones, brutal honesty is not however always well received but always given!

Karla August 30, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for your reply, Georgie. Home schooling can be such an excellent option; I’m glad it worked out for you.

About employment: Have you found any supportive books or employment counselors for autistic youth? I agree that social issues can make for an uncomfortable situation for autistic people in the workplace. I don’t mean to single autistic people out, because social issues in the workplace are miserable for everybody — but NTs tend to get a lot of training in how to pretend that they don’t mind, or they use gossip networks to help create alliances and manage their emotions communally.

I’ve seen in the online autism community that there is a great deal of that communal emotion regulation going on — with the computer as the communicative mediator. Does your son have computer friends he can communicate with in this way?

Jackie McMillan August 31, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Thank you. Just, thank you.

Jean September 6, 2014 at 8:45 am

I love the information from the study on eye contact in the 3 different groups!!
I am a former early childhood special ed teacher with an adult son on the spectrum. He struggled with teachers and counselors over the eye contact issue many times. Through his experiences and his ability to articulate them to me, I have learned that I too avert my gaze when listening, especially to highly charged emotional content, and function better in discussions of this nature when in an oblique postion with my partner! Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing more about your continuing study of the wonderful world of Autism!

Karla September 6, 2014 at 9:52 am

Hello Jean and thank you so much for your input — how wonderful that the matrix speaks to you and your son. I truly appreciate the work these anthropologists did in service to the social skills and social preferences of autistic people.

The studies on eye contact are fairly readable. Here are the references. Google Scholar is a good resource if you haven’t got access to a university library.

Akhtar, N. & Gernsbacher, M. (2008). On Privileging the Role of Gaze in Infant Social Cognition. Child Development Perspectives, 2(2), 59-65.

Doherty-Sneddon, G., Riby, D. M., & Whittle, L. (2012). Gaze aversion as a cognitive load management strategy in autism spectrum disorder and Williams syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 53(4), 420-430.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Stevenson, J. L., Khandakar, S., & Goldsmith, H. (2008). Why Does Joint Attention Look Atypical in Autism? Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 38-45.

Riby, D. M., Doherty-Sneddon, G., & Whittle, L. (2012). Face-to-face interference in typical and atypical development. Developmental Science, 15(2), 281-291.

Andrew Coltrin September 19, 2014 at 8:23 am

Thank you so much for putting this all together. This paper supports so many of my thoughts any instincts about how to appropriately engage autistic people, especially children. As a paraeducator, and as an adult whose Asperger’s diagnosis may or may not mean anything anymore, I really appreciate what you’ve done here. This is right on.

Karla September 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

Thank you Andrew. Your diagnosis means something still, and I’ve been seeing a movement toward self-diagnosis, especially among medically under-served populations such as people of color, poor people, and girls and women. Welcome!

Katherine McHughen September 19, 2014 at 10:07 am

THIS IS SO AWESOME! Well done!
I am a 38-yr-old aspie just self diagnosed 2yrs ago, and I avoid children, so I don’t know much at all about educational strategies for autie kids.

Still, I found this a fascinating and easy to follow read. And I relate to a lot of the things you describe. I find eye contact prevents me from fully concentrating and it’s always struck me as ludicrous when people demand eye contact “to know you’re actually listening” when in fact it PREVENTS me from listening! You argue that point so much better than I ever could though!

I never though about the bodies-facing idea before. I do prefer to sit beside my friend or my husband rather than opposite them, at a table. I bond most freely with someone when we are in a car or on a bench… side by side. Now that you explain it, I do see this inclination in myself. So thanks for teaching me a bit about myself!

I agree that computers are the perfect social tool for auties. I hate when people badmouth the internet as something that “distracts people from REAL socialising” when to me it has let me socialise a thousanfold more than I did pre-internet.

Forcing a kid to speak when he’d rather type, or make eye contact when he’d rather look at his sleeve, really is pointless. It seems like people still have not let go of the idea from victorian times, that educating a child ought to involve breaking that child. There’s a reflexive thought if ‘Oh, you hate doing this? I WILL MAKE YOU DO IT EVEN MORE!’ And the teacher or parent loses sight of the goal, which is simply for the kid to have communication. Not necessarily communication exactly like that the majority uses, but a tyoe that fits that individual child.

I hope many, many people read this article and I hope your future career is very successful. The world needs more of your way of thinking!

Karla September 19, 2014 at 11:47 am

Welcome Katherine! I’m so glad this research is supportive for you, and that it may help you find ways to get people to stop obsessing about eye contact!

And I agree with you about the internet. Some people can’t really socialize online — it’s not their skill set, and they don’t see how it’s possible. But oh my word, the internet is my playground, and I have deep, enduring, wonderful friendships with people I’ve never met in person. This mediated focus works beautifully for me. I wonder if it’s because I was so used to interacting through writing already (I started writing stories before I could physically write), before I ever got on my first computer back in the 1970s? It could be. It could be that the people who can’t grok internet socializing just haven’t done a lot of interaction through writing? Hmmmm. It’s another research topic!

Thanks for commenting, and welcome!

Debbie Riby September 19, 2014 at 11:33 am

Thank you for including our gaze aversion research in this interesting article

Karla September 19, 2014 at 11:51 am

Oh Deborah Riby! I’m having a fangirl moment here. Thank you for your elegant and humane research.

Finding it was so exciting, and it’s already getting positive responses from educators and autistic people themselves. Thanks to you and your colleagues for challenging assumptions about autistic eye contact preferences, and for devising such an amazingly clever way of looking at what was really going on. Bravissima!

Kiah Wolton-Phillips September 19, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Karla,
I am the mother of a 5 year old autistic boy and I want to thank you for the autism positive approach you take in this article.

We have seen and heard all manner of pathologising of our son, none of which has ever made any sense to me. To see work that moves away from the deficit model is very exciting and validating for me.

Specifically: I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions regarding side-by-side working and the avoidance of forced facial referencing and eye contact. Additionally, I discovered just yesterday that the tone, pitch, volume and emotional intensity of my voice was causing increased anxiety and sensory arousal for my son ( pointed out by his SP) and I totally agree that the use of baby talk is counter-productive.

With hindsight, I recognise that my son is indeed much calmer when he is around people who are using a normal volume, pitch and cadence in their voice.

I also identified very closely with your assertion regarding there being a lack of a theory of sociality that includes and accepts difference. This is the single greatest challenge there is for a parent raising an autistic child, in my honest opinion.
Thank you for your work and for this article.

Karla September 19, 2014 at 8:04 pm

Hello Kiah and welcome. Thanks so much for your input, and for your note about baby talk. It’s such a habit for most people, and this research is so helpful in talking about specifically why it is problematic.

When I went into the research, I knew that I would find very interesting things in sociology and anthropology, and I was delighted to find this goldmine of valuable information. Thank you for your input on this research, and hello to your son!

Kathy Ryder September 20, 2014 at 5:23 am

Hi Karla
Thank you for sharing this information about research based approaches to autistic ways of learning. I live in New Zealand and have a 7 year old autistic son. I am also a self diagnosed autistic woman. All of the points in the matrix of autistic sociality make sense to me, both as an Aspie and as the mother of an autistic child. I think I’ve instinctively discovered that these approaches work best when interacting with my autistic son. I talked to both of my children a lot when they were in utero, infants and toddlers. I never talked used baby talk though. I talked to them the way I would talk to an older child and adult and as babies and toddlers they both had advanced speech (one of my children is autistic the other is neurotypical).
My 7 year old is currently being taught by a teacher who I believe mostly follows the matrix approaches. Last year he was taught by a teacher who wasn’t as good at following these approaches. My son seems to be calmer and happier overall at school this year and seems to be making more progress with his learning when compared to last year.
best wishes with your masters thesis 🙂

Karla September 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Hello Kathy and welcome. Thank you for your input! I’m so glad you’ve found a teacher who is already intuitively using these approaches. I’m finding that so many people sort of “luck” into these approaches without completely understanding why. They just work. I’m so grateful to Elinor Ochs, Olga Solomon, and all of the other researchers who are asking questions in different ways, challenging the current thinking about autism, and finding support for autistic ways of learning and autistic ways of being social.

Of course, each person is unique, and some of these approaches may not work, or may not be necessary for everybody, but it is nice to see the sensory sensitivities and perceptual skills of many autistic children being respected and supported. Cheers!

Barb September 22, 2014 at 8:33 am

Thank you Karla for your work on this subject. I teach undergrad and graduate courses about autism neurology and evidenced based methods for a university certificate. This article and your work is a perfect addition to the focus for the courses.

Karla September 22, 2014 at 10:09 am

Hello Barb, and thanks for your input, and for your own work. Have you seen Nick Walker’s definition of autism? He teaches university courses on autism and neurodiversity, and he couldn’t find a workable definition that spoke to the lived experience of autism, so he wrote his own. It’s focused on social justice models of disability, very helpful: What is Autism?, Nick Walker, MA.

Ini October 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Hello Karla,

At first I’d like to thank you for your book The language of emotions, in which you advocate so powerful not to ignore the negative ones, but how to learn what they’ve to tell us about ourselves and manage them as well as all our emotions in a healthy way. This was just what I was looking for during research project about how to handle emotions.

And now I’m so thrilled to read that you’re writing your master’s thesis based on suggestions for working with autistic children and adults in ways that support their neurology and their unique learning styles instead of trying to teach them how to fit in the NT-world. Again this is exactly what I’m looking for and I feel so grateful for that. I already had the same thoughts about this subject as you show me now.

At his point I think I’ve to introduce myself. I’m a self diagnosed autistic Dutch woman of 70 years old, married to a 70 years old autistic man for 38 years and we have a son and a daughter, both autistic too. But we only know that since September last year, so there is a lot to learn and process.

Further, I read in English very well, but my writing is kind of poor. Excuse me for that. The main thing is to be understood.

I love your ideas of helping an autistic child in the early childhood to develop in its own way (just as we should do with all our children instead of making them fit in). Thinking about my early childhood experiences I remembering how I was forced to behave like others and I still feel like crying: I couldn’t do that and I felt so disabled and strange in this world.

So often I had to stay sick at home from school for weeks, even too sick to eat, while the doc didn’t know what to do about it but prescribe aspirin. All the other school days I had pains in my belly before I left home. At the age of 17 I quit school because I couldn’t sleep anymore and was sent to a so called nerve doctor, who wanted an admission. But I didn’t agree. At the age of 22 I declared myself ‘normal’ because I had a boyfriend and got married like every one, but I still had a very long way to go…

I could have done so much better in my youth if I was not forced to:
– play with the children on an overcrowded playground, instead of only watching them
– to talk
– have my lessons in a class with 35 children
– sit where the teacher wanted me to
– such long school days
– understand what was explained in the classroom and written on the board instead of picking stuff up at home from my books
– to do talks in front of the classroom….

Well, we all have survived and I must say I’m glad to be the one I am now, but it was a long, lonely, unhealthy and very uneasy way to go.

Thanks for being there with your work and listening Karla.

Sincerely,
Ini Oostindie

Karla October 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Hello Ini and thank you for your comments! I made the edits that you suggested, and fixed a few typos, because I want to share what you’re saying.

School seems to have been a very uncomfortable place for many autistic children, and your story is one that many people experienced. Thank you for sharing it, and I’m glad you and your family have each other!

Eric November 4, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Just a quick note on the eye-contact issue – I’ve found that focusing on a person’s nose makes things a lot easier – much less overstimulation than looking people in the eyes, and most people can’t tell the difference. It is obviously better to put children in an environment where face to face communication is not required, but as a coping mechanism for those who are forced into such situations, teaching children the nose trick can help – in normal situations looking at the nose instead of the eyes can be enough of a drop in stimulation to make things easier, and if the stimulation from seeing someone’s face is still too much, one can always focus on some aspect of the nose – most people’s noses have interesting angles, pores, zits, hairs, etc that one can focus on, and that narrowing of focus tends to blur out the rest of the face, allowing for a drop in stimulation.

Karla November 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Thank you Eric — I’ve been hearing about a lot of face/eyebrow/forehead tricks that are similar to what you’re suggesting. It’s a good idea! I’ve also heard from people who make a very specific amount of eye contact, for instance of less than half a second, in order to help their neurotypical friends feel less disoriented, and that doesn’t seem to interfere with their cognition as much.

I’ve been talking to one of my thesis committee members who’s a linguistic anthropologist, and he thinks that there might be a kind of eye contact algorithm that we could create. That would be so cool! Of course, it would have to be different in different cultures, locales, and families, but it’s a very interesting idea.

Thanks for sharing your nose technique! Now I have to go and look at my nose to see if I’ve got any stray hairs on it, because you’ve got me thinking. 😉

Breaking Down ABA, Again: Part 2: Goals and Underlying Philosophy | Restless Hands November 22, 2014 at 10:09 pm

[…] – “A small but growing number of multidisciplinary researchers are challenging the autistic stereotype and finding, in many cases, that our knowledge of autism has been built upon unsupportable ideas about normality, intelligence, sociality, eye contact, empathy, language development, child development, and communication.” Excellent reading here, with a lot of scientific references. Thoroughly debunks several common assumptions, including the idea that eye contact equals attention, even in neurotypicals. http://karlamclaren.com/research-based-approaches-to-autistic-ways-of-learning/ […]

jane December 11, 2014 at 7:32 am

I can’t read all this for more reasons than one, but I found 2 things were breakthrough in helping me teach my child to read.

One is that at bedtime he would lie on his stomach next to me, and I would trace a large letter, say the letter “L”, on his back. He had to guess the letter. I would repeat the letter until he got it right. He loved this game.

The next was when it hit me that he didn’t understand that words were made up of letters. So I went to the thrift store and got a game of scrabble and started playing it with him. I suck at scrabble and he was really good at it, so he could usually beat me, which was fun for him. After a long time at Scrabble he started learning how to read words.

Thanks for your work,

Karla December 11, 2014 at 9:18 am

Thanks Jane — and you reminded me — my sister and I used to play that letter game too! That sent me back decades and I could feel the letters! I have to say that what I am seeing throughout the autism community is that the best outcomes are occurring in families that focus on the child as a unique individual — and not on how much he or she is not meeting milestones. I find that this is true for neurotypical children as well.

Thanks for sharing your ingenuity!

Marleen February 10, 2015 at 10:46 am

Hi Karla, how interesting, your research and (finally) a different approach ^-^
To be honest, haven’t yet read it all..too much input at once I’m afraid (it is the end of the day).

I have been diagnosed with Aspergers at 38, 2 yrs back. I have been working as a Speech and Language Therapist for 8+yrs, and indeed highly creative & passionate 🙂 I have a Sensory Integration certificate, for I noticed that is very important in my line of work/working with kids, period.

I had to learn the distinction between emotions & feelings. I found “the five things we cannot change about Life” helpful too.

Are you familiar with the books of Carol Stock-Kranowitz and Olga Bogdashina? I hold those two in high regard!

Karla February 10, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Hello Marleen and welcome. I hadn’t heard of Olga or Carol, and I checked them out. I wish they didn’t approach sensory processing differences as disorders! But it’s nice to see them working in that area. I wish I had had someone focus on that with me when I was young. I found school to be an unwieldy sensory horror, gah!

Jacqueline June 24, 2015 at 2:23 pm

As an ordinary Early Years teacher with no specialist training in autism or special needs education, I found your article on research based approaches to autistic ways of learning completely fascinating. At the moment I have four children I am working with who all display autistic tendencies and I have been guided purely by gut instinct when engaging with them. I was very much encouraged to discover that many of the strategies I have been employing appear on the matrix. I have often wondered at the insistent and somewhat obsessive drive to force ASD children to have better eye contact when they are clearly uncomfortable to do so. Your research has vindicated what I have felt instinctively for some time now. I have also despaired when witnessing well meaning colleagues attempt to dissuade children from focussing too much on their particular interests and try and force them to conform to the school curriculum. I feel that now I have some solid, research based theories to put forward when arguing my case rather than some vague gut feeling that ‘It just isn’t right!’

Karla June 24, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Hello Jacqueline, and welcome!

It seems to me that the training many special education teachers receive is based on the idea that autistic people are unempathic with no theory of mind, and that they need to be trained to appear “normal.” The history of this is interesting, in that the first wave of normalization training was done to keep autistic children out of institutions. So there’s a blessing to be given to the idea. It had its place in an earlier time when neurologically divergent people were seen as less than human.

But now that we’re more aware of the humanity and deep empathy of autistic people, and now that disability rights and neurodiversity awareness exist, it’s beautiful to see people finding more humane ways to work with autistic children and adults — and other neurologically divergent people. Thanks for following your heart and your gut!

Check Tan December 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Thanks for your insight. I have a 22 YO autistic living in Australia. He was non verbal at age 4 and assessed to have intellectual disability, in the 90s most of what you have written was not known nor practiced but through trial and error we have noticed that he responds to non emotional factual talk. It is most important that we are precise and instructions are single activity and time is given to process the instruction. Changing ones tone to excitement does not help!
Best I can add is to address the well being of the person first ie comfortable environment (heating, noise, light, other people and most important acceptance), learning will come after. I recall him being in school where he was bullied and ended up with numerous suspensions every year. Transferring him to another school saw him soar and now he is working full time at a cafe after completing a trade certificate in hospitality – couldn’t be happier.

Karla December 18, 2015 at 10:12 am

Thank you, Check Tan. It’s so excellent that you discovered what works for him, and that you focused on his well being. It’s also marvelous that you removed him from the toxic school environment, and that he’s doing so well! Cheers!

Yvonne June 3, 2016 at 2:32 pm

Hello Karla, thank you for the wonderful website. I’m over 50, female, and have “passed” though have had diagnoses of depression and related issues. I’m finally just getting diagnosed and am learning more about autism; I’m a very fast reader though below-average at learning through listening.

So many issues and details of my immediate family and my own life are popping into memory the more I read about this. All my family are very intelligent but only half have avoided disability status, with all of us getting generally inappropriate and mostly-useless treatment for decades re. what seems likely to have been various flavors of autism issues.

Have you read the very recent literature on differences between female and male issues and brain differences with autism? The females often apparently are very motivated, from a young age, to learn to “fit in” and become expert at mimicking/acting “normal”. We can make eye contact in many cases. It doesn’t stop the stress or underlying issues though, and in my experience “looking really normal”, though seemingly randomly exhausting to me, made it impossible for neurotypical medical folks to hear what I was trying to tell them about my experiences even recently.

I think that all humans could realize that their neurology, whatever it is, will create strengths as well as weaknesses and blindnesses implicit to that neurological structure. These are apparently known as “deficits” only if your weakness is not the usual weakness, e,g, the general human tendencies to follow insane but charismatic leaders… 🙁

One of the huge potential contributions of neurodiversity, if people will listen, could be some perspective on the “normal” weaknesses in human understanding; unfortunately, the “normal” human approach seems to be to not listen if something doesn’t match the preconceived idea. As a species, we are not apparently evolved to adapt to all situations; just look at our lack of response to global environmental threats that will hit in 10, 50 or 200 years rather than next week… I have no idea if autistic differences might be more likely to see better approaches to the particular examples I mentioned, but I have read that autistic folks can sometimes find unique solutions to problems.

Re. eye contact: I wanted to mention that I have very different experiences with different people. With some people, I find myself looking away from eye contact as if our eyes were both magnets with “north” polarity, a weird feeling of lack of control.

However I do have a friend who is also suspecting she’s autistic; she has many issues that match, and she “blamed” it all on her ADD diagnosis. (I “blamed” all mine on PTSD for decades.)

When we sit in a nice coffee shop and chat, though, it is like I am finally relaxing and talking to a member of my species, I don’t feel the tense, “am-I-interpreting-that-right” thing. She says she feels the same way with me!
We both smile a lot at each other, we make hand gestures a lot. It feels like I can actually read her emotions rather than having to guess and cognitively work things out. We share interests too, but we can talk about anything.

My guess: the subset of facial expressions (maybe basic ones? not those subtle eye things!) that is in the set of stuff our brains can innately read, matches. We’re not having to use less-efficient, learned-later-in-life interpretations of all those little signals that y’all were working on elementary school when I was reading scifi.

Having to focus on the facial expression signals enough to “get” them, when it’s not naturally done for my by some efficient brain hardware, is what I think exhausts me, and I never consciously understood any of this stuff for decades. I’d love for autistic folks to be taught some science of this stuff, however it works, as self-understanding really helps self-care for everyone.

Please imagine how “neurotypical” people would deal, if raised by parents descended from mutated African grey parrots, who have no human facial expressions? How well would they understand themselves? 🙂 (Ok, back to my scifi.)

Karla June 3, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Hello Yvonne, and welcome!

While you were writing this, I was out driving, and thinking about my autistic friends who don’t drive. I realized, as I was backing out of a crowded parking lot, just how much of driving is about picking up subtle cues and intentions from the other drivers. It’s also about anticipating the other driver’s movements based on their signals. But all of this relies upon neurotypical neurology and neurotypical signalling. It’s not universal!

I like what you say about your similar friend, and I’m glad you two have each other! I feel that way when I’m around hyper-empathic people who have learned to work with their emotions. I can totally relax instead of having to act, make lots of allowances for people, figure out what ridiculous thing they’re doing with their emotions, and maintain an in-depth internal monologue so that I can explain the aliens to myself and keep from being bored and lonely.

I also agree with what you say about developing a training for autistic people to help them understand the hilarious disaster that is everyday neurotypical functioning. Following insane but charismatic leaders, indeed! A lot of the social skills courses (which I studied for my thesis) are basically retraining programs to help autistic people stop being autistic, become apologetic for their bodies, their neurology, and their reality, and stumble along by “passing.” Many of these programs are deeply flawed and thoroughly ableist. But they’re dong well, because people don’t understand ableism, or the social model of disability. It’s sad.

I’d love to develop a program with an anthropological bent, so that neurotypical social behavior could be seen and studied as one type of behavior, but not the best or only one. That’s a future plan I have with my colleague Nick Walker, but we’ve been obscenely busy, and haven’t been able to get the thing going!

I also want to explore the 2 other branches of my thesis study, which are narratives from autistic adults who created their own social skills training programs, or found something not meant specifically for autistic people, but which worked anyway. Oh, to have the time!!

I’m glad you have your scifi! Thank you for commenting!

L June 10, 2016 at 8:09 pm

As an autistic who hopes to become a scientist, it’s good to see that you are providing solid research that goes against the grain of what is typically presented. Too often, scientists will research “causes”, “cures”, how to make ABA more “effective”, and other things. Even results like “autistic kids had about the same number of genetic mutations as neurotypicals, no more” are interpreted, not as evidence suggesting there is no pathology, but as a prod to figure out where the “disruption” is. Could be there is no disruption central to autism. If there is, it would cause things like being completely nonverbal (what is often simplistically referred to as “low-functioning” autism) rather than autism itself. Also, some of the disabilities found in nonverbal autistics may not actually be autism; for instance, those nonverbal autistics who don’t like the way their body moves may feel that way because they also have Tourette’s, and those are tics, not stims.
In fact, even when autistics are verbal, doctors can have trouble recognizing that they may have other disabilities, as Unstrange mind talks about here:
https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2015/11/24/zebras-and-giraffes-n24-day-2015/
I can only imagine that severe disorders and disabilities that are not autism are even more likely to be either missed in nonverbal autistic people (like blindness), or listed as part of their autism; in fact, the latter seems to be quite common, even when the problem is something like a GI disorder that has nothing to do with what autism essentially is.

Only recently have there begun to be studies like the ones you cited that actually take into account the human experiences of autistic people. I can only hope there are more such studies in the future.

Karla June 11, 2016 at 12:41 pm

Hi L! I love Unstrange Mind, thanks!

And yay science! You’ve already discovered Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Michelle Dawson, yes? And Pierre Mottron? There are a few bright lights out there, and it would be great to see you bring your autistic superpowers to the research.

What field are you focusing on or heading toward?

Lucy June 14, 2016 at 11:09 pm

Biology. I can’t be more specific because some of the professors from whom I may need to seek recommendations are rabid supporters of operant conditioning (i.e. clicker training) for autistics, and they won’t listen because they use the weaselly “you’re very high-functioning” comment to get around having to listen to arguments about why that is not a good idea. I tried to talk to them about neurodiversity, but they only “support” those ideas as buzzwords. Only one of the professors I’ve talked to about the subject actually supports neurodiversity, so I am afraid to approach them about it unless they have proven supportive in other ways and not pulled the “you’re too high-functioning to understand” card. And no, none of the scientists you mentioned are that supportive professor. I can only hope that the scientific community listens to the voice of autistics more as time goes on.
By the way, this is also why I used an initial instead of my name; can’t have any of those people finding these direct criticisms of their methods and the ones they support turning up in a Google search of my name, now, can they?

Karla June 20, 2016 at 8:42 pm

Hello L! I didn’t get a notification of your reply. My e-mail program is up to no good.

It took me a while to find a professor who could understand what I was doing, and I avoided the neurodiversity term because it’s too new. I actually went from department to department until I found a linguistic anthropologist who not only understood where I was going, but immediately asked to be my thesis advisor.

The trick is to study all of the professors at the school and zero in on the one whose interests would support what you want to do. Linguistic anthropology, for instance, focuses on the performance of normalcy, so although the neurodiversity paradigm wasn’t on the radar, the understanding of a different culture living within the dominant culture was very well understood.

In a tradition-bound world like academia, the key is to find someone whose training allows him or her to think in fluid ways!

Understanding Neurotypicality | New Goliards December 21, 2016 at 11:02 am

[…] Research-Based Approaches to Autistic Ways of Learning […]

Thoughts on autism research | Un-Boxed Brain February 3, 2017 at 11:49 pm

[…] us. Unfortunately, that’s what most research is aimed at. There are a few exceptions though: Karla McLaren has done some great research. I want to see a whole lot more like that, and a whole lot less like […]

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