Autism and learning through experience

Have you ever noticed that your autistic child doesn’t care about your ‘if-then’ arguments and just continues with whatever he/she was doing after a warning? Of have you ever noticed that as an autistic person, you want to experience everything yourself, before you can imagine it? This is because of the absence of a reference point of ‘I’.

The reference point of ‘I’ is a conceptual ‘me’, with which people can imagine a fictional future. In fact, the future is always fictional, simply because it doesn’t yet exist. This means that if you have to make a choice for the future, for instance when someone asks you how you want to celebrate your birthday, you will imagine several options and choose the one that suits you best. You have to refer to an ‘I’ to do this.

People with autism have a hard time answering these kind of questions, because there isn’t a reference point of ‘I’. For us, there is just ‘being’ and now. No conceptual ‘me’ or a later. There is much more to say about this, but what I’d like to point out in this article specifically is what this means for the way in which we (autistic people) learn things. And by this I don’t mean theoretical learning, learning rules or thinking out strategies, because we don’t have a problem with that. It’s about learning life lessons. Learning how to behave in this world. Learning how to deal with what comes across our path. We have difficulties in imagining this beforehand and having to make a choice based on that.

Back to the autistic child that doesn’t care about ‘if-then’-arguments. If you tell this child: “if you don’t go to bed now, you are not allowed to watch TV tomorrow”, they aren’t able to imagine what this means for him/her tomorrow. Because it isn’t tangible at that very moment, it won’t react to the warning. It also works the other way around – if you reward the child with something that will happen in the future, they won’t be able to imagine this either… if they haven’t experienced it before(!).

A nice example is given by our friends the horses. You won’t be able to teach them anything if you tell them ‘if you don’t behave now, you won’t get a treat later on’. The way to teach them things is to give them discomfort at the exact moment of undesirable behaviour and to take away the discomfort immediately when they show the desirable behaviour. They learn the desirable behaviour through experience.

We, autistic people, learn in the same experiential way. This isn’t always the easiest way, but it is the only way for us. Only when it is experienced can a mental memory can be made that might come up when a similar situation occurs. It needs to be very similar though. If the situation is only a little different, it makes our experience of the situation completely new. Same thing for horses: a certain object from the right corner of the eye can be something completely unknown if seen from the left corner of the eye…

“Whoever can’t hear, must feel” Ouch. I’d like to mention this saying here. It has a nasty tone to it. It often doesn’t come from a friendly place, but from impatience. “I’ve asked you so many times now, if you don’t listen again, you should just experience it”. For autistic people, this is literally needed, however not in a harsh way, because we are rather sensitive. But in a way so that we can learn through experience that it is actually easier, smoother and better for us to do it that way (and to please mummy isn’t usually  part of that… it really should literally give something, like a warm interaction with mum). So please remember that this is inability and not unwillingness, when your autistic child doesn’t react to verbal requests that include consequences for the future.

So when raising autistic children, it is desirable to give your child experiences that have a meaning considering his/her behaviour. When you’re complaining that your child doesn’t do his/her task, this will cause the child to connect the doing of those task to being ‘not fun’ (because of the complaining). Doing a task together and making it fun to do, with a satisfying ending for both, makes the child make the connection ‘fun to do’ with this task. This is the reason why autistic children often don’t react to verbal requests. In our language we continuously work with fictional objects like ‘I’ and ‘future’. Make it tangible and applicable to this moment and it will become much clearer to your autistic child.

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