Some of the cognitive characteristics in the autism spectrum

January 27th, 2012

The autism spectrum includes a number of conditions including Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s. In this post I will use the term autism.

There seems to be controversy about whether autism is a disorder of development and therefore represents a bunch of abnormal characteristics or whether it is a separate cognitive phenotype that represents a different way of communicating and interacting with the world. It may be that autism researchers still need to answer this question. However, as a clinician I prefer the latter concept because it allows autism to be “sold” much more positively. Michelle Dawson’s blog provides good examples of a positive world view of autism.

This blog aims to provide a brief summary of some of the cognitive characteristics that are common in autism. It is by no means an exhaustive list. I have selected some of those things I have seen in autists that are most relevant for the education content.

Theory of Mind

Autists are described as having poor “theory of mind”. Essentially, this means that they have difficulty understanding other peoples’ perspectives or “getting inside their heads”. Another way of putting it that seems to appeal to some individuals with autism is that they lack “social recognition software”. They lack the ability to recognise social situations and what is going on in those situations, what the appropriate responses to people might be, and the awareness of why people respond to their behaviour in certain ways.

As a consequence, individuals with autism or those with milder characteristics may not respond as well to praise or punishment in the classroom. Those with learning difficulties often detest being asked to repeat things, particularly in intervention-type programmes. Rather than recognising that the teacher may be asking them to ‘try again’ because it will help them learn, the child with autism may consider the teacher’s motives to be more sinister (i.e., “She thinks I’m dumb” or “She’s a mean person”). Equally, educators can sometimes be shocked or upset when the child with autism does not respond as expected to praise. For example, after finding out that the child has worked hard over a fortnight and can now do long division, we might get a bit excited and expect the child to look and sound proud and happy. Sometimes though, the child will look at the adult as if they are stupid or even with disgust. You might imagine that they are thinking, “Of course I can do it. Do you think I’m stupid?”

Cognitive Inflexibility

Some people have difficulty being flexible and creative in their thinking. They tend to develop one method of doing things and they stick to it even when it doesn’t always result in success. Note that the existence of cognitive inflexibility in autism is controversial.

Fact vs. Fiction

Many individuals with autism are oriented towards fact rather than fiction. They may not see the point in reading about or discussing fictitious material. This inclination can have positives and negatives in the classroom.

Specialist vs. Generalist

There are some people in the world who are what we call generalists. They are reasonably good at most things and take a broad interest in the world. Other people, including many individuals with autism, are more specialised in their orientation. Both are valid: can you imagine a world without Van Gogh, Hans Christian Anderson, or Bill Gates? All are people who have developed a specialty or have been consumed by a particular area of interest.

The trick in the classroom is that it is a place built for generalists. The specialist is disadvantaged until they can leave school and focus attention on their specialty.

Concept vs. Detail

Conceptual development is an important part of social and academic learning. Concepts help us cut through detail and to focus on the big picture. They also help as a way of subsuming a whole bunch of details under a single idea. In both ways, concepts facilitate problem solving. For example, many of us have some kind of social concept that describes the key elements of a social interaction. Subsumed under that concept are examples of social interactions (e.g., good and bad) and the elements that are characteristic of each (e.g., smiling, eye contact, asking questions vs. creeping away from you, scowl on face). This system allows us to focus on the overall interaction rather than the detail, while at the same time allowing us to recognise when something is awry and how we may go about resolving that problem.

Other people find it hard to learn concepts. These people might be described as not being able to “see the trees for the wood”. They focus on detail at the expense of the big picture. They tend to learn detail without understanding how the details are related (i.e., part of a concept). They may also dogmatically apply a rule or concept to situations incorrectly because they don’t truly understand the rule. That is, it affects their reasoning.

For example, Teddy is a 6-year old who has been taught that the sun can burn you and that we should wear a hat and sunscreen when we go outside. He now gets distressed every time he goes outside without sun protection because he might “burn up” – this even if he is to be outside for the briefest of times. Teddy has also covered his west-facing window because he thought it was going to be burned by the afternoon sun.

David is a twelve-year old who has a special interest in zoology. He can talk for hours about wolves; what they look like, what they eat, and unusually, their social habits, and their motives for social behaviour. However, he has little knowledge of how wolves and their social behaviour share similarities to humans; nor in fact does he care much. David will probably be a good candidate for a PhD in zoology on pack animals but may find it more difficult to cope with the generalist demands of High School biology.

Literal vs. Figurative

Individuals with autism interpret language literally. They can have great difficulty with figurative language (e.g., “he was as red as a beetroot”; “the grass was singed to the colour of gold”) and with drawing inferences when reading or listening. Hence, they are oriented towards factual texts that inevitably contain little ‘flowery’ language or need to develop sophisticated inferences.



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