Numerous case reports suggest that children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) think concretely instead of abstractly. For example, when these children hear the word “dog,” they may have a vivid, detailed image of their first pet dog, then the second pet dog, and so on. Conversely, neurotypical children (those not on the spectrum) are more likely to have an image of a generic or conceptual dog without much detailed imagery.
Due to their concrete learning style, children on the autism spectrum tend to remember individual examples precisely without noticing common themes among examples. For instance, the child may store the details of specific animals he encounters together with labels (e.g., dogs, cats), but he may be poor at learning features that define dogs and cats (e.g., both dogs and cats are pets, furry, playful, etc.). On the other hand, neurotypical children learn from specific examples, and then “generalize” those examples to other areas (e.g., throwing a rock is similar to throwing a baseball). Since generalizing is far more efficient than coding a large number of individual examples, the neurotypical learning style de-emphasizes coding details of individual examples unless there is a need to do so.
Language facilitates abstract thinking and communication. Even “concrete” words such as “fatigued” are really abstractions of many related examples. AS and HFA children’s poor ability of abstraction contributes to their social skills deficits and their preference of “thinking in pictures” to thinking in language.
How can parents help their AS and HFA children to think more abstractly?
Creative thinking and problem solving are necessary life skills for all children. The therapeutic benefits of creative outlets (e.g., drawing, writing, photography, storytelling, etc.) are well-documented in medical literature. To teach creative thinking to your concrete thinker, start with a very structured approach, and then gradually relax it as the child becomes comfortable. Here’s how to get started:
1. Cook something with your child. Even when following a recipe very closely, there’s always some room for improvising in the kitchen. Encourage your child to decide if a little more of this or that is needed, if the oven needs to be turned up or down, if the lasagna needs an extra 5 minutes to cook, and so on.
2. Repair something with your child. Whether it’s a flat tire on a bicycle or a cracked vase, there’s usually more than one way fix it. Instead of using commands like “go find me a screw driver,” recruit your child’s help in ‘thinking things through’ (e.g., “I need something sticky to put these two pieces back together …got any ideas?” or “ I need to put this somewhere safe while the glue dries …any suggestions?”). Allow your child to suggest or improvise each step of the process with you.
3. Help your child make a book. Creating a book on a favorite subject will give your son or daughter a sense of authority and expertise. One Asperger’s child collected her doll pictures (cut from a coloring book all about antique dolls), stapled them together, glued a large photo of herself to the cover, and then gave copies of her book to her cousins. This act of kindness opened up new conversations for her.
4. Teach your child how to paint. For example, introduce your concrete thinker to watercolors, and show him or her how to draw and paint landscapes. Start off by teaching your child about perspective. A good time to do this is when you are outside. Show your child that objects in the distance appear smaller than when they are close-up. To start out, you will need heavy weight water color paper (which you can get at any arts and craft store) and a small selection of brushes (e.g., one wide brush about 2 inches for filling in large details, and a couple fine point brushes for outlining shapes and filling in finer details).
5. Show your child how to take pictures. AS and HFA kids see the world through a special lens. There is a purity to their imagination that, at some point, most grown-ups lose. If you have never put a camera in the hands of your unique youngster, you will soon discover that what he or she views in life is very different than your perspective. Start with the basics. The most important concept in photography is universally known to be “Fill the Frame.” Emphasize that the “subject” must fill the frame to remove distractions (it’s ok to show examples of subjects quite literally filling the frame with very few other elements). Once your child practices and masters the idea of removing distractions, you can go on to explain that other elements can be in the picture to support the main subject.
6. Write poetry together. A sophisticated command of the English language is not a prerequisite for writing good poetry. In fact, simple words often have a more lasting impact than complex ideas and metaphors. The most important tool for writing poetry is probably the rhyming dictionary, which is a book that lists the words that rhyme with ‘end sounds’ of other words (e.g., if you want to find a rhyme for “cat,” you would look up “at” in a rhyming dictionary, because “at” is the ending sound of the word “cat” …the rhyming dictionary would then give you a list of words such as “bat,” “fat,” “sat,” and so on).
7. Tell stories to your child. Storytelling is an ancient tradition across all cultures, and it’s an important part of cognitive development. Aside from the fact that a story does a better job than anything else of capturing the essence of value, people in general like to hear stories, especially when they are told well. Children like stories because, when they hear them, they have the chance to learn, to be enlightened and entertained. Stories, more than anything else, capture the essence of our lives. That is why we like to hear them.
8. Show that creativity is always an option. It may not occur to your concrete thinker that there might be more than one way to do something. Thus, ask him or her for alternative solutions to everyday problems. Since all children learn through play, play therapy is the ideal way to practice exploring multiple solutions to a challenge.
9. Demonstrate that you value creative expression and “thinking outside the box.” Valuing creative expression is more than visiting art fairs, museums and theaters. It means being curious about the world and constantly asking questions (e.g., What is this made of? How does that work? Why is this moving like that?). It also means looking for the answers in unusual places (e.g., through a telescope, in the mirror, under a rock, up in the attic, etc.).
10. Try drawing and /or sketching. Drawing and sketching help with attention, fine motor skills, visualization skills and anxiety reduction. This is exactly the type of activity your AS or HFA youngster may try to avoid! Here’s a good method to teach drawing:
- Explain that drawing ability comes with practice and that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to a finished art piece. Encourage the child to practice drawing his intended picture in the air with his finger first. This allows him to get an idea of how he will draw his picture.
- Teach the child by using a simple object that you can place in front of her. Visuals are super important for kids on the autism spectrum and their learning process. Find a simple object such as a cereal box, and point out the separate shapes your child will need to draw in order to make the full box. By breaking down the drawing process into steps, she will be able to pause from her work and return later. Also, she will learn to become more detail-oriented.
- Split up the drawing process into small portions (e.g., with a cereal box, point out the face of the box being a rectangle, the sides being smaller rectangles, etc.).
- Continue to have your child draw the object chosen as many times as possible. Repetition is vital in learning to draw, just as it is in learning the alphabet or how to count.
- Always encourage your child, and never point out a "mistake" in his drawing.
- Never draw on your child’s papers. She will only improve her drawing ability through practice. AS and HFA children are easily discouraged. If they see your drawing and think it is better than theirs, they may shy away from their desire to improve.
- For the child that can’t recognize shapes, still have him attempt to draw by breaking down the object into sections. This method will help him with shape recognition as well as improve his drawing ability.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management