Understanding the Mind of a Child on the Autism Spectrum

"My 7-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with high functioning autism. This is all so new to me. How can I understand the way she thinks? We are definitely not on the same page much of the time!"

Kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) may have underdeveloped areas in the brain that cause problems in the following areas:
  • understanding the thoughts and feelings of others
  • learning appropriate social skills and responses
  • focusing on “the real world” as opposed to becoming absorbed in their own thoughts and obsessions
  • communication

Children and teens on the autism spectrum are often extremely literal in their interpretation of others’ conversations (e.g., they may wonder if cats and dogs are really raining down or think there are two suns when someone talks about two sons). They are unable to recognize differences in speech tone, pitch, and accent that alter the meaning of what others’ say. Your daughter may not understand a joke or take a sarcastic comment literally.

For HFA children, learning social skills is like learning a foreign language. They are unable to recognize non-verbal communication that “typical” kids learn without formal instruction. For example:
  • how to interpret facial expressions
  • how to tell when someone does not want to listen any longer
  • not understanding the appropriate distance to stand from another person when talking

Many kids on the spectrum will be highly aware of right and wrong and will bluntly announce what is wrong. They will recognize others’ shortcomings, but not their own. Consequently, the behavior of young people with the disorder is likely to be inappropriate through no fault of their own.

Kids with HFA need routine and predictability, which gives them a sense of safety. Change can cause stress, and too much change can lead to meltdowns (or shutdowns). Changes that are stressful for them include:
  • changing a bedroom curtain or the color of the walls
  • doing things in a different order (e.g., putting pants on before a shirt)
  • going to the bathroom at someone else’s home
  • having a different teacher at school
  • starting a new routine

Routines and predictability help them remain calm. Your daughter’s thinking may be totally focused on only one or two interests, about which she is very knowledgeable. Many kids on the spectrum are interested in parts of a whole. For example:
  • astronomy
  • designing houses
  • drawing highly detailed scenes
  • insects
  • intricate jigsaw puzzles
  • Pokemon
  • the computer
  • trains

Because her brain is obsessed by her interest, your daughter may talk only about it, even when others are carrying on a conversation on a different topic.

These kids notice details, rather than the “whole” picture. The importance of the detail prevents the HFA youngster from understanding the bigger picture, so instructions may get lost in her focus on a single detail. A lesson at school may be totally ignored in favor of a fly on the wall. Multiple instructions are extremely difficult for these kids to retain and follow.

Kids on the spectrum are not able to access their frontal cortex or prefrontal lobe efficiently, so they must call on social skills from their memories. If a social skill has not been taught, they won’t have it. Consequently, turn taking, imagination, conversation, and other people’s points of view cause them great difficulty. The youngster may be unable to realize consequences outside her way of thinking. In addition, she can’t recognize when someone is lying to her or trying to take advantage of her.

Anger in HFA kids often occurs due to over-stimulation of the senses or a change in routine. It is often the only response the youngster knows. Anger-management presents problems. They see things in black and white, which results in tantrums when they don’t get their own way, or when they feel threatened or overwhelmed. 
Some kids with the disorder bottle-up anger and turn it inward and hit or bite themselves, never revealing where the trouble is. Many young people on the autism spectrum are perfectionists, reacting with anger when things don’t go as they wish.

One of the most difficult thinking patterns is mind-blindness. Mind-blindness is the lack of ability to understand the emotions, feelings, motivations, and logic of others – and not care that they don’t understand! Consequently, they behave without regard to the welfare of others. The only way they will ever change their thinking or behavior is if it is in their own interest to do so. Even then, convincing a youngster with HFA to change her mind is an uphill battle.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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