Understanding the Mind of the Child with Autism

When determining why children with Autism do the things they do, we typically will take ABC data and determine the function the behavior serves for the child.  In other words, what has the child “accidentally learned” that has them doing the things they do.

While this is a critical part of developing a behavior plan, it’s also critical to understand how the “mind” of the child with Autism works.  Failure to take this into account and just focusing on the contingencies (what happens right before and right after a behavior occurs) can lead us down the wrong path in developing a behavior plan.

For example, one problem that is quite common in children with Autism, is that they do not either respond to or take into consideration the context in which things happen when choosing a response.  Some refer to this as only responding to a single stimulus or not attending to the correct stimulus but the way it “shows up” is that the child is making decisions, especially in social situations based on limited information.   A relatively new phrase of “context blindness” is being used.  Regardless of what we call it, it’s important to realize the effects the way the child is “thinking” might have on the choices they make and their behavior.

For example, I had a child who had made tremendous progress in therapy.  He was quite verbal and was engaging in conversations quite readily, so I was quite surprised to hear that during lunch at school he “refused” to talk to other children or respond when they asked him questions.  I went to observe and sure enough, there he sat, silent as a mouse, eating his lunch and watching all the other children around him talk and giggle.  Teachers were wondering around the cafeteria, occasionally talking to children and having short conversations.

In looking around the cafeteria I noticed the “rules” written on the wall.  There on the wall, in 2 ft tall letters was written:

1)      Finish your meal before talking to your friends.

In talking to the child after lunch I learned that he didn’t eat much and rarely finished his lunch so believed he couldn’t talk!

If we had solely focused on the contingencies of the behavior, we might come to the conclusion that this child was avoiding interactions with peers or was unable to respond to questions.  We would miss the “big picture” that this child needed to be taught to use all the clues in the environment to figure out how to interpret that rule and how to behave in the cafeteria.  Clue he missed included:

  • Other children were talking to each other while they were eating.
  • Children weren’t getting into trouble for talking and in fact were talking to teachers
  • Perhaps the rule was meant that people should make sure they give themselves plenty of time to finish their meal.
  • Perhaps “finish your meal” meant to eat as much as you were going to eat for that meal rather than, you had to finish all the food in your lunchbox.

While knowing the contingencies is important, it’s equally important to be aware of and have a good understanding of how the person with Autism thinks and how those thoughts might direct their behavior.

Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

Autism Consultant

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