“Is she talking to me?” the child asks himself.
“I am getting eye contact,” he continues. “But no, she must be talking to the kid to my left. For all I know, she might even be looking through me to the kid behind me. But she can’t seriously be calling on me again…can she?”
This is roughly what would have gone through my mind if I was capable of reasoning through a situation at five years old.
What situation, you ask? Let me tell you about it…
The scene: Preschool.
The main players: Myself and the teacher – we’ll call her Mrs. Doodiddy.
Supporting players: About a dozen other four- and five-year-olds all gathered around for some activity or other.
Early on I was called upon to participate, and did so to the best of my ability. Naturally, Mrs. Doodiddy then asked others for their contributions.
And then…could it be? It looked as though she was calling on me again. She did not say my name, but she appeared to be looking right at me.
“Let’s go!” she said after a couple of tries, snapping her fingers. “Today!”
No one can fault Mrs. Doodiddy if she began to lose patience. For all she or any observer could tell, I was ignoring her (if she is reading this, I offer her my much belated apologies).
So now, twenty-six years later, I place myself in the dock and offer an explanation.
One simple rule
People on the autism spectrum tend to struggle with (big word alert) central coherence and executive functioning. Consequently, whether we are talking about sensory or informational input, someone with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can only focus on one thing at a time as a rule.
My belief is that the need for a very simple, straightforward, clear set of rules to govern daily life is an extension of this need. Such rules, after all, make navigating the complex landscape of the ASD child’s world much easier.
And the simple, straightforward, clear cut rule I had learned, and which I erroneously applied in this case, was that everyone must take turns. My turn had come, and therefore (so I thought) I would not be getting another.
If Mrs. Doodiddy had addressed me by name, then I would have responded right away.
Or if someone had told me, “Once you’ve had your turn you must let someone else have their turn…unless the teacher calls on you again,” I would have been all right.
Someone could even have nipped the problem in the bud by informing me that it was possible to be given more than one turn at the same activity.
As it was, even eye contact did not carry the same certainty for me as a direct address or a needed qualification of the “take-turns” rule. The matter was in doubt, so I went with the most obvious and fundamental rule that seemed applicable.
The deeper issue, and an opportunity
What I am describing here is not rare among ASD kids. What most people begin intuitively to grasp as common sense from early childhood does not come naturally to a child on the spectrum.
Can the ASD child learn such “common sense” things? Sure — but it requires a much greater expenditure of effort on his part. That is the ASD child’s struggle.
A final note to the Doodiddy’s of the world: Keep doing what you’re doing. As teachers, you are among the best resources in a child’s life. But if you run into a situation like this, try to foster compassionate curiosity toward your student.
S/he will thank you for it…even if not out loud.