Saturday, September 22, 2007

Creating Common Ground

Communication involves finding some way to share experiences. Finding a starting place is often challenging with a young child who has autism. It may feel as though you live in a different mental reality and that you have no common ground. When this is true, you will need to create a meeting place. Chances are, you will find it easier to meet first in the place that the child lives--the perceptual world.

The Perceptual World

Prior to the development of language skills, a child resides entirely in the perceptual world rather than the conceptual world. This is the world of perceiving objects that float, that fit snugly on feet, that disappear in the mouth, unroll off of a tube, bounce when dropped, open and shut, spin. For me to think of these examples, I went into the conceptual world of words where I spend most my time. In this world I began to described whatever objects came to mind--a balloon, shoes, food, toilet paper, a ball, a door, a spinning top.

Andy ignores my existence

Andy is a child who seems, like so many other children I have known, to ignore people and to live happily in the perception of objects--the roundness, the lightness of weight, the sound of bouncing, the creak or the slam, all of these sensations and how they occur. Andy is not thinking about what he is doing, but rather just doing it. Sometimes he does an activity over and over, like closing doors. Even this repeated activity looks unintentional as though each time he sees a door open he just happens to close it. It seems like this child's entire life is good or bad, moment-to-moment, based upon whatever is happening in that moment. While flipping lights on and off, Andy's life is happy. Andy does not decide his life is happy, it just feels happy to control the light. While having his teeth brushed, his life is unbearable because it feels bad to have that brush in his mouth. Eating pizza, life is perfect. Andy is just like other guys around pizza.

Introducing myself to Andy

When I first meet a child like Andy, I go to his perceptual world to be with him. I bring with me new perceptual experiences as a token of friendship. I might bring a roll of tape to rip off in pieces and stick on knees, walls, toys. I might bring a wonderful top that both spins and lights up and if he finds my top interesting, I am pleased to show him how to spin it. I intentionally become the source of new sensory experiences and a co-participant in each activity. As a co-participant, I genuinely like the rip and the feel of tape sticking on this and on that. I become engaged in the perceptual world with Andy.

Doing things together

I genuinely experience and enjoying whatever I am doing with Andy. If I can't enjoy the rip and stickiness of tape with Andy, and just dole out the tape for him for him to enjoy, then I am offering him a new solitary experience not a new social experience. I not only join Andy, I help him become aware that we are in a joint venture. The sticky tape might be placed high up on a shelf and I might bring it down with effort and drama--over and over again, since I only take a small piece off at a time. I am not doing this to reward Andy for interacting with me--but rather to highlight that we are both involved in the experience of tape. I know that sensory experiences can be so consuming that Andy will forget that I am there if I don't find a way to help him shift his attention back and forth between the tape and his play partner, me.


Leading Andy into the conceptual world

I don't just conspicuously join Andy, I quickly start to add a conceptual framework to our common experience. I add a First/Then Visual Support to the games we are playing so that he knows, for example, to expect to play with tape first and to watch the light-up top spin second. When Andy begins to perceive that two pictures placed in a row could represent time, he is entering the conceptual world of symbols. First/Then is a conceptual framework that allows us to "discuss" what the next perceptual experiences will be. My next First/Then card might show a picture of running then drinking the next time we play. I know Andy loves to run and he loves juice. He won't care what order these two come in, but he might notice what order they come in. The First/Then sequence of pictures may begin to provide information that is interesting to Andy, like the weather report is interesting to me in the morning.


When I first introduce a First/Then card, , I don't think about the card as a way to control Andy's behavior. I am really not trying to get Andy to do the first activity in order to be rewarded with the second activity although I might exert my authority at some point and use the card this way. But not at first. I don't want to squander this teaching opportunity on trying to teach compliance at the beginning because I have a more ambitious aim. I want Andy to become interested in the world of concepts. First/Then is a different world entirely from the world of sticky tape on the knee or watching a top spin or running and drinking. It is the world of thinking about something that is not presently occurring. That is what makes it conceptual rather than perceptual.

The conceptual world gets bigger

As time goes on, I might introduce a visual picture schedule with more events listed in a sequence. Andy can then see that the plan for us together is to 1) play with tape 2) brush teeth 3) watch a light-up top spin. Now, within the conceptual world, Andy can decide if life is good or bad based on a larger time frame than the present moment. Life does not see so terrible, even when there is a toothbrush in your mouth if you know that you will soon be watching a light-up top spinning. A sequence like this is not just a way to offer a reward to a child for enduring the tooth brushing routine, it is a way to offer a child a wider view where he can anticipate better times ahead.


With these picture symbols, I am also offering Andy a way that we can directly, and specifically communicate about experiences that will occur or that have already occurred. We can still be together in the moment's activity but we can also think together about what will soon occur. We can be happy and excited about the idea of ripping tape together. I can commiserate with him regarding the upcoming tooth brushing nightmare. We both can anticipate with joy the moment that we will have when we spin the top together. We share emotions and ideas prior to any of this happening in the perceptual world. Afterward we complete our visual schedule list, we can look at that visual schedule and emotionally, re-live it all together. We can even interpret it all in a new way as Andy learns new language . "Tape was too sticky--I don't like sticky on my hands!" "Tooth brushing was Yucky!." (I can suggest the possibility that it was just uncomfortable not unbearable.) "Spinning Top was so cool!" It might be many, many months before Andy can think ahead with me and reflect with me like this, but Andy has become a friend who likes to be with me as much as I like to be with him. We

Together, we have created a meeting ground for communication. It is ground that spans between the conceptual and perceptual world.

4 comments:

Gayle said...

This is a great article. Great insights and useful in so many situations...

Laine Moore said...

Woah great blog and website! I'm working with students with ASD from 5-15 and I came here to get ideas about how to introduce more social play to my 5 year olds. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a great article! Thank you!