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Friday, July 26, 2013

The Dangers of Over-Presuming Competence in High Functioning Autism/Asperger's

Many bloggers have written eloquently about the importance of always, always presuming competence in a person with autism. Even if they do not communicate well, even if they appear not to be listening, presume competence. Leigh Merriday at Flappiness Is wrote a moving post on this very topic, as have others.

But on the flip side, just as we should never presume incompetence, nor should we over-presume about the competence of children with high functioning autism / Asperger's. Jennifer Cook O'Toole of Asperkids describes kids with Asperger's as "Swiss cheese" - in other words, really strong in some areas, but with gaps in the middle. When a child has a large vocabulary - the "Little Professor" syndrome that is so common in Asperger's - adults tend to expect him to be equally skilled in all areas of life. Which of course he is not, because of those holes in the Swiss cheese.

Image via She Knows.
What's wrong with expecting too much of our kids? When we over-presume competence across the board, we miss the underlying cause of many issues. And if we are mistaken about why a child is struggling, how can we possibly help direct him towards an effective solution? Not only that, but when parents, teachers, and other adults assume that a child can, but he doesn't, what comes next? We start ascribing other motivations, most of which are not very flattering - he must be lazy or stubborn or disrespectful or disobedient.

As a mom, I have certainly been guilty of this myself at times. Earlier this week I wrote about how our family uses visuals to teach our son independent skills, one of which was picking up his toys. For the longest time, I had assumed that my son ignored my requests to clean up his room because he just plain didn't want to (cue the incorrect assumptions about motivation: he's being lazy, stubborn, disrespectful...). Then one day I realized that the instruction to "clean up" was too abstract - he literally didn't know what to do. A chart showing how to put away the toy trains went up on the wall, and the problem was resolved. And I learned a valuable lesson: just because a child can spell the name of every Thomas & Friends train does not mean he knows how to put them away. I had over-presumed competence.

Even professionals can fall into this trap with our very bright kids. Here is a perfect example: my son had been struggling to zip his winter coat, even though the school OT had said he that he had mastered the skill. I sent her an email about it, and the therapist guessed that my son was not really having trouble with his zipper, but that he wanted an excuse to work with her again so he could gain access to her iPad. She said that my son is "too smart to have forgotten" how to zip a zipper ("too smart" is a red flag that assumptions are being made, in my book). Now my son is as motivated by the iPad as the next guy (which is to say a lot!), but the whole idea of a preschooler devising such a complicated, manipulative plot seemed a bit far-fetched to me.
Left: image via School Specialty. Right: image via LL Bean.

Well, guess what - when the OT watched my son trying to zip his winter coat, it turned out he really couldn't do it. Why? Because he had mastered zipping a therapy vest, not a real coat with a flap over the zipper. The skill learned in therapy did not generalize to real life. That is not manipulation, that is autism!

And that is my point: yes, we should always presume competence, but we should also avoid falling into the trap of assuming equal competence across all domains. That is why we use extensive visual supports for our highly verbal child and at least try (when we remember) to look for the underlying cause when problems arise, using the TEACCH "iceberg model". Children all across the autism spectrum are first and foremost unique individuals, and it does them a disservice to ascribe negative (flawed) motivations to their genuine struggles.

1 comment :

  1. This is an awesome post! Thank you so much for saying it...particularly as a parent of a child on the spectrum. This is the struggle we have always hd with my sister and that I see play out in schools everyday, particularly with the higher functioning students. You said it beautifully and I love the quote!

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