Processing, communication, and cooperation
Working with Rhythm today, I came to the realization that there’s a significant time lag in a lot of his responses that I suspect is common for autistic people (children and adults) and often gets read as uncooperativeness, inconsistency, or other negative traits.
Simplest example. I asked Rhythm if he needed a potty break and he shook his head “no” (he’s quite good with using the toilet, but regular reminders help, especially if his attention is on something interesting). A few minutes later, he signed “potty,” asking for a bathroom break, and I realized that it had taken him a few minutes to think about it, switch his attention from the current activity to focusing on signals from his body, realize that he was ready to use the toilet, and communicate that to me.
I’ve seen the same thing in other situations. I’ll ask if he’s hungry or thirsty and get no response– it seems like he’s ignoring me completely. But then within 5-10 minutes, he’ll ask for food or drink. And it often takes me a few minutes to talk him into doing something or switching activities. Getting ready for bed tonight was another example.
It was nearing bed time. He took me to the front door and said “muh!” which might have been a question about when his mother was coming home, but my best guess was “you want to go out and look for the moon?” which was rewarded with emphatic nodding– it’s so much easier to understand children once I know what things they like! We went out and looked for the moon, but it was cloudy out. Then I had to physically resist having him drag me off on an adventure for a few minutes before he finally agreed to go inside and take his bath (which isn’t usually a hard sell– he loves baths).
I rarely resort to using my adult strength against his, but it was partly a safety issue in this case, so I held him back while explaining that it was nearly bedtime and also we couldn’t just wander off at night leaving the house unlocked. For five or so minutes, you’d think he either wasn’t understanding me at all or just plain didn’t care, but then he stopped trying to get me to take him down the road and let me lead him back inside.
Caretakers, therapists, and teachers often describe this kind of behavior as “willful” or “stubborn,” interpreting these delays as the child is insisting on making their point before bending to the rules– and I think this is sometimes the case, especially in young neurotypical (non-autistic) kids. It’s necessary, to some extent, for children to do this– to assert their independence, to prove to themselves that they have some amount of decision-making ability in their own lives– although too much of it is definitely exhausting for caretakers (after all, we’re talking about the defining characteristic of the “terrible two’s” here– the “no!” phase).
But in autistic children, I think it’s important that we take into account the likelihood that the child is simply taking longer to understand, think about, and respond to what we say. And they are probably utterly bewildered (not to mention emotionally hurt) if they are punished or treated as a disappointment for not cooperating sooner.
Processing time. Response time. These things are not the same in autistic people as in neurotypicals. Many autistic college students have mentioned to me that they dread class discussions, or other situations where they are expected to respond to something within a matter of minutes after having the relevant material presented to them– to say nothing of the difficulty with breaking into a discussion when their attention is already completely dedicated to processing what others are saying, never mind coming up with thoughtful responses and navigating the subtle social cues of when to cut into the conversation. (There’s a truly excellent first-hand description of that experience here: https://thethirdglance.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/words/)
If we are going to design a world that works for autistic people– or even simply make the autistic people in our own lives more comfortable– we need to take these differences into account and remember not to jump to conclusions about someone’s thoughts simply because their response is delayed, difficult to determine, or changes after they’ve had more time to think.