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February 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 5

Autism from the Inside

A university professor and industrial designer with autism shares what she'd like teachers to know about autistic students.

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Teachers need to understand how autistic people think. How I think is different from how “normal” people think.
As I described in Thinking in Pictures (1995), all my thoughts happen in photorealistic pictures. My mind works like the search engine Google when it does an image search. If somebody says the word saddle, the first image I see in my imagination is an English saddle, my most prized possession when I was in high school. The next image is the tack room full of saddles at my aunt's guest ranch in Arizona. The third image is tennis courts. How did I get from a saddle to tennis courts? Next to my aunt's tack room were tennis courts for the ranch guests. My thinking is associative and is often not sequential or linear.
Research using brain scans now shows that my brain works differently in its greater reliance on its visual areas. Researcher Nancy Minshew and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University found that people on the autistic spectrum process both high-imagery and low-imagery sentences in the visual parts of the brain (Kana, Keller, Cherkassky, Minshew, & Just, 2006). “Adding and subtracting are math operations” is an example of a low-imagery sentence. “The number 8 on its side looks like a pair of eyeglasses” is a high-imagery sentence. A nonautistic person shuts off the visual areas of the brain to process a low-imagery sentence. But when I read that low-imagery sentence about adding and subtracting, I immediately see an image of my 3rd grade teacher teaching me arithmetic basics.
I have had teachers ask me, “How can I get the pictures out of the student's head?” The answer is that you cannot. Pictures are the autistic student's way of thinking. What teachers can do is work with such thinking patterns and make adjustments that will bring out an autistic student's strengths. The following are tips for working successfully with students on the spectrum of autism disorders.

What Helps with Elementary School Students

Give the student time to respond. I process information slowly, and I need time to provide an answer. I remember a very frustrating episode from kindergarten. The assignment was to mark all the pictures of things that began with B. I failed to mark a picture of a bike and a birdbath. The teacher did not give me time to explain that I did not know the difference between the little trike that I rode and a bike. I also marked the birdbath pictureG for garden. The garden seemed like a more important element in the picture than the birdbath.
Avoid long strings of verbal directions. When I ask for directions when I am driving, I have to write them down if anyone tells me more than three steps. I have absolutely no sequential memory for verbal directions. If the student can read, provide him or her with written instructions.
Respect sensory sensitivities. The way an autistic child perceives the world is different; many have heightened sensitivities. Sensory sensitivities can vary, but in class the teacher may need to help a student cope.
When my elementary school bell rang, it hurt my ears as much as a dentist drill does when it hits a nerve. I have great difficulty hearing another person talk if there is too much background noise. Fortunately, my school had small, quiet classrooms where everybody worked on the same thing at the same time. I would have done poorly studying or listening in large, noisy classes.
Some children are sensitive to the flicker of fluorescent lights. Problems with fluorescent lights can be reduced by moving a student's desk near a window or providing that student a lamp with an incandescent light bulb.
Avoid vague language. Children on the autism spectrum think concretely. Telling an autistic child to get ready for the bus is too vague. It would be better to say, “You need to have your backpack, homework papers, and jacket with you before you go to meet the bus.” Students may not understand such common expressions as “champing at the bit.” Today, I use expressions like these all the time, but I had to learn the meaning of each one by having somebody explain it to me.

What Helps with Older Students

Develop the student's strengths. The most successful adults with autism, Asperger's syndrome, dyslexia, or other learning problems had teachers who developed their strengths. For example, I use my ability to think visually in my business designing livestock facilities. But not all people with autism are photorealistic visual thinkers like me. Some think in visual or sound patterns instead of in pictures. These pattern thinkers “see” in their mind's eye relationships between numbers instead of photorealistic images; they usually excel in music and math. Still other people with autism appear to have almost no ability in visual imagery. They think with long lists of words and facts and often love history and sports statistics.
The bottom line is that skills are uneven, and encouraging students to excel in their strongest areas is better than trying to push for well-roundedness. If a 7th grader can do 12th grade math, he or she should be taking 12th grade math. Otherwise the student will become bored and have behavior problems.
Develop social skills through shared interests. I was brought up in a strict household, and I was taught table manners and to say please and thank you. Also, my mother ensured that my nanny and speech teacher kept me occupied for more than 20 hours each week with speech therapy and turn-taking games when I was a preschooler. I will never really be highly socially related. But these activities helped me learn social skills, which are important for people with autism to thrive.
Socially, high school was the worst time in my life. I was teased constantly. My only refuges from teasing were horseback riding and my science teacher's electronics lab because the kids who sought these activities were not the kids who teased. I recommend getting children with autism or Asperger's syndrome into activities where they can socialize through shared interests with other children. Specialized activities or clubs, such as robotics, chess, spelling bees, art, music, or computer programming, are wonderful for students on the autism spectrum.
Find—or be—a mentor. I was a goof-off in high school. My high school science teacher, Bill Carlock, saved me. By giving me interesting projects, he gave me a reason to study: to become a scientist. For one project, I stretched a thin rubber membrane over a large loudspeaker and glued small mirrors on it. When the sound waves made the membrane vibrate, the mirrors made light patterns on the wall that moved in time with the music.
The secret to motivating a student with autism is to broaden the student's fixations into useful activities. If a child likes airplanes, then use airplanes as the subject for reading and math. Fixations are great motivators, and it is often a mistake to stamp one out. Try to help the student develop his or her fixation into a useful skill that other people will value.
In my case, nobody was interested in my obsessive interest in cattle squeeze chutes. A squeeze chute is a narrow stall with movable sides to hold the animal. I watched cattle go through chutes for their vaccinations on my aunt's cattle ranch and became fascinated because the chute appeared to calm the cattle down. After watching this, I built a personal pressure device similar to a squeeze chute that I used to calm myself down during my constant panic attacks in adolescence.
Mr. Carlock channeled my interest in the squeeze machine I built into studying physiology. He assigned me scientific articles to read to determine why pressure had a calming effect on the body, and I spent many hours reading in the library. When I eventually transformed the obsession into the skill ofdesigning cattle chutes and other facilities, other people became interested in what I could do.
Middle school and high school students with autism disorders often do well in science, music, and art classes. Teachers in these specialized subjects are often in a good position to direct a disengaged student down a successful path. But sometimes a mentor has to be found outside the school. When I gave a talk in a large school district I recently visited, I was shocked to learn that there were only two high school science teachers in the entire district.
One parent told me that her autistic son is doing well in high school because the weatherman at the local TV station took an interest in him. Some of the most successful individuals on the autism spectrum were “apprenticed” into such fields as auto mechanics or computer programming. An autistic student often does better by “selling” his or her work, rather than by relying on a charismatic personality. Showing student work in a portfolio is a good strategy. Talent will attract a mentor. For instance, I recently saw a portfolio of professional-quality photographs taken by a 15-year-old student with Asperger's syndrome who had a mentor at the local community college.
Make a gradual transition from school to employment. People on the spectrum handle transitions with difficulty. To ease the transition from school to employment, schools need to teach these students work skills from a young age. When I was 13, I worked two afternoons a week for a dressmaker. In college, I had an internship at a research lab. These jobs helped me learn such skills as how to get along with new people, arrive at work on time, and do the tasks assigned to me. Doing a job that other people appreciated gave me confidence.

How Autistic Students Develop Social Skills

People ask me if there was a magic turning point in my life when I had a “breakthrough” in learning social skills. There wasn't one point; I gradually improved as I learned more. But there were three important events that helped me develop social skills: the early education program that my mother provided, the guidance of Mr. Carlock, and starting antidepressant medication in my early 30s. The medication stopped my constant anxiety and panic attacks. In school and at home, I was always testing the limits. Children on the spectrum need consistent discipline between home and school. Mother and my elementary teachers worked as a team. I knew if I misbehaved at school, my mother would find out about it.
It has taken me almost 60 years to learn how different my brain is. When I was in my early 50s, I first learned why looking at another person's eyes was so important. I did not know that people had all these little eye signals until I read about them in Simon Baron-Cohen's bookMindblindness (1995).
People on the autism spectrum are highly variable. I have found satisfaction in life by immersing myself in my work; other individuals are more social. It all depends on which circuits in the brain get hooked up.
In conclusion, I want to thank the wonderful teachers I had. Mr. Carlock and a firm but fair 3rd grade teacher named Alice Dietsch saved me.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, M A: MIT Press.

Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: My life with autism. New York: Doubleday. Expanded edition published by Vintage, 2006.

Kana, R. K., Keller, T. A., Cherkassky, V. L., Minshew, N. J., & Just, M. A. (2006). Sentence comprehension in autism: Thinking in pictures with decreased functional connectivity. Brain, 129(9), 2484–2493.

End Notes

1 Asperger's syndrome, which has some characteristic symptoms in common with autism, is listed as a separate diagnosis in the 1994 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association).

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