I joined the Leadership Team in the fall of 2007 after
receiving an invitation to join the team at the 2007 NATTAP Conference in
The following is an abridged version of the Autism Camp Test, the training material that I created for my portion of the staff orientation. The test gives scenarios involving individual behaviors, and quizzes staff members on their ability to understand the distinct “autistic” motives behind individual behaviors, and how they differ from neurotypical motives for those same behaviors. I believe that we as a culture often associate certain behaviors with specific motives—yet autistic individuals often behave for motivations that differ from those assumptions.
In this test, the possible answer to each question will be displayed in boldface. Since these scenarios are based on real events at our camp, what actually happened in each situation will be included as an addendum to the test. While this test was written for autism camp counselors, the concepts covered in the test, and the test content, can be used in training anyone working in the field of autism.
If you are reading this, then you are taking the ACT—that is, the Autism Camp Test. No, not the real ACT. However, this test, like the ACT, is designed to test your readiness for working at autism camps—just as the ACT is designed to test your readiness for going to college.
The test consists of five stories followed by multiple-choice questions. Each story involves an autistic person at camp, and how he or she reacts and behaves in that certain situation. In each story, you will be given “possible” reasons why the autistic person behaved that way. You will be asked if each “possibility” is likely or unlikely. The correct answers consist of things that are more likely to be the reason versus things that are less likely. There are a total of 21 multiple-choice questions in this abridged version.
The stories included in this test are based on real-life situations that autism specialists and other individuals have been in when working with autistic people. However, all the names of the people involved have been changed in order to protect people’s privacy.
If you are feeling anxious about taking this test, then remember that that is part of the experience of this test. You are feeling what many autistic people feel when they take standardized tests such as the ACT. Yet like other students, autistic students are judged by how well they score on tests like the ACT, even though many students with autism may be intelligent but lack sufficient “testing” skills. The structure of a test is very difficult for autistic people, and many autistic people who are smart and actually get As in their classes have failed tests like the ACT because of those difficulties.
In any given situation, there can be many different possible reasons for why an autistic person does what he does. The idea behind this test is to evaluate your ability to see what explanations are more likely than others. In each scenario, there will be three possible explanations given for each behavior. One of them refers to an unlikely explanation, one that people often assume for the reason behind an autistic behavior yet often unlikely constitutes the reason why the autistic person behaved that way. The other possibilities refer to more plausible explanations for the autistic behavior.
After we are done with this test, we will go over each scenario. I will tell you what really happened when the event took place, then discuss what explanations are more likely than others.
You will have 20 minutes to complete this test.
You work as a counselor at an autism camp. It is sunny and 90 degrees outside, so you require that your campers wear sunscreen. A boy named Brent refuses to wear sunscreen.
1. Brent is spoiled and deliberately trying to manipulate the counselor.
2. Brent does not want to wear sunscreen because he is sensitive to touch and cannot stand the feeling of the sunscreen on his body.
3. Brent will not wear sunscreen because he has a hard time dealing with changing rules.
ANSWERS: In the real scenario, Question 2 refers to the correct answer. Autistic people often have sensory issues, and in this case, tactile sensitivity and putting on sunscreen can cause an autistic individual to feel “sensory overload.” People with autism often have heightened senses, and can hear things louder than others, see things brighter than others, and feel things with a higher intensity than others. People with autism often have tactile sensitivities, and the feeling of things like sunscreen can cause them sensations of physical pain. When I was called to intervene in this situation, my first assumption was that the boy was bothered by the actual feel of the sunscreen.
The unlikely answer, Question 1, refers to what the counselor initially thought. Many people, unaware of autism, automatically assume this when autistic children and adolescents refuse to listen to adults and others in authority. Unaware of the actual autistic symptoms that people with autism have that cause them to feel mental and/or physical pain, neurotypical individuals assume that when autistic children don’t obey orders, they are merely spoiled and trying to manipulate the adults around them.
The motivation in Question 3 refers to another reason why autistic individuals often resist things—when a new rule is sprung into their lives, they often feel uneasy because of the abrupt change. Because autistic people view the world as being quite unpredictable and illogical, changes in their environment often scare them and freak them out. If the camp counselor told the boy to put on sunscreen right before the kids were going out, it could be too sudden a change for the boy, and he resisted it because he did not have time to get used to that new requirement.
You learn that the problem is sensory related.
4. Brent cannot stand the smell of the sunscreen, and is bothered by the smell when it is on his skin.
5. Brent is bothered by what the girls will think of him when they see him with sunscreen on his arms and legs.
6. Brent does not like the feel of sunscreen on his body.
ANSWERS: Questions 4 and 6 are two possible answers, and these reflect the wide variety of different sensory issues that autistic people have. It may be that he is bothered by the smell of the sunscreen, as autistic individuals often are bothered by certain smells. Or he may be bothered by the feel of the sunscreen on his body due to tactile sensitivities.
Question 5 reflects an unlikely possibility, but exists to show how people unaware with autism can make an explanation that would probably be false, yet people make because of their lack of awareness. Question 6 relates to the correct answer in the actual scenario, but in fact, the answer is still more specific.
You ask him why he does not want the sunscreen to be put on. Brent tells you that he does not get bothered by the feel of sunscreen on his body.
7. Brent actually will not put on the sunscreen because he is used to another brand of sunscreen and does not want to use a brand of sunscreen he is unfamiliar with.
8. Brent is trying to prove to the other campers that he is a true adolescent rebel and therefore will not respect the counselor’s authority.
9. Brent is not bothered by the feel of the sunscreen at all. What actually bothers him is the initial feeling of the sunscreen when it is placed on his body because of the temperature of the sunscreen, and how it is placed on his body.
ANSWERS: Question 7 refers to a response autistic people have when they use certain products or eat or drink certain foods that are not specific brands. Many people with autism, due to their sensory sensitivities, might only be willing to eat certain foods of different brands, or use certain products like shampoo or sunscreen of certain brands, since other brands might make them feel uncomfortable or cause sensory overload. Or it may be due to the element of change—autistic people often freak out at unexpected changes, and using a different brand of sunscreen could represent an unexpected change that may be too much for Brent to handle.
Question 8 refers to an unlikely assumption based on the idea that any person who refuses to listen to authority for unknown reasons does so in the name of conscious rebellion, an assumption based on how neurotypical teenagers sometimes act when told to do things by authority figures.
SCENARIO 2: Questions 10-14
Steve is a counselor supervising a group of autistic campers who did not want to attend the evening activities. He is just outside the mess hall in a sandy area where the campers are hanging out. An autistic girl, Katie, is playing in the sand quietly. Steve is told that she likes jokes. He tells her a simple knock-knock joke. She does not laugh—and ignores Steve.
10. Katie is ignoring Steve because she is actually interested in a specific type of joke, and does not typically like knock-knock jokes.
11. Katie is ignoring Steve because she prefers to be alone and/or to be by herself, and does not want to interact with other people.
12. Katie is ignoring Steve because she feels that she will get cooties if she talks to a boy.
ANSWERS: Question 10 refers to the correct answer in the real scenario. Katie probably does not obsess over jokes at all, but rather, she obsesses over specific types of jokes. Often times, people with autism have special interests and obsessions that are specific to a certain subject that not a lot of other people know about. Before I work at the various summer camps I work at each summer, I research popular special interests among autistic individuals. In the spring of 2010, in fact, I attended a national anime convention to learn more about Japanese anime, a popular special interest among autistic individuals.
Question 11 is also a possible answer, as many autistic individuals prefer being alone. Many individuals with autism I have spoken to have told me that they prefer being alone than having friends and being with other people. I myself have been through phases of my life where I have felt the same way. Although many autism specialists have argued that no one actually wishes to be by themselves and only
Question 12 refers to an answer that people might assume because it may be the case for some neurotypical girls, but rarely would be true. Most of the time, girls with autism do not share the same concept of “cooties” as other girls, and would not think in those terms. Some girls actually get along better with boys, even at the ages when their neurotypical counterparts think that boys are gross.
You consider the possibility that Katie might not be interested in the joke you told her. You ask Katie to tell you a joke. She asks you, “Why does it take more than one squirrel to screw in a lightbulb?” You ask, “Why?” She says in a loud voice, “Because they’re so darn STUPID!”
13. Is Katie really obsessed with jokes?
14. If you answered no, then what might be her actual special interest?
B. Japanese Anime
C. High School Musical
D. Calvin and Hobbes
ANSWER: SpongeBob SquarePants. The joke that Katie told actually comes from that show, from the episode “Squirrel Jokes.” SpongeBob SquarePants originally told that joke during a standup comedy routine featured in that episode.
SCENARIO 3: Questions 15-17
You are working with a semi-nonverbal autistic camper named Jack. Jack has trouble respecting the “personal space” of other people. Whomever he sees, he tries to hug. His counselor has tried to tell him that he must respect other people’s “personal space,” but he does not listen to his counselor. Meanwhile, Jack is bothering the other campers by hugging them. He seems to enjoy hugging and will not stop.
15. Jack is hugging people because his body has a need for sensory stimulation because his senses are “hyposensitive”—that is, he hears, sees, touches, smells, and tests things “less” rather than “more”—and is trying to meet that need by hugging others.
16. Jack is hugging people because he is a stalker and/or abuser and is trying to openly harass everyone he sees.
17. Jack is hugging people because he saw two close friends hug in a situation where it was acceptable and does not understand that hugging is not always acceptable everywhere.
ANSWERS: Questions 15
and 17. Although many people with autism have tactile sensitivities, some
individuals have a need for sensory stimulation, something that autistic people
call “deep pressure.” This need became the basis for famed autistic individual
At the same time, we have strong social rules about hugging. Our culture allows hugging in some social settings, but vehemently prohibits hugging in other settings. Autistic people watch neurotypical people hug each other when it is culturally appropriately to do so, but often do not understand those social and cultural standards, and will hug in inappropriate settings due to those misunderstandings. Both questions show the answer, as the person with autism in this situation hugs excessively in order to receive their necessary sensory stimulation, yet also hugs because he saw many people hug in appropriate situations, and did not have the mental functioning to understand different social standards.
Question 16 refers to an explanation that many people assume due to cultural assumptions. Hugging is viewed, culturally, as a behavior of affection, and because of this, people often assume that inappropriate hugging shows a sign of inappropriate affection, which we do not always accept in our society. People in our culture look negatively towards inappropriate hugging and affection, and assume (especially in males) that the intentions of people who inappropriately hug do so for sinister reasons, and could possibly be stalkers or harassers. However, although this cultural assumption exists, rarely do autistic people who inappropriately hug do so for this reason.
SCENARIO 4: Questions 18-20
You are working with an autistic camper named Bob, who is twelve years old. You’ve noticed something about him—he talks to you in different tones of voice. Sometimes his tone of voice is a lot higher than at other times. Sometimes he has a deep voice and other times he has a high voice. There is no breaking or cracking in his voice, however—it seems to be stable during each sentence.
18. Bob is changing his tones to manipulate you so he can get his way by pretending to be sad or happy based on how high or low he sounds.
19. Bob is terrified of the day when his voice changes because he has no control over it, and is deepening his voice on purpose so he can pretend his voice is changing so he can have some control of it during puberty.
20. Bob is imitating the voices of the characters of his favorite TV shows.
ANSWER: Question 18. The unlikely answer, based on an assumption many people have that when autistic people behave in ways that don’t seem to make sense, they do so for manipulative purposes. Autistic people can be manipulative, but that doesn’t mean they always are.
Question 19 refers to the answer from the actual scenario. This story, unlike the others, comes from my own experiences. When I was thirteen, I was terrified of the day when my voice would change, because I had no control over it. Having always had the skill to imitate other voices from TV characters, I also acquired to skill to speak in a deeper tone than my typical tone. I coped with the uncertainty of my voice changing by controlling the change. One day I decided I would consciously speak with my deeper tone and then speak with that tone indefinitely until my voice actually changed. I did, and my parents just assumed that my voice was actually changing. Three months after consciously speaking in a deeper voice, my voice finally changed.
Question 20 refers to a likely reason as many people with autism love to imitate voice characters from their favorite TV shows and/or movies—this is a very popular activity among autistic people. People with autism often have TV shows, movies, books, and comic strips that they obsess over, and often enjoy copying the voices of characters in those shows.
SCENARIO 5: Question 21
You are sitting on a beach on a lake at the campsite for an autism camp. You watch two autistic campers, Mary and Edith, on the beach talking. You cannot hear what they are saying, but you can see their facial cues.
Edith, while talking, moves closer to Mary. Mary moves closer to Edith. Edith takes her hands and points in front of herself. You turn and see a large sandcastle where she is pointing. A boy named Fred is also there, building another sandcastle, and two other boys are running on the beach nearby. Then Mary laughs.
21. What are Edith and Mary talking about?
A. Mary is talking to Edith about how she likes Fred and is scared to talk to him.
Mary and Edith
are talking about how crazy the sandcastle nearby looks.
C. Mary and Edith are talking about how they enjoy the beach together.
D. Mary and Edith are counting together how many steps the boys who are running are taking while they run.
ANSWERS: This is a trick question, one of the only questions where the actual answer is not the “autistic” answer. When this question was used at the first staff training, the staff all unanimously said that D was the correct answer, as counting steps is an “autistic” thing to do. The trick here is that while the staff in the audience accurately concluded the “autistic” answer, the purpose of this question is to show that not all situations with autistic individuals showing mysterious behaviors or actions involve them acting autistic.
In this actual situation, Mary actually was not acting autistic. Rather, she was talking to Edith about how she liked Fred, yet was scared to talk to him. After seeing their discussion and concluding this was the case based on the nonverbal body language mentioned in the story, Edith came to me and told me that Mary was frustrated because she liked a boy and was scared to talk to him.
Initially, Edith did not want to tell me who Mary liked. But Mary finally revealed it was Fred by trying to talk to him. Fred, due to his own autism, was totally oblivious of what was going on, and I resolved the situation by immediately telling Edith, Mary, and Fred to join together for a game that I led, enabling them all to play and interact together without having to worry about not having anything to say. Afterwards, Edith and Mary, happy they were able to play with Fred, went back to their cabin.
And this concludes the test. I hope you enjoyed seeing how autistic reasoning works in different situations that may occur during your work at autism camp.