The Importance of Critical Thinking
Good morning. As you already know from your handouts, my name is James Williams. I have autism.
Although I am not a doctor or a therapist, when I speak at parent support groups, schools, or autism conventions like this one, I am often asked what therapies helped me the most, and what therapies didn’t help me. Unfortunately, I try to shy away from such questions, because I don’t remember much about the therapies my mother tried—I was too young—and I’m sure you can find better sources of information out in the lobby of this convention or at some of the other speeches, given by experts and professionals.
On the other hand, while most treatments are beneficial in their own way, I think there is an important dimension that is often ignored when we discuss improving the lives of autistic individuals. What helped me the most over the years was not the big interventions, but the little accommodations that my parents, teachers, and other people gave me so that I could succeed.
My parents are not therapists; they are ordinary people, like yourselves. And the teachers who helped me the most were not the ones with “special education” experience—far from it. They were the ones who were able to think logically about my situation and do what they deemed was best for me from moment to moment.
Ladies and gentlemen, your greatest tool for helping your child is your own mind. You can do as much reading and research as you want, and consult dozens of experts, but ultimately you must decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong. There is no single doctrine or cure for autism. Thus, what is right for one individual is wrong for the other, and vice-versa. But you need to decide that for yourself.
In short, you need to think critically. If you can choose one tool for helping your child, it should be critical thinking. And it is critical thinking, on the part of my parents and teachers, that made me into who I am.
So what does it mean to be a critical thinker?
A critical thinker is someone who explores and considers as many possibilities as he can. His thinking is not bound by rules or doctrines, and he tries his best not to use emotions to justify his ideas. A critical thinker knows that he often has to follow rules, but he knows how to think outside of them. He does not take anything at face value because he knows that many commonly accepted things and ideas might, in fact, be wrong. Throughout history, there have been many intellectuals who have been critical thinkers. Some are scientists who discover things not from formal experiments or painstaking research but from thinking in a new and unique way. And the critical thinker himself always keeps in mind that his own ideas might be wrong.
Plus, he realizes that concepts such as right and wrong have a transitory nature. What was right yesterday will probably be proved wrong tomorrow. Almost every new “right” idea has some opposing “wrong” idea that it disproves and discredits. You cannot believe in Bernard Rimland’s ideas without disproving Bruno Bettleheim’s in the process. And sometimes, you might come across a debate where both sides of the argument are wrong. Generally, this occurs when extremists try to debate their two diametrically opposite positions, neither of which are endorsed by reasonable people. Extremism has no place in critical thinking, because the critical thinker never insists that he is always right.
The critical thinking that helped me the most stood outside the mandates, the doctrines, and the expectations. In the world that my parents created for me through homeschooling and through limiting my social experiences as much as possible to positive ones, no rule was followed unless it benefited me. No goal was hard and fast, and things changed on a daily basis depending on what I needed. Instead of thinking that I had to do such and such, my mother constantly determined what I could do on a certain day, what I wanted to do, and why I could or wanted to do it.
Instead of thinking that I had to do something because society demanded it, she instead questioned why society demanded it, and whether this justification applied to me. Most of the time, the things I was supposed to be doing at a certain time were not essential at all.
Many autistic individuals have suffered and are suffering greatly because they are surrounded by rigid, narrow, noncritical thinkers. They are told that they must learn a certain skill or behave in a certain way just because the rules say they must. When the autistic child fails, this is regarded as proof of the hopelessness of his condition, not the shortcomings of the goals imposed upon him.
During my lifetime, I have met countless individuals who show an almost total mind-blindness toward autistic children. Most of you have heard the term “mind-blindness,” I assume. It is the shortcoming that Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen says we autistic people demonstrate. But the blindness works both ways. The major shortcoming that I see is the neurotypical world’s stubborn refusal to make minor adjustments to help the autistic child feel more comfortable. It is my belief that classrooms are such a nightmare for many autistic kids because of the doctrine that says they have to get used to the real world in all its annoying aspects, despite the suffering it causes. One example that comes to mind is the autism classroom my mother visited in my hometown of Northbrook, Illinois. There were six kids and seven adults present in that classroom, and there was expensive equipment and heaps of learning materials and supplies everywhere. And yet despite all the money that funded that room, several students spent the day covering their ears or hiding in a corner or sitting under their desk. It didn’t take my mother very long to realize that a major problem with that room was that it is was right next to the music room, where all day long kids shuffled in and out, and the sounds of drums and voices and a loud piano filled the autism room hour after hour. My mother asked the teacher if she could please close the classroom door to reduce the noise level, and to her surprise, the teacher refused, saying, “My students have to get used to the noises of the world.” Unfortunately, they just couldn’t, and it was no wonder that by the end of the day, all the students were hiding under tables, moaning, and breaking down. All that money spent on one-and-one aides and expensive materials was wasted, in my mother’s opinion, because the teacher couldn’t think critically and make a minor accommodation that would really help her students.
At the same time, there are many teachers who are accommodating. I actually had a good fourth-grade year because the teacher was understanding, and was sensitive to my individual needs. This is in stark contrast to my disastrous three months in second grade, during which the teacher, who had special-ed training, was determined to change me into a normal kid even if it killed me in the process.
What was the difference? A lack of critical thinking and imagination.
That’s because imagination often comes before information. You sometimes have to imagine what you are looking for before you go out and find it.
So, let’s take a look at a situation that I went through and how critical thinking helped me.
In a typical elementary school classroom desks are placed frequently next to each other. This means that students are often in close proximity to each other.
In my elementary school, classrooms were arranged like this—
And once a month, at my elementary school, some of the teachers rearranged our seats. In the fourth and fifth grade, my desk constantly moved around the classroom.
Most of the time, each student had a neighbor they had to sit next to. However, the desks were separated during standardized testing weeks so we couldn’t cheat on our tests. During those times, the class looked like this.
The practice of seating kids next to each other except during testing periods went unquestioned in my school. If you asked a teacher why they did it, they might say they had never have been asked that question before.
But this was a major issue for me, since I was getting teased by the kids who had to sit next to me. So my mother thought critically. She asked the fourth-grade teacher if I could please sit by myself in the classroom. The teacher made that compromise. However, my fifth-grade teacher refused to allow that compromise, because he claimed I needed to learn how to deal with the other kids. His plan failed, since it only meant that the class bullies could tease me more and I was more alienated from the kids than the year before.
I was teased in the fourth-grade, so I needed to be by myself, away from the other kids. I was given that privilege, and it did not affect my education. However, in the fifth grade, when the teasing intensified toward the end of the year, the teacher would not let me sit by myself. In fact, he would repeatedly put me in small groups or seat me next to one particular person who despised me. When my mother complained, the teacher again stated that I had to learn to get along with the other kids. My mother solved the problem by finding out when I would be expected to work on small group projects, and she kept me home on those days. In my opinion, it was my mother who showed the greater wisdom than the teacher, who could not think outside the “box” of normalcy.
What some teachers still fail to realize is that in kid society, if you’re weird, you’re going to be rejected, and a normal kid’s rationale for teasing and rejecting a weirdo is limitless. If they want to reject you, they’re going to reject you—period. When I was in the second grade, one of my classmates told his parents to invite every boy in the class except James Williams to his birthday party. Even now, when I volunteer at a local daycare center, there are kids who won’t play with me for whatever reason, and nothing will make them reconsider, no matter what activity I offer to them.
Those same teachers often fail to realize the dual nature of children. This is because they see only one side of those children. A child might seem very nice and even very intelligent when the teacher is present, but when the teacher is gone, the kid might turn into a monster, terrorizing the outcasts. When I was in fourth grade, four fifth-grade bullies harassed me during a combined gym class. When my mother complained to the fifth-grade teacher and the teacher confronted the kids, they said that they were only trying to befriend me. And incredibly, the teacher believed them. The one child—a physically handicapped girl—who was willing to be my friend in the fifth grade had to deal with ridicule herself, because she was my friend. This creates a vicious circle; children avoid a rejected kid so they themselves won’t be rejected by the majority.
So what do you do in a situation like this?
First, if a child is rejected by his class, then the teacher should not try to force the child to make friends with other students. Chances are he has as little interest in them as they have in him. You should give the child the freedom to be alone and to work independently. This is actually a win-win situation: the autistic child is granted the solitude and relief that he craves, and the other kids are spared having to deal with him and his idiosyncrasies. This, in turn, gives the autistic child a positive social experience in that he learns that he can have the freedom to be himself while in the company of others. And finally, by separating the autistic kid from his neurotypical classmates, those normally nice kids are spared the irresistible temptation of hurting a socially rejected child as an act of proving themselves to their peers. In fact, my mother used to say that autistic kids cannot learn normal social skills from their neurotypical peers, since those peers do not behave normally while in the presence of a disabled child. Some dark human trait takes over, some age-old need to exclude someone who is different. This is perhaps one reason why several kids who treated me the worst won the school citizenship awards at the end of the year and were seen as model students by the teachers. They reserved their mean and malicious side for interacting with me and other disabled students. My mother could recognize this, and she kept me away from neurotypical peers and instead provided me with positive social experiences within the disabled community or among selected adults. This is an example of thinking outside the box, which says that every child wants, needs, and benefits from being exposed to their so-called “normal” peers.
It is particularly in the social realm that parents must use critical thinking to help their child. If school isn’t working, you have to find ways to facilitate friendships for the autistic child outside of school. Two years ago I argued that you should give him the right to be alone and to not pursue friendship. But now my message is different. I still think that an autistic person has the right to be alone. But an autistic person should also be given the opportunity to create positive friendships with individuals who are not going to hurt him.
Remember that his attitude toward friendships was developed the same way yours were. You, who have known happiness with friends from an early age, can only think of friends as a source of happiness. But the autistic person, who has only known misery with his peers and other kids, can only think of friends as a source of misery. There is nothing wrong with his ability to learn social skills and behave socially in a nonthreatening situation, as Tony Attwood discovered when he observed that two autistic teenagers with shared interests spontaneously displayed normal social skills to each other. But like the kid in the proverb who is once burned, the autistic child is twice and forever shy when it comes to meeting normal kids.
For some reason, it is very difficult for many teachers, therapists, and parents to understand the ineffectiveness and social damage that can be caused by mainstreaming an autistic child. The average parent believes that school is the place where friendships are made. After all, that’s where he or she met his friends. People periodically ask me how I am able to meet people and have social interactions when I am homeschooled. The reality is that school is where you sit in the same room with kids, but it is outside of school where you spend time with them. Ironically, you’re not supposed to be social in school; you’re supposed to listen to the teacher, keep your mouth shut, and do your work.
Thus, think outside of school if you want your child to have friends. When I was just developing some social interest, around the age of seven, my mother asked my Aunt Linda to take me out to dinner once a month so I would have someone kind and caring to talk to and to practice socializing with. That was a decade ago, and I still go out with her. Even though these “dates,” as we termed them, are an example of social engineering, they have given me the opportunity to interact with another human being, which helped foster social interest on my part.
Currently, as I mentioned above, I volunteer at a local YMCA drop-in daycare facility, where preschool-age children stay for one to sometimes eight hours. At this facility, the kids invite me to participate in imaginative play with them, and I have been assigned the part of the dad, the brother, and sometimes the dog in their stories. This kind of play was impossible for me when I was four or five, and in fact, when my mother used to leave me in that same daycare room, I’d generally hide under the slide until she returned. But now, at age seventeen, I am engaging in social learning that is regarded by many theorists as necessary for normal social development. This social learning would not be possible if I were in regular high school, trying my best to avoid the other students.
“But my autistic child wants friends his own age,” you may be thinking. “How will he meet them if he is isolated at home?” This is a question I am often asked after my presentations.
First of all, I would ask you to make sure that you are correctly assessing his desire, not just projecting your own theory of mind on to him. You must keep remembering that you were not autistic, but your child is. Your child has a unique set of experiences upon which he bases his values and behavior, and these experiences are quite unlike your own. In fact, it is likely that your autistic child does not want friends his own age.
Second of all, you must learn to assess your child’s needs based on where he is in his own development, not according to some timeline of normal expectations. My mother didn’t send me to kindergarten until I was seven, because until that time, I had no interest in other kids and no ability whatsoever to interact with them. When I finally did express an interest in school, because my younger sister was doing things in preschool that looked like fun, I first attended once a week, then twice, and finally full-time after several months. I had a wonderful and successful time in kindergarten, and I still visit my kindergarten teacher even today. She was a brilliant critical thinker, and she saw right away that the only positive social experience I was capable of was developing a one-on-one relationship with her. She allowed me to ignore the other kids, and they ignored me, but I became comfortable being in the same room with others my age, which was all I could handle at the time. This positive social experience would definitely not have been possible if I had been forced to sit in a classroom or in circle time at age five, probably medicated in order to keep my anger and panic under control.
But was any harm done to me because I attended kindergarten two years late? I don’t believe so. Was any harm done to my education when my fourth-grade teacher allowed me to sit alone? None at all. But I was harmed considerably when the fifth-grade teacher insisted that I be partnered with someone who constantly attacked and ridiculed me. Yet why was he so adamant about subjecting me to this harm?
A lack of imagination.
It was his assumption that any social interaction is good. It didn’t occur to him that he was doing something that would cause lasting social damage to both me and perhaps to the girl who hated me. He was simply unable to think “outside the box.”
As parents, you have a greater opportunity to think “outside the box” of normal expectations. Unlike my fifth-grade teacher, you are not obligated to provide an education to a group of students, including bullies, outcasts, and all the personalities in between. You do not have to answer to a school board or follow all the rules until you get tenure. You are free to change your child’s environment and experiences from moment to moment. Therefore, one of the worst things you can do is find out what a normal child should be doing at a certain age and force your child to somehow meet those expectations. In other words, find a one-size-fits-all box to shove your child in, and use rewards, punishments, and medications to get him to stay in that box. Because autistic children do not and never will develop along a normal path and a normal timetable, determining your child’s true developmental needs is perhaps the most crucial area where critical thinking is required.
In the textbook Working with Young Children, by Judy Herr, a book used in high school child development classes, there is a list of abilities that children are expected to demonstrate at certain ages:
13-15 Months: Shows pride in personal accomplishment. Likes to exhibit affection to humans and to objects. Enjoys solitary play.
16-18 Months: Is emotionally unpredictable and may respond differently at different times. Is unable to share. Is very socially responsive to parents and caregivers.
19-21 Months: Begins to show sympathy to another child or adult.
Later on, it reads:
5-8 Years: Develops cooperative friendships, typically of the same sex. Can balance on one foot for 10 seconds.
Ever since Dr. Spock and other experts published their definitive works on childrearing, parents and professionals have used timetables to judge normal development. If your kid isn’t developing like this, he’s abnormal. If you are eight years old and cannot “balance on one foot for 10 seconds” there’s something wrong with you.
What’s amazing, when you read books like this one, is just how much children are expected to accomplish in such a short time frame.
What’s wrong with learning about these expectations? Nothing! This is how neurotypical children develop. But autistic children develop completely differently, and one autistic person will likely develop completely differently from another autistic person. And since an autistic person develops differently, he’s going to do different things to foster his own development, and thus need to be raised differently.
I’ll give you a few examples from my own childhood. When I was three, I became fascinated with letters and numbers. I didn’t draw pictures of people or animals. I wrote alphabet letters and digits, pages and pages of them. My favorite toys were flashcards and metal house numbers. When a therapist asked me to draw a picture of myself, I wrote out “J-A-M-E-S W-I-L-L.” Although this was a long time ago, before the term “hyperlexia” was used by therapists, my mother tolerated my obsession and bought me countless magnetic letter sets, let me watch “Dr. Seuss’ ABCs” a hundred times, and bought me dozens of metal house numbers as presents and rewards. My speech therapist told my mom that she should take away the letters and force me to speak, because I was going down “the wrong road.” That therapist couldn’t think outside her own box that speaking is the only way of communicating if you are four. She couldn’t see that writing down random letters was my own form of babbling, because my oral speaking centers apparently weren’t working the way they should. My mother, however, realized right away that I could understand printed words better than spoken ones, so she’d sit me down every day for an hour and she’d type out the story of my day on the computer, pretending to be me. I would watch her with intense fascination as she gave me a voice. She was constantly accused of putting “words in my mouth.” And her accusers were absolutely right—she was putting words in my mouth, words that came out of my mouth at a much later time. Had my mother’s thinking remained in the box of normalcy and insisted that I learn to communicate the old-fashioned way, she would have deprived me of the real way that I needed to learn about language.
Five years later, when I was eight and being homeschooled after a disastrous half-year in second grade, my mother noticed that I actually paid more attention in math if she allowed me to roll down the back of the couch. I’d lie on the top edge of the couch as she spoke, then I’d roll down into the back of the cushions. I’d lie there a few seconds, then get back up on the top edge and start the whole process over again. Because I was at home, my mother allowed me to do this crazy, autistic maneuver, since she was able to think critically and recognize that it actually helped me listen to her and solve math problems. Years later, she was quite gratified to hear Temple Grandin say that autistic kids process more information when they are moving around, preferably in a rolling or swinging pattern. Temple even presented data charts showing that the more the kids moved, the more vocalizations they made during a specific time period. This is an example of science catching up with and validating something that was first imagined and observed by the individual mind when it stepped out of the box of normal expectations.
I once said, years ago, that I live from mistake to mistake. I’d do something in confidence that I was right, and then my mother would get furious because, in fact, I was doing something terribly wrong. Yet I didn’t know it was wrong. I would always try to do the right thing, but my decision would be based on what was right the last time in a slightly different context.
When I made those mistakes, I constantly heard about how I was much too old to make them. People would say things like: “You’re eight years old, and you don’t know it’s wrong to…” Or: “How could you not know how to…” Or sometimes: “How could you be so stupid?” When I was eight, I was reading the American Girls Collection books, and I never forgot the scene where Mrs. Merriman says to Felicity, “You are near to ten years of age, Felicity. You should know better,” after Mrs. Merriman finds Felicity sitting on the rooftop of her house. I read this having heard the same statement countless times about my own behavior.
But why should Felicity “know better”? Who says that ten years of age is old enough to “know better”?
Such judgments originate from a common consensus of what is normal and appropriate. And these days, judgments originate from rules such as those that appear in Judy Herr’s book. But as I said several times, those rules do not work with autistic people. An autistic five-year-old may not be ready for kindergarten even though he is five, and he probably doesn’t know the first thing about “developing cooperative friendships.” In fact, when I was five, I had never even acknowledged another child my own age; when anything my size approached me, I’d go completely limp and lifeless, in a maneuver I later termed “playing frozen.”
So, what’s the lesson here? Think critically. Disregard the normal rules of development. An autistic person is not going to meet the expectations imposed on him no matter how many stickers and rewards you give him, no matter how many therapies you put him in. Figure out the developmental path he is taking, and then do everything in your power to keep him on that path. He will show you the right way with his interests and his obsessions, the way I showed my mother with my obsession with the alphabet. If she had insisted that I play with kids rather than magnetic letters in order to learn language, I wouldn’t have met her goal anyway but she would have deprived me of the ability to meet it in another way.
So now let’s take a look at four goals of a typical preschool, derived from a sample list from Working with Young Children. These are the goals of my younger sister’s preschool class.
All of these goals were no doubt written by neurotypical people because this is the way neurotypical people develop. And I’ll show you why each goal doesn’t apply to the autistic person in a classroom setting.
1. To develop a positive self-concept and attitude toward learning.
An autistic child generally feels uncomfortable in the presence of others. They are too noisy or smelly or intrusive or out of step with his needs. The first thing an autistic child usually looks for is a small place in which to isolate himself from other people—under the table, in the corner. This makes him feel safe. But it also makes him feel different from the other kids. He doesn’t know why he is different, but on some level, it makes him feel bad about himself. He thinks: “The others are having a good time, but I am not.” Therefore, he feels worse about himself when he goes to preschool. Because he learns differently from other children, the teacher’s lessons have no meaning for him. He then develops a negative attitude about learning in general.
A much better goal for an autistic child would be to give him a special place in which to learn on his own timetable and to provide materials and activities based on his own interests and needs, regardless of what the other kids are doing.
2. To develop independence.
Independence from whom? If it’s independence from the mother, the autistic child doesn’t need it. He’s born independent and isolated, and he actually needs to go through a healthy dependency phase first.
If the goal is to develop skills independently, then why don’t we see what he can do? Learning is not just a measure of teaching; it’s a measure of capacity. A preschooler can only learn something if her mind has the capacity to learn it. To many autistic preschoolers, preschool is medical school. And preschoolers typically don’t go to medical school because they wouldn’t be able to understand anything.
When I was in preschool, the teacher determined that I was old enough to tie my boots. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tie them. To punishing me for not trying ”hard enough,” my teacher made me walk through deep snow with my boot laces untied. Did I learn the skill she was trying to teach me? Not at all. I was simply incapable of learning it. This was one of several schools that my mother enrolled me in, then pulled me out of when she saw it was harming me.
If it’s thinking independently that this goal aims for, then the goal fails. School by definition requires you to submit to rules and obey orders. You can’t think for yourself—regardless of whether you are autistic or normal.
A much better goal for an autistic child would be to help the child feel comfortable in the presence of others and to establish a healthy dependence on the teacher, as I did in kindergarten.
3. To think critically and develop problem-solving skills.
Wow, that’s quite a goal for any four-year-old, but quite impossible for an autistic one. An autistic child is often in a constant state of stress, and therefore, he is often capable only of reacting to the environment or defending himself against perceived threats. Brain researchers will tell you that a brain under stress cannot be creative and learn new things. It shuts down the learning capacity and goes into classic survival mode—protect what is there and ward off the invasion of anything new.
A much better goal, after establishing a safety zone, would be to give the autistic child safe, predictable activities such as connecting dots or putting alphabet letters in order—activities that have a predictable outcome and the possibility for success. Tasks that involve problems or ambiguity will only provide an additional source of stress for an already overloaded brain.
4. To respect and understand cultural diversity.
You have to understand yourself before you understand others, but most autistic people can’t even do that. This is also a tough goal, since most preschools emphasize conformity rather than diversity.
A worthier goal would be to allow the autistic child the freedom to be himself, and in that way, he will take the first step toward recognizing the individuality of others.
So there you have the four goals of my sister’s preschool. And they are worthy goals—for normal kids. But when I first read them, I realized why preschool was such a disaster for me. In fact, my mother not only pulled me out of the preschool where I was forced to walk through the snow with untied boots, but she also pulled me out of the next preschool, where I spent most of my time playing frozen behind the couch. That was real critical thinking on her part, particularly since it was my pediatrician who insisted that my speech and social problems were the direct result of my not being in school, and that I would magically become normal when I separated from her and “made my own way” in a school setting. And of course, preschool was seen as absolutely necessary for success in life, getting into Harvard, and so forth. My mother questioned all this mythology, and put at end to my suffering regardless of what everyone else advised.
Thinking critically means not only thinking outside the box of normalcy, but also trying to really put yourself in another’s shoes. Can you understand and imagine something that you have not experienced yourself?
An autistic child is falling apart at Chuck E Cheese’s. Why is he doing this?
Conventional thinking would tell us the child is spoiled and manipulative. Why isn’t he having a great time just like every other kid who is there? Why is he making a scene?
But let’s think critically. What is going on at Chuck E Cheese’s?
There are sounds everywhere of happy, screaming children and banging, clanking mechanical games. But the autistic child has sensitive hearing, and cannot stand the noise. Thus, he is not having fun.
There are strange food smells that bother him.
There are kids running around, bumping into everyone and behaving unpredictably. For an autistic child, this is like being threatened by a mountain lion.
Rather than just taking the child home in disgust, or yelling at him in the car for spoiling his sister’s fun, is it really possible for you to put yourself in his shoes and understand what he has just suffered? If you can, you’re a critical thinker.
Or in school, there’s a fire drill and the autistic child becomes stiff as a board and cannot move. He gets in trouble for not leaving the classroom and evacuating the building.
Perhaps it’s the same reason—he has sensitive hearing and experiences extreme terror when assaulted by a loud, surprise sound.
But then, you still have to think critically. In both examples, it’s reasonable to assume that the autistic child had sensitive hearing. But it’s not always the case. Should you try to associate every case with a specific symptom, you’ll find yourself in the position of misunderstanding a child when there is another cause unique to him.
What if, in fact, that child is not sound-sensitive? He is sight-sensitive, and can’t stand the flashing strobe lights that appear on some of the newer fire alarm systems. In the summer of 2005 I spoke to a fire marshal that told me that new building codes in the state of Illinois mandate strobe lights for all fire alarms in public buildings and buildings that are being renovated, even though they are not required in buildings built before the new mandate due to a grandfather clause.
So why would flashing lights make him stiff as a board?
One of the common catchphrases that has appeared in autism research is the term “fight or flight”—referring to the human instinct that is activated when a human is in a stressful situation. In other words, give me energy to fight the beast or give me energy to get out of here.
The autism research goes further by proving that in many modern situations, this instinct has great repercussions for an individual, especially a child. Consider the classical example—school, the torture chamber for the autistic child. Now, let’s exercise the mind and see what fight or flight means in a school context.
Go to the conferences, and you’ll hear examples of autistic individuals running out of classrooms or leaving the school building by the side door. At Autism Society of America's annual conference in 2005 in Nashville, Tennessee, a parent told me about how her son trampled students because he could not stand still and line up to leave the building during a fire drill.
Go to the conferences, and you hear examples of autistic individuals becoming violent and attacking their teachers or other students.
What is this? Fight or flight. I once walked out of my second grade classroom because I couldn’t stand being there anymore. I got in serious trouble.
I never attacked my teachers, but I know that those who do are often thrown behind bars.
So, whether you fight or take flight, you get in trouble. You are not allowed to fight in or run away from school, no matter how stressed you are and no matter how strongly your instincts are telling you to do so.
Well, certain autism researchers have gone further and concluded that because the autistic person cannot fight or take flight, he does the next thing on the list of instincts—he freezes. In fact, I’ve heard the term “fight-flight-or-freeze” impulse mentioned in several newspaper articles. In an article published by TIME magazine on May 2, 2005 titled, “How to Get Out Alive,” the survivor of a plane crash described how, while she got off the burning plane, passed a person who was frozen and immobile in her seat, and who perished as a result. The article then explains the instinct of playing frozen, but concludes, “In a crisis, our instincts can result in our undoing.”
With this knowledge, it is clear to see that the autistic tendency to freeze actually follows a ancient survival instinct. And that’s perhaps why many autistic individuals find themselves stiff as a board in a threatening situation. Of course, a classroom teacher cannot understand why a child turns stiff as a board when he’s supposed to be evacuating the school building. She thinks the child is rebellious or has a behavior disorder, when actually he is actually following a hardwired rule that is a lot stronger than hers are. Unfortunately, following survival impulses out of their original context gets us into worse trouble.
In the plane crash, playing frozen meant death. Of course, it doesn’t mean death in the case of the fire drill, but it does explain why the autistic child simply won’t leave his seat, no matter how much trouble he gets into.
Other times, the flight instinct is activated. I heard one story about an autistic child who was so shocked by the sound of the fire alarm that he would bolt out the door to leave the building rather than line up with his class, and sometimes trample the other students in the process.
Can you see the power of thinking critically? In each of the situations, at Chuck E Cheese and during the fire drill, it might seem as if the autistic child’s behavior is making no sense, but when his actions are analyzed using a little imagination, what he does makes a lot of sense.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a single piece of advice. Even though I’ve just told you to rely on your own critical thinking and your own judgment when making decisions for your child, please try to remember that your own experiences are unique to you. As you struggle to understand your child, try to see him as someone whose experiences are unique and logical to him. You may be mystified by what he does, but he is not a mystery to himself. Do your best to help him, but don’t project your own values and feelings upon him. If there’s anything you should remember, it is this: You are not the world.
What does this mean?
Philosophy professor and scholar Clifford Williams, in his book “Why Aren’t We Satisfied,” has argued that many times our outlook on other people and society is sometimes a reflection of ourselves. If I see everyone as argumentative and crazy, then I might actually be the person who is argumentative and crazy. Yet I am unable to acknowledge that it is my own character traits that I see in others.
One of the central conflicts between autistic and neurotypical people is that the neurotypical person often thinks that he feels what everyone else feels in certain situations. This is because most neurotypical people live in a world of shared experiences—what they feel and perceive basically is what the average person feels or perceives.
However, the neurotypical people of different cultures often think differently from you. And the autistic people of the world almost always think different from you.
Why does this matter? Well, it matters when you impose your own goals and values on a child who does not share them. If your child wants to be alone to calm his nervous system but you force him to attend a birthday party thinking that he will have fun, then you will be angered by his attempts to hide under the table and baffled by his inability to enjoy himself the way the other kids do. Instead of being angry at him, try to see the chaos and unpredictability of the party from his point of view.
In closing, I’ll give you an example of just how difficult it can sometimes be to have a theory of mind about individuals who do not share our values and life experiences; I’m going to tell you about a funeral that my mother once attended. Now when a friend dies, we feel sad and we mourn, don’t we? That’s a given. It’s obvious. And in fact, when autistic people laugh at a funeral or smile when they see someone die on TV, they’re accused of being miswired or socially inappropriate or just rude. Well, about twenty years ago, when my mother ran the New York City marathon with a Central Park Reservoir running group, one of the most beloved members of the group, a retired black man named Clinton Smith, died peacefully in his sleep. Because of Reservoir’s location on the Upper East Side, a lot of rich people ran in Clinton’s group, even though he himself lived in Harlem, and his funeral took place at Harlem’s Abbysinian Baptist Church.
When my mother walked into the church to attend the funeral, she sat in the back, trying not to intrude on the family’s grief, but to her surprise, Clinton’s family members were laughing and joking, and during the eulogy, the pastor told funny stories and often put his hand over Clinton’s in the open coffin and spoke directly to the corpse as if he were talking to a living friend. My mom was quite impressed by how upbeat the entire event seemed.
Suddenly in the middle of the eulogy, several affluent, overdressed white women—including one sporting an enormous red fox coat—walked into the church and burst into noisy, sobbing tears. My mother recognized them as members of the running group. One of the women loudly screamed and moaned out her sorrow upon seeing Clinton dead in his coffin, and they disrupted the service as they marched down to the front row to pour out their sympathy to Clinton’s family, who looked at these women as if they were from Mars. In the women’s minds, they were acting appropriately at a funeral, but to the people of strong faith who were happy that Clinton was on his way to heaven, these overdressed strangers were displaying the height of rudeness. My mother’s comment to me was, “How could they imagine that a funeral would not be sad? It was different from anything that they had experienced.”
When we learn that our way is not the only way, we can learn to think critically, and that there’s a whole world out there of people who think and understand things differently, we can start to try to see things through eyes that are not our own, and we are taking the first steps toward a real understanding of other people.
Even with that understanding, there will always be more questions and more uncertainty, but your goal should not necessarily be to find solutions that will always work, but ones that will work today and that will hopefully make tomorrow’s challenges a little easier.
Thank you. I will now answer your questions.