This is part 6 of a series focusing on techniques for connecting to individuals with Autism. This weeks sessions continues to discuss the emotional approach. Another important aspect of the emotional approach is providing a rationale for thoughts, beliefs, and requests. Due to difficulties with perspective taking and Theory of Mind, the person with Autism often does not understand the other person’s point of view and typically only understands information in terms of how it affects their personal world. Therefore, in order to connect with a person like that, it is important to help the person understand the other person’s point of view or in other words ‘why is this being said this to them?’ This helps the person with Autism realize that the other person has unique thoughts and feelings and that they are not speaking or acting arbitrarily or out of malice. The other aspect of providing rationale is that it can be explained how what is being said affects the other person. Sometimes this may be describing a potential outcome, while other time it may be explaining an expectation. For example, if a teacher is wishing for a student to complete their work the teacher may have to show the person with Autism how the work will help them with their life. The work may have to relate to an interest to get their attention. If the goal is for the student to speak more respectfully, then it may need to be explained that respectful language not only is an expected behavior, but it also makes others feel happier when they hear it. Once the student understands and accepts the rationale, the student can then be taught specific skills needed to fulfill that behavior. This is very important when providing social skills training. Without a clear rationale for engaging in socially appropriate behavior, the student is unlikely to be motivated to use the skills being taught.
The final aspect of the emotional approach involves the ‘power struggle.’ Being steadfast and true to one’s beliefs is often seen as a positive quality. When this is done to an extreme it is seen as stubbornness. It is extremely different for a person with an Autism to change their thoughts and beliefs (remember the train analogy) and when they do so it is typically on a gradual basis. In addition, when one only sees the world from one’s own point of view, the concept of a hierarchical authority structure does not make much sense. Therefore, to expect a person with an Autism to listen just because the speaker is an adult and the student is supposed to listen is not realistic. If a person with an Autism is forced to bend to the adults will, the adult will likely break before the person with an Autism or someone may end up getting hurt. In those situations it is often best to best to state the request and rationale, explain the consequences (positive and negative) for action and inaction, give the opportunity/choice to comply, and then provide the consequence based on the response. In my sessions, when a client is resistant to discussing a topic, I will bring up why it is important to discuss the topic but conclude with, “you can tell me about this when you are ready.” We then proceed to other topics, but I will ask them the next session if they are ready to discuss the topic of resistance. Progress in therapy is typically slow with this approach, but there usually is gradual progress and the client typically increases their responsiveness and willingness to discuss their emotions once they realize that they will not be pushed beyond what they feel they are capable of doing. It may be frustrating to see progress being achieved so slowly, but slow progress is better than no progress and gentle persistence can help the person with Autism learn to advocate for themselves in a more respectful manner.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a specialty in Autism Spectrum Disorders