I can’t wait to read Dr. Temple Grandin’s fourth book, The Autistic Brain, For years I read the experts and listened at conferences as they drew conclusions about autism that didn’t jive with my experience raising Noah. I am looking forward to learning what I have suspected for years. Yes, the autistic brain is different, but there is a continuum that links us all.
ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION
Some of the miscue is based on assumptions experts made in the past about the nature of “autistic” traits. Temple Grandin begins the discussion by stating, “Contrary to long-held dogma, we should not mistake problems with social communication for lack of desire for social connection.” For decades too many experts assumed that an autistic child was merely content to be in their own world. When my son was newly diagnosed at 4, I witnessed Noah’s incredible frustration when he could not verbalize what he wanted or needed, and his incredible relief when I figured it out. In those early years I felt like an interpreter. I learned that all behavior is communication.
That experience led me to wonder how many other “autistic” traits are misinterpreted. Lack of effective self regulation and inadequate resilience are considered hallmark autistic traits. Repetitive behaviors known as perseveration are common. These behaviors are labeled as deviant, a sign of some disability when in fact most of the time they are purposeful. They serve to self soothe, to calm anxiety, or minimize fear. Sometimes they serve to distract, sometimes to insulate. But no matter how disconcerting, I always find that they serve a purpose.
REDEFINING THE SPECTRUM
My sense is that most of us struggle to some degree with similar challenges and exhibit some of these same traits, albeit often in a more socially acceptable form. Maybe it is time to reassess the nature of these traits that are used to diagnose autism. For starters, each of these traits could be plotted on a spectrum, from high to low expression, to more accurately assess the nature of each trait.
I’ll use socialization as an example. We already identify those who have social difficulties at one extreme. Maybe we could identify the hyper social types on the other end. That would give us an opportunity to identify those with functional and adequate social skills in the middle. This spectrum represents a far more honest assessment of socialization than the current model that fails to acknowledge when extreme social behavior is a problem. Too many hyper-social types can’t get anything done.
AMERICANS TEND TO CELEBRATE EXTREMES
Americans like the best, the worst, the most and the least. We celebrate the extremes. When someone doesn’t measure up, there is increasingly greater need to self sooth. Self soothing can be running for hours, it can be watching TV for hours. Society judges the behaviors differently, but both may be problematic when the behavior is more compulsion than choice.
When it comes to self regulation, we can draw a spectrum from extremely indulgent to extremely restrained behavior, and identify adequate self regulation in the middle. Today we often fail to acknowledge the harm of unwavering rigidity, whether from deprivation or excess. Effective self regulation isn’t absolute or rigid even though society often rewards the same as good discipline. Too often rigid discipline backfires, driving more and more polarized behavior. Ironically, the most effective self regulation is flexible and moderated to meet the needs of the situation.
I am not surprised to see more and more problematic behavior in families, at K-12 schools, on college campuses, and at the workplace. Our society is crippled as large numbers of people struggle to navigate a harsh and demanding world. Distorted relationships with food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and credit cards underscore the challenges of cultivating good enough self regulation and adequate resilience.
RETHINKING THE SPECTRUM
As we learn more about how our brains work, maybe we can begin a more honest assessment of what it takes to navigate our world successfully. My first suggestion is to stop being preoccupied with what is “normal” and be more attentive to what is functional. Let’s stop pretending that only those with a diagnosis need support to develop good enough social skills, effective self regulation and strong enough resilience. Only then we will be able to direct our energy to what really matters: helping each person cultivate the skills and resources to develop their potential and contribute as they can–even if I am just talking about what to eat.