The autism car

There are many different ways to describe autism. Some of the ways we normally use are actually diagnostic criteria, which are not always pedagogically relevant. Therefore, I distinguish between defining symptoms (used in diagnostics) and descriptive symptoms (which provide more information and often are pedagogically relevant to a greater degree).

A common descriptive symptom in autism and in a host of other conditions is difficulties with central coherence. It means difficulty understanding cause and effect in complex contexts. This means that it is hard to see the cause and effect in different situations, but also that it is hard to generalise and to see contexts of any kind. But what I think is most important of all is that it is difficult to predict the future.

People with good central coherence use their ability to calculate cause and effect to estimate, for example, when they need to leave to get to work in time, taking distance, time of day, traffic and many other factors into account. If you have difficulties with central coherence doing so is hard. And what is even harder is how difficult it is to predict the actions of other people and the consequences of your own actions.

But what is most difficult is that when you are poor at predicting the future, then it might also be difficult to know the limits of how bad it can get.

This can be illustrated with a car metaphor. To have autism is like driving 90 mph in the dark with no lights on. That would cause a huge anxiety for all of us. You have no idea what might happen, you just rush ahead in the night.

Therefore, we use structure and clarification as aids. When we have a schedule we know what will happen. It is like turning on the light. Just to see where the car is going is hugely reassuring and the anxiety goes down instantly. But that doesn’t mean that we then follow the structure. If I drive in 90 in the dark without the lights on, it is enormously reassuring to turn on the lights. But it also means that I suddenly see where I‘m going. And what if I do not want to go there?

This is why a good structure should not merely be a schedule, but a schedule of activities that both make sense to the person and that he/she actually wants to do. Otherwise, the structure only means that the person says no more often. So the structure is not an instrument, but a tool. That’s why we consider clarification an aid. But it also means that if a structure is not working, it is not the person with autism who is at fault. It is the structure. Either it is not predictable enough (the lights are not bright enough to create security) or the schedule is made up of activities that don’t make sense to the person (you realise that you are heading in the wrong direction when the lights come on).

Therefore, we must always look at precisely these two factors when the structure doesn’t work.