The People in Your Language-Depleted Neighborhood

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by Ellen Notbohm
Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2012

Who are the people in your neighborhood?
Are you humming along? To a generation of children (and their parents) who grew up with Sesame Street, those words ring familiar as the title of a song that was practically an anthem in its time. If you’re one of those children or parents, you know the answer to the musical question: the people in your neighborhood are “the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street…each day.”

In the pre–compact disc era, my kids had cassette tapes of the song that they played until the oxide literally fell off the tape, reducing Ernie to a drunken slur (which they loved just as much). I recently asked a young parent if he remembered the song from his childhood, whether his own child watched Sesame Street now, and if “The People in Your Neighborhood” was still part of the show. He lit up; of course he remembered the song! And yes, his son watches Sesame Street. But “The People in Your Neighborhood” is no longer part of it.

The young dad’s answer confirmed a sad hunch that had come to me a few days earlier as I ran a round of morning errands: we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood.

For many parents of children with autism, improving our children’s delayed or impaired ability to talk is near the top of the priority list. I can never forget how Bryce’s early struggles with speech challenged his ability to socialize, impacted his emotional health, and obscured his cognitive capabilities. On that long road to developing functional speech (you can read the text of his graduation address at, one of the first pieces of advice our speech therapist gave us was to work hard at maintaining a language-rich environment around him. We learn much of our speech imitatively, she said, and a child not frequently exposed to other speaking people will develop language much more slowly. Parents and language professionals should actively seek settings where a child will be exposed to typically developing kid talk and everyday conversation.

I don’t consider myself adept at small talk. Chitchat with strangers is difficult and sometimes even stressful for me. But everything is a matter of degree. Bryce occasionally pulls me up short by openly admiring the (perceived) ease with which I exchange light conversation with store clerks or other brief-encounter folks. While this seems like no more than baseline communication to me, it clearly is more than that to him, and it has led us into discussions about how even the most banal pleasantries help us connect with others. The weather is a popular subject because it’s something we all share. With practice we can learn to untie our tongues by finding other commonalities to comment upon such as the items we buy, the holidays we celebrate, the events in our community.

Wait—did I say “with practice”?

I did. Conversational speech, of any duration, is a learned skill, and often extraordinarily more so for children with autism.
The essential component of any learned skill is practice, practice, and more practice. And that is why it came to me on that morning round of errands, why it is that small talk remains a challenge for our kids, and how it is that we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood. My morning was a potent example. I got cash from an ATM; I didn’t talk to a bank teller. I scanned my groceries through the self-checkout line; I didn’t talk to a live checker. Our library now has automated checkout; I didn’t talk to the librarian. I mailed a package at the Automated Postal Center without talking to a clerk. I bought movie tickets through the Fandango dispenser. I’d bypassed at least half a dozen of what, not so long ago, would have been opportunities for human interaction. Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton was recently quoted as saying that the scarcest resource of the 21st century, “after water and food and all of that,” will be human attention (Sreenivasan 2011).

A language-rich environment? More like a language-depleted landscape.

Automation and electronic communication have their immutable place in our culture. But if we value the stimulation, joy, and functionality of conversation, we must teach our children, by example, to come out from behind their computer and phone screens and practice talking to others, actively looking for avenues by which we can encourage our children to become conversational. Our speech therapist’s advice about creating a language-rich environment came at a time when the use of language hadn’t yet been appropriated by screens, when being social included vocal inflections, facial expression, and body language. You know, like Skype without the screen. Of the many parent-teen conflicts my husband and I expected to face, we never dreamed we’d be considered counterculture because we wanted our children to speak to other humans.
Sooner or later, our kids will have to talk to the people in their neighborhood because some relationships cannot be relegated to a screen—the doctor, the dentist, the bus driver, the hair stylist, the flight attendant, the policeman, the firefighter, the clergy, the lifeguard, the piano teacher, the coach, the lawyer, the judge. Seemingly trivial small talk lays part of the foundation for being able to speak to others in situations wherein there is no alternative to face-to-face communication—and for situations wherein, it is enjoyable to do so.
So let’s restore some of that language-rich environment.
This excerpt adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s (by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk, 2nd edition, 2010) will get you started.

From Chapter 2: Communication and Language
Maintaining a language-rich environment day to day is one of the best ways parents and teachers can nurture speech and conversation development. Here are a few simple ways to do that.

  • Send your child’s teacher or speech language pathologist a note each Monday listing three things your child did over the weekend. Ask that they engage the child in conversation about these things.
  • Answer your child every time he speaks to you, letting him know you value everything he has to say. Look at him when you speak to him. Do this for the nonverbal child as well, acknowledging all attempts to communicate, whether or not you yet understand him.
  • Singing is speech. If your child learns songs easily, use that strength to enhance his language skills. Talk about any new words in the song he may not understand. Distinguish nonsense words from real words.
  • Institute the two-minute rule for conversations. Being put on the spot to generate conversation can be very stressful for your child. Practice a two-minute/two-minute rule. Tell him you’d like to talk about his day at school or a subject of his choosing. Give him two minutes to gather his thoughts, then converse for two minutes. Observing manageable parameters removes the performance-anxiety factor. And instead of asking the same question every day—what did you do at school?—try asking how his day went. This gives him a chance to explore his feelings, not just his actions, and gives you a wider window on his experiences of the day.
  • Institute the two-second pause for responses. Many families converse at a rapid-fire pace that leaves the child with autism unable to keep up. To slow the overall pace of exchanges and give your child a better chance to participate, observe this rule: wait two seconds before responding.

Sreenivasan, Sree. “Media Matters: Advice from World-Class Journalists and Intriguing Media Minds.” Personal interview by Paula Lovell. Lovell Communications Inc. (January 2011).

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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  1. Kim Fields says:

    Love Ellen’s article? You can read her articles in each issue of AADigest!

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The Path to “Fitting In”

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by John Elder Robison
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| May/June 2012

People with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) will always have different brains, but I firmly believe that different does not have to mean disabled. Many adult Aspergians—including me—were disabled as children, but through hard work, determination, and acquisition of hard-won wisdom, we emerged as successful, capable adults.
Unfortunately success does not come easily, nor is it assured. Consequently when you live or work with kids with AS, it’s easy to become discouraged. You watch repeated social failure while recalling how easily you succeeded in similar situations, and the social failures you observe seem simple and self-evident.
Always remember that social subtlety and nuance may be obvious to you, but it’s most assuredly not obvious to people with AS or any autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Nypical people (my abbreviation for neurotypical—those without autism) are born with the instinctive ability to read others and evaluate tone of voice, expression, and body language. Kids with AS or ASD lack that ability either in whole or in part. Therefore, they have to learn what comes naturally to their peers through years of hard work. That process of learning is the path to fitting in, and emerging from disability.
Social skills are the most important thing you can teach a young person with AS. And teach it you must, because few kids with AS will be able to learn such skills on their own. It’s both your greatest challenge and opportunity as parents, educators, therapists, and counselors.

Learning to Fit In
When I was young I could not make friends. I couldn’t play in groups. At school I didn’t do assignments the way I was told, and I flunked out and became a juvenile delinquent. Those are all signs of failure. That’s what psychologists look for when deciding if you have a disability. If you’re eccentric or even weird, but you’re not failing at work or in your personal life, you are not disabled. You’re just different. It’s only when you fail at some key thing—as I did—that you become “officially” disabled. My different brain just would not conform to the mold my teachers and other kids tried to stuff me into.
It was AS that set me up for much of my failures in my early years. Luckily the state of failure wasn’t permanent. I wanted to fit in and succeed, and I worked hard to learn to get along. I taught myself the basics of reading other people. I learned how to divine what people expected of me, and I learned how to deliver on that while still staying true to my own beliefs.
This strategy worked. Today I’m quite successful, and the same AS traits that made me a failure as a kid have played a large part in shaping my success as an adult. The brain differences that made it difficult for me to interact with people actually helped me concentrate on other things, like machines. That concentration led me to develop abilities that others don’t have, and I’ve been successful in using those skills to advance my career. That’s really a good example of how something that seems like a pure disability can actually be a gift. That was true for me, and it can be true for the Aspergians in your life, too.

My Secrets of Social Success
There were really just two components to my success. First, I figured out what I could do well. You might say I found my competitive advantage.
Learning how to fit in does not change any of the Aspergian components of our brains. A kid who has the unique ability to tell someone what day of the week he was born on at age 10 will probably still have that ability at 30.
The difference is, if he’s learned to fit in, he’ll have become an eccentric fellow with friends and a community, and the world will see him in a different light. That, at least, is the goal.
Then, I learned how to get along with people so they’d accept me into their society where I could practice my gifts and prosper. I believe anyone can follow a similar path
to success in life.

Getting Along with Others
The way I see it, getting along with people has two parts. First, we learn the things we should not do to avoid making enemies. For example, you don’t walk over and take someone else’s dessert in the cafeteria. You don’t cut in front of people in line. When you do things like that, it makes people feel you’re not nice, and if you do it enough, they will dislike you. None of us want that.
Later, we figure out how to do things to build goodwill. For example, I learned to turn to the other person when I’m in a restaurant and let him or her order first. You teach yourself to step up and hold the door when you enter a building with other people. Those small things build goodwill; they show people you are a nice guy.
Notice I said show, not tell. Anyone can say, “I’m a nice guy.” The people who really get ahead are those who actually act like a nice guy, day in and day out. Help the young people in your life become nice, and they will succeed. Then, when they do something strange or unexpected, others just laugh it off instead of getting upset. That’s the power of community—when we learn to act as others expect, they welcome us into the tribe, which nurtures and protects us.

Social “Catching Up”
Some of the changes that help us fit in better occur naturally as we get older. That’s
the nature of AS—it produces what psychologists call developmental delays. We’re slow to pick up some social skills, and we’ll never be perfect at using them, but most of us can learn enough to get by. While all of us grow and develop our entire lives, the pace of development slows down for most people in the late teen years. That’s when those of us with AS get our chance to catch up. “Catching up” may be a lot of work, but with sufficient focus and resolve, it can be done. A kid whose social skills were way behind his peers in seventh grade may end up being just a little eccentric by the time he gets
to college.
Always keep this point in mind: The word delay means what it says—late. Delayed isn’t never, no matter how much it may feel like that at age 15 or even 25. If you ever doubt that, just look at videos of me from a few years ago and compare them to how I look now. I’m so much more expressive and animated, and all that growth happened when I was 50! We never stop growing and developing. It’s a lifelong process.
When we do start catching up, it makes us feel good. We feel successful. At the same time we may be at an age where we are beginning to discover some of our Aspergian gifts. And let’s be clear about something—we all have these gifts. I don’t mean we’re all geniuses; I simply believe each of us has something we’re particularly good at. Depression and attitude can rob us of the ability to see our gifts, but these talents absolutely reside in all of us. Since we Aspergians think differently, we’re more likely to have special or unusual skills, and it’s important to find them.
When we discover and build upon our gifts, it spurs positive feelings in us and those around us, which go a long way toward dissipating the burden of failure that many young Aspergians carry. That alone will make us more successful—because positive attitudes translate to positive results. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. When we feel successful we’re less likely to melt down or lash out at other people, and we get along better socially. As we make friends we become happier, and it starts a cycle of positive reinforcement.

When we get older we acquire more knowledge and our ability to understand abstract concepts improves. Few six-year-olds understand the concept of a neurological difference, but at sixteen most can get it. If my own life is any guide, an understanding of how and why we are different is essential in knowing how we need to change for a better life. That understanding comes with increased maturity and is the path from disabled to gifted. You learn social skills. You discover your strengths and play to them. You find life and work settings that minimize your weaknesses. It sounds easy set out like this, but it’s a huge amount of work. It’s been a lifetime job for me, but the results are worth it all.

Article adapted from the book Be Different (Broadway, 2012) by John Elder Robison.

John Elder Robison is a free-range Aspergian who grew up in the 1960s before Asperger’s was widely recognized. He founded Robison Service, an automobile restoration company, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Visit his website at


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Helen says:

    I have a 12yr old Aspie son who has started a new school in year 7! He is so desperate to fit in that he is constantly acting as a clown around his 4 new founded friends! This behavior is belittling him as is annoying to us and kids! Do you have any suggestions how to change this in him?
    Kind regards!

  2. I have read your writing and admire it. Reading you helped me understand me. I have written an eBook up on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Nobles Nook called, “Eye-locks and Other Fearsome Things: Learning to Love as a Bipolar Aspie.” The title says it all.

    Thank you for your stories that help people navigate the paths of their AS minds.

  3. When my son was growing up, Thinking In Pictures was my “bible”. No other “expert” spoke to my heart the way Temple Grandin did. Whatever she suggested, I tried. Now, as my son is in his teens, I have a new expert to help me guide me. We are so lucky to have guides who see our kids as overcoming disabilities, rather than being defective or lacking. Thanks for speaking out. You’ll never know the hope you give us, while experts argue over their own pet theories.



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The Open-Face Generation: Worrying about Adult Children with Developmental Disorders

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by Elayne Clift
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | March/April 2010

He is a kind, affable, good-looking young man of thirty-four, out of work and unlikely to find another job any time soon.  In the last ten years he’s had more than two dozen of them, each ending in failure because he cannot sustain the energy it takes to show up every day, let alone to cope with the demands and stimuli of the workplace.  Premature at birth and diagnosed with a “learning disability” at the age of three when his language skills were all but absent, he recently received the newer label of PDD:  Pervasive Developmental Delay, or Asperger Syndrome – one of many disorders on the “autism spectrum.”  His parents have spent years seeking appropriate support systems and picking up the pieces when things go wrong. They are exhausted and worried.  What will become of their son when they are gone?

The young man I’ve just described is my son, and my husband and I are his worried parents. Once members of the “Sandwich Generation” — that group of adults who deferred marriage and childbearing and thus found themselves in their late thirties caring for both young children and elderly parents — we now feel like members of an “Open-Face Sandwich Generation,” aging parents who are worried about their developmentally disabled adult children.  We are large in number, but invisible.

A recent search for support groups for parents like us yielded numerous websites but the support they offer is for parents with children who are still of school age.  There are even support groups for parents with Asperger themselves.  What there isn’t, as far as I can tell, is a support group for the “Open-Face Sandwich Generation.”  And yet, there are many of us.  I know a therapist who reports nearly a dozen clients who are struggling with their fears about what will happen to their adult kids when they themselves are no longer around to care for them. It’s nothing short of a silent epidemic.

The behavioral dimensions and the challenges of living with PDD vary, as parents know.  Many people with Asperger marry, have children, and work in meaningful careers. Some are brilliant artists, mathematicians or scientists. TempleGrandin, who earned a Ph.D. in animal science and teaches at Colorado State University, is the ‘poster child’ for possibilities when living with autism.

But often, as we know, people with PDD and other developmental disorders lack appropriate social skills.  They miss cues or overstep boundaries. Frequently they show little affect, even in the face of very good or very bad news, or they take things too literally and miss jokes.  Sometimes they can’t keep their homes free of clutter, or they can’t drive. They may demonstrate obsessive behaviors that drive other people crazy.  (My son separates the foods on his plate and dissects sandwiches to remove ingredients he dislikes).

There can be more worrying manifestations.  I don’t want to think about how much money my son has “lent” to “friends” who never pay him back.  So far his bad judgment on some occasions has not put him in harm’s way, but it could.  All Asperger parents know that, and that’s why we are desperate to put plans in place (and to make financial arrangements) that ensure our adult children’s safety and comfort when are no longer around.

In the face of a serious ailment our son was recently confronted with, my husband and I began working overtime to put some systems in place for both the short and long term.  Our “lessons learned” might be of value to others.

First, since many young adults with PDD do not do well living with others, we began to explore the idea of a group living arrangement.  What we envisioned was a sort of communal living arrangement where perhaps several PDD folks lived together in a house with minimal supervision by a staff person. That proved untenable – they don’t exist – for a number of reasons, including the fact that young adults with PDD do not do well living with others.  So we did one of the smartest things we’ve ever done besides setting up a secure trust fund:  We bought a small apartment in a safe, pleasant complex where our son now lives.  Our investment was possible in a time of foreclosures and ridiculous interest rates, and it is paying off for our son who enjoys his sense of independence.  It is also paying off for us because we are now able to stop worrying about where he will live long-term.  Granted, this decision, like many others required in caretaking, required resources, but from a cost-benefit perspective, it made good sense.

We then connected with the Vocational Rehabilitation services offered by the state where our son lives.  With their help, he found a job, but his issues with sustaining the necessary behaviors surfaced again (including an inability to follow up with Voc Rehab), and they closed his file; caseloads are large and many clients are able to carry through with requirements.

At that point we applied for Social Security Disability which would ease our financial burden while allowing our son to still earn income, ideally from a part-time job. Knowing that they always deny claims and appeals, we also lined up a good lawyer experienced in dealing with those denials.  The outcome of all this is still pending, but here’s the lesson to draw from this effort: Document everything!  My husband, a retired bureaucrat, has extraordinary documentation skills; they made a huge difference in the lawyer agreeing to take our case (she only gets paid if she wins).  He set out to document absolutely everything in our son’s history, starting with his premature birth and moving on to his early diagnosis of “auditory processing delays” and his remediation in special education programs from the age of three.  Every report from a school, every assessment by a psychologist, every conceivable record that might be relevant is in the file marked “Social Security.”  We’re told we have “a good case.”

We also went beyond services offered by lawyers or public sector programs.  We looked for, and found, a private, non-profit, university-based start-up organization specializing in career-related skill building for people with both physical and mental disabilities.  Started by a young man disabled himself by an auto accident, the work they do is already widely recognized and respected in the community, to which they are very well connected.  (That’s how we found the lawyer as well as someone to grocery shop and cook/freeze nutritious meals once a week).  They are working with our son on his job skills, his communication abilities, and his sustainability issues, using everything from assistive technologies to role plays and reminder phone calls.  They’ve even gotten Voc Rehab to re-engage.  (“We know the right people.”) The lesson?  Look for private sector support when public services are not relevant, efficient, empathetic, or sufficient.

These have all been useful steps to take.  Still, the challenges we face are enormous and they don’t disappear.  The worrying never stops.  At the same time, we finally feel that we’ve cobbled together a team of people and support systems that are easing our burden (and relieving our daughter’s fears of inheriting them).

There is that, and the hope that soon there will be greater recognition of the dilemmas faced by the “open-face sandwich generation” — and viable solutions for their growing numbers.

Elayne Clift is a writer and adjunct professor at several New Englandcolleges. A correspondent for Women’s Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel, and reviewer for the NY Journal of Books, her latest book is ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2007).


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Nancy Schneider says:

    I agree that your article on parents/caregivers of of adults with Asperger’s is a much needed topic that should be discussed. As a parent of a son, recently diagnosed at 27, I have concern’s about his future. He has his degree, but was unable to find a job in his field. Interviews did not go well. He is now working fulltime in an unrelated field. We want to help him to live independently and for him to trust in his own ability to make decisions. I, too, wish there were more forums to learn what others are doing and how they handle it.


  2. Lori Porter says:

    Elayne Clift,

    THANK YOU for writing the article “The Open-Face Generation” for the March/April 2010 Autism Asperger’s Digest! So much of your story reflects the situation with my sister. Do you have an update on the status of things for your daughter? She is also awaiting SSD (been denied, waiting for a hearing date), has been working with VR (they don’t know what to do and have given up), and we are researching housing options for her.

    We are in such a similar place, that after reading your article (fantastic, by the way!), I am so very curious as to how things have progressed for you. If we can learn from the months following this article, we would really appreciate it.




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The New Standard of Care in Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders

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by Nicholas Saari, DDS
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2011

It is overwhelming for a parent to navigate the many-forked road to autism treatment.

And for two parents to navigate it together, well, sometimes things get tricky.

Truth be told, only light sabers could make treatment discussions with my wife more spectacular. I tend to err on the side of medical doctors. She prefers the multi-tiered treatment methods as described by moms.

Which brings me to my wife’s latest discovery: our son Caleb has undetected seizures, which are inhibiting his development. I decided to investigate. After all, Caleb’s atypical autism diagnosis is the result of behavioral assessments. Doctors tell us that the brain is the most affected system, that these developmental delays—speech and communication, social interaction, gross and fine motor skill struggles—stem from a neurological problem. But epilepsy is also a neurological disorder. Wouldn’t it seem more likely that a child with signs of autism would show electroencephalography (EEG) irregularities?

Clinical studies cite that 30 percent of individuals with autism are also affected by epilepsy, and patients with a history of language regression may be at an even higher risk. In addition, any history of fitful behavior, convulsions, or staring episodes increases the likelihood of an epilepsy diagnosis.

The neurology appointment started off a bit rocky. “Did your pediatrician, or any other doctor recommend an EEG?” the doctor asked. My wife said, “No, but…” He prematurely countered, “I don’t really deal with autism, but that’s his diagnosis, right? This is how autistic children behave. There are no clinical signs besides sleeping restlessly right? I doubt it is epilepsy.”

Only after my wife’s tears did the doctor consent to an EEG. An EEG is a useful diagnostic test. It records the electrical activity in the brain through the use of multiple electrodes, each secured with glue or tape. Each electrode records the summation of neuron activity in the location specific to the placement of the electrode. Then a recording resembling spikes and waves, based on that area’s neuron activity, is documented and compared with videotape of the patient’s clinical signs at any given time.

It didn’t take a neurologist to realize my son’s EEG looked abnormal. Even with dad eyes, I comfortably gathered enough information to understand that consistent rippling pond waves are typical. That isn’t how Caleb’s EEG appeared in one particular area; it looked more like a toddler got hold of both Etch-a-Sketch knobs after a run-in with a bag of M&M’s.
And that was a good thing, because for the last three years my son had been in occupational, speech, and physical therapies, had stayed true to a gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet, and had been subject to hours of floor time at home, all with marginal success. He was four with the vocabulary of an eighteen-month-old. For the first time we had a concrete lead, something besides a foggy Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) diagnosis.

Our pediatric neurologist made the diagnosis of a variation of Landau-Kleffner Syndrome. We were informed that the irregular activity in Caleb’s brain is localized to the left side, near an area likely to cause speech and cognitive delays. Landau-Kleffner Syndrome is a childhood disorder that affects language comprehension. This inability to understand language may lead to significant behavioral and psychological problems. Some of the signs of this disorder can mimic autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Eighty percent of these children have clinically relevant seizures. Caleb is of the 20 percent that never had a recorded clinical seizure.

“Perhaps the diagnosis of PDD-NOS or ASD is not accurate, or at least not complete,” our pediatric neurologist said. After looking at the behavioral tests, he postulated that if we can control the epileptic activity, Caleb’s cognitive, speech, and behavioral abilities may improve drastically. “Of course,” he continued, “it may be autism and Landau-Kleffner.”

Without an EEG, Caleb’s epileptic disorder may never have been diagnosed. The signs he displayed seemed so consistent with PDD-NOS that no specialist recommended an EEG. My bold conjecture: EEGs or some other neurological mapping technology will soon be recommended by pediatricians for any child displaying signs consistent with ASD. It will become the standard of care.

How could it not? Dr. Aditi Shankardass, a notable neuroscientist, likens diagnosis of a developmental disorder without an EEG to the diagnosing of a heart problem without an echocardiogram (ECG). ECGs are routinely done because they have no risks or side effects. Also, they are very accurate.

Consider the risks of an EEG. The only side effect is the discomfort of losing a few hair follicles from the super glue the technician applies to the wires adorning the patient’s head. An EEG is an expensive test, it’s true. But when the expenses of behavioral therapies are considered, the cost of an EEG is nominal by comparison.

Thankfully, EEGs are quickly becoming a more routine test for children with developmental disabilities. Some research is recommending that low functioning or severely impaired children, or any child with regression of language and communication, should have an EEG as part of their comprehensive evaluation. Dr. Shankardass has been using technology even more powerful and diagnostic than a standard EEG for children with developmental disorders with astounding results.

After nine months of treatment, Caleb had a follow-up evaluation and EEG. “So doctor,” I asked, “you consider this a success?”

“Absolutely!” he said. “The gains we’ve seen on the behavioral testing are even more important than the EEG results. And his testing yesterday was remarkable. All aspects of development are testing within normal limits except speech. But even speech is miles ahead of where it was nine months ago. His EEG looks better than most people who are considered typical.”

Until my son’s anti-seizure medication regimen, his behavior was perplexing and uncontrollable. But since intervention and a clean EEG, Caleb is making steady gains in verbal communication, his energy level is normal, and his irritable moments are manageable. Controlling Caleb’s epileptic activity has been the catalyst for successful intervention for his PDD-NOS.

As research continues to reveal that subclinical brain seizures can mimic signs of ASD, I am hopeful that thousands of children’s lives will improve with anti-seizure intervention. Let us hope for prompt integration of EEG technology into developmental disorder evaluation. There are more children like Caleb out there.

Nicholas Saari is a general dentist in Minneapolis, MN. His son is diagnosed with an epileptic disorder and PDD-NOS. He blogs about family life at

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  1. Kim Fields says:

    Watch for another great article by Nicholas Saari in our May 2012 issue of AADigest!



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The Need to Be Perfect

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Autism: The Way I See It

The Need to Be Perfect

by Temple Grandin

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2010

Some individuals on the autism spectrum who are good at drawing or other skills will often destroy excellent work because it is not absolutely perfect.  Sean Barron, a well-known individual on the spectrum described how he destroyed a beautiful airplane he had made – one that had taken many, many hours to create – because it had one small flaw.  In his mind, if the plane was not perfect, it held no value. Other individuals will delete good art work from their computer because they think it is inferior. Some children will tear up pages of homework because of one small spelling correction or because too much erasing makes the page look messy.

Other individuals on the autism spectrum conceal their ability. One mother discovered that her nonverbal son, who cannot read, was typing words such as “depression” into Google.  This is very different than a child or adult who types a memorized cartoon character name into YouTube so he can watch videos. Memorizing a cartoon character name requires no reading skills, but typing words such as “depression” or “Iraq” may indicate an individual has some hidden reading skills.  I told his mother to download the computer’s cache memory to look at her son’s search history to determine if he was possibly reading about either “Iraq” or “depression.”  Neither of these words were part of the boy’s school work, however he was exposed to them by other people around him. By looking at his search history the mother could determine if her son might be concealing his reading ability.

Even Experts Are Not Perfect

People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome tend towards black and white thinking.  They see themselves and the world around them in polar opposites, and this tendency feeds their need to be perfect. Even the tiniest mistakes and mishaps can feel like monumental failures to them, creating high levels of anxiety when their efforts or the events around them do not measure up to this all-or-nothing scale.

I have talked to many parents who have told me their child is good at drawing or some other skill but keeps destroying their work because it has some minor imperfection.  It is important for parents to teach a child, in concrete ways, that 1) skills exist on a continuum and 2) there are different levels of quality required for different levels of work. To start, explain to the child that even the greatest experts in a field may have imperfections in their work.  For example, being a photographer for National Geographic requires a person to be the very best.  A photographer for Time or Newsweek has to be good but not as good as a photographer for National Geographic. In other words, there are different levels of quality for photography work.  They could be listed like this:

1.         Expert photographer – Works at National Geographic

2.         Very good photographer – Works at New York Times, Newsweek, or Wall Street Journal

3.         Good photographer – Works doing local weddings, portraits, or local commercial photography

4.         Good amateur – Takes nice scenic vacation pictures

5.         Snapshot taker – takes snapshots of average quality

6.         Terrible photographer – Takes totally bad pictures: cut off heads, overexposed, blurred, or with other immediately obvious mistakes.

As the quality category of the photos decline, the pictures will contain more and more mistakes.  It is equally important that an individual see concrete examples of the best AND the worst to develop perspective.  If you look hard enough it is even possible to find mistakes in photos in National Geographic magazines; not all their photos are absolutely perfect.  A person can have a good career in photography if his pictures are in categories 1, 2, and 3.

Giving individuals concrete, visual representations of the different levels of photography can help them better understand the continuum of skills. A mentor or teacher can reinforce these ideas, showing the individual many examples of photos for each category and even helping the individual sort photos into the different categories. The individual can then strive for National Geographic or Time Magazine quality instead of perfection.  When the student looks at one of his own photos, he can be reinforced to ask himself, “is this good enough for categories 1, 2, or 3?” instead of getting angry and destroying his work because it is not perfect.

When I was getting started, I had the opposite problem. I sometimes did sloppy work on tasks that did not interest me. In my twenties, I did a very sloppy job making copies of sales brochures.  A good way to instruct me would be to show me an example of a quality copy job and contrast that with an example of a poor copy job, while explaining what makes one good and the other bad.  For instance, crooked copies are not acceptable.  Copies missing any pages are not acceptable. The quality of work can be measured along a range from excellent (though not totally perfect) to terrible.  These categories are similar to thermometer scales used with individuals with autism/AS to teach different levels of emotions.

A quality scale can be used in many different applications, from writing to computer programming.  For writing, the categories could range from major literary works to local newspaper writing to poor school papers.  Make sure students see specific examples of each category.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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The Natural Way to Behavior Management

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Simply Good Ideas

The Natural Way to Behavior Management

By David F. Freschi

Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2009


In the last two columns we’ve looked at some of the reasons punishment is an ineffective behavior strategy when used with students with ASD. Today let’s look at natural consequences and positive alternatives as better teaching strategies. Yes, both involve teaching. Our goal, after all, is positive improvement in the child’s behavior…not just “getting through the day”, right? Let’s look at natural consequences first.

Natural consequences are those that occur as a result of a natural event delayed or postponed by the child’s challenging behavior. Charlie throws a tantrum over putting his shoes on before recess. It takes him 15 minutes or so before he finally gets his shoes on. Guess what? Recess is over. The opportunity for learning is not, however. Your response is a simple, “Oh well.” That makes a nice clean connection between the problem behavior and the result. Charlie will start to make the connection quickly. What if Charlie throws another tantrum over missing recess? That’s Charlie’s choice, not yours. Let him expend the energy; it doesn’t have anything to do with you. But what’s our common response? We do things that I guarantee make these tantrums last longer and repeated themselves. We launch into an explanation of why he didn’t get to go to recess. Now you’re crowding the connection between behavior and consequence with language; that won’t help. You are also providing Charlie with lots of attention for his inappropriate behavior. That feeds him. When tantrums become useless they generally die off and disappear. Don’t feed this type of behavior.

Here’s another example. Roscoe predictably runs away from morning meeting or circle. The (wise) teacher immediately hands out a tiny reinforcer to all the other children for good sitting, attending, etc. Roscoe sees this and dashes over to the circle and wants his reinforcer also. “I’m sorry Roscoe, you weren’t here.” Roscoe immediately has a meltdown. Good! That’s learning through natural consequences. Don’t get involved in the tantrum. Let Roscoe expend the energy. It’s his tantrum after all. (Oh, by the way, that group activity you’re doing has to be worth staying in for the child. That’s your job. I know you never have a boring activity…right?)

And one more example that parents everywhere will recognize. Jasper starts a tantrum in the store. End the trip immediately. You don’t need an explanation and you surely don’t need a bunch of verbal warnings. Don’t try to negotiate in the store. You will probably lose, be exhausted by the struggle and end up bribing your way out of the situation. Remember that bribery is not positive reinforcement. It’s teaching a lesson you don’t want this child to learn. If Jasper had been promised a treat for behaving in the store, he doesn’t get it. This is a perfect time for another one of those great remarks that punctuate natural consequences: “Oh well!” Hint: If you want to teach a child to go shopping with you, don’t go when you need to go shopping. Start this lesson going to the store to buy one thing the child wants; get in and out of the store successfully. Then gradually expand the number of items purchased. Trust me, this strategy works.

Are you getting the picture of how powerful natural consequences can be and how different they are from punishment tactics? Natural consequences work because they are natural, and arise from the child’s own behavior. He did x and the result is y. Learn to use them consistently and you’ll see gains you didn’t expect. (Notice that emphasis on “consistently” – it’s there for a reason!)

A second effective alternative to punishment is teaching positive alternative behaviors and skills with this same group of children. These work because they give our kids real life tools and skills where they didn’t have them before. That’s progress!

Charlie has a big problem with putting on his shoes in time for recess. How can we help him? We can give him a visual schedule that shows Charlie putting on his shoes followed by recess, or a comic strip that shows Charlie successfully putting on his shoes and playing with his friends who are happy to see him. We can give him a little head start on getting ready. Try giving Charlie a chore to do just before recess that gets him out of the classroom ahead of time; then he’ll be ready to go when the bell rings. Watch for that first successful time when he goes to recess without the fuss over the shoes. Heap on the praise as additional reinforcement to the natural reinforcer recess provides.

Remember Roscoe, who runs out of circle? Does he have a visual schedule? Do you know how long Roscoe can last (on average) before he bolts from the circle? Do you know what his reinforcers are? Let’s say Roscoe stays in circle about five minutes before he bolts. Try bringing Roscoe into circle just for the last five minutes, and make sure there’s a great activity he loves. This allows Roscoe to be successful. You can gradually increase minutes until he’s in circle most of the time. Look carefully at your activities in circle. Which ones are essential for Roscoe? Where is he successful? Start his time in the circle with only those activities. A little extra time at this stage will pay off in huge bonuses later on. Does Roscoe have any sensory needs that affect his staying in circle? Try giving him a sensory fidget object to hold, or a stiff chair to sit on that provides support. Sometimes sitting on a ball will help maintain interest. Consider using a “working for card.” A “working for” card is basically a token card that provides the child with a clear indication of what the reinforcement is, what he has to do to earn it, and for how long. Sound familiar? It should; as a teacher you signed one with the school board before they hired you. The only difference is you have different tokens (paychecks) that only come every two weeks.

Natural consequences and positive replacement strategies are two mighty powerful teaching methods to use at school and at home. Educators can use them and parents can use them, with equal success. You want to increase or teach appropriate behaviors and provide the structure that makes the child successful in his endeavors. It takes a little thought and sometimes some measured calm, but in the long run it’s easier on the child and easier on the adult. When consequences are clearly connected to the behavior and the child can see the connection, positive results come.

One more hint for the day. When a child has a tantrum or meltdown avoid the temptation to have the child “process” it or make a confession/apology immediately after the event occurs. How rationally can you think when you are upset or stressed? Think how difficult this is for the student with ASD. Every event doesn’t need to be processed. If you want to use the event as a positive learning opportunity, allow the child the time and space to settle down. Then discuss and teach.

Finally, keep in mind that after every tantrum, after every meltdown, it’s a fresh start. Don’t take the tantrum personally, complain about it to everyone you see (especially in front of the child!) and constantly remind the child of what happened. That’s called being a pain and doling out punishment, and there we are, back to where we don’t want to be. It’s only you who can break the vicious cycle.



David Freschi, MA, operates Simple Good Ideas (, a special education consultation and training service for school districts and organizations. He has more than 30 years of successful experience with children and adults with ASD.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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The Most Fun In The World Is Making Stuff!

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The Most Fun in the World is Making Stuff TG

Recently I went to a wonderful Mini-Maker Faire called STEAM Fest in Boulder, Colorado. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. The emphasis was on making things, ranging from high-tech robots to low-tech cardboard boxes. There were a number of kids at this event that had autism; however, they had a great time cutting up large cardboard boxes and making forts. To safely cut the heavy corrugated cardboard, a mini-saw was made from a halved hacksaw blade and a duct tape handle. This creative tool was much safer than a knife and still sawed the cardboard effectively.

Many of the high-tech robotics activities involved computers, but the kids were more interested in making the physical robot do something. The STEAM Fest even had booths for doing simple, fun stuff like cutting paper snowflakes and making things from popsicle sticks, string, glue and tape— much like the craft projects I did in elementary school!

For the budding mathematicians, STEAM Fest had a cool game for making hundreds of mathematical patterns called FRACTILES. The designs one can create are infinite. I would have loved this as a child! My only warning is that it has small pieces, so FRACTILES would not be appropriate for younger children who might eat them.

I also witnessed kids building catapults that threw soft sponge balls. This was a fun activity where elementary aged kids were given short pieces of lumber, bungee cords, plastic pans, and lots of duct tape. They had to figure out how to make the catapult and their parents were instructed to let them. Participating in this activity enabled kids to learn from their mistakes. If one way failed, they had to try another. To keep this activity safe, adults watched to prevent the use of rocks and other dangerous materials.

It was great to see kids who were not glued to a screen. Since children on the autism spectrum sometimes get addicted to video games, my advice is to avoid giving them as gifts this holiday season. What I loved about the Mini-Maker Faire is that children were being creative. Children will put the screens away when if they have hands-on activities. Instead of playing the Minecraft video game, kids played with giant blocks made from boxes labeled “Minecraft Blocks.”

The kids were having the most fun with simple stuff, such as cardboard boxes, tape, and scrap wood. Making houses and forts from cardboard boxes was more popular than the 3D pictures on a large screen television. When I was a child, I was given gifts for making stuff and exploring the world, like carpentry tools, a toy sewing machine (it really worked!), and a microscope. The next door neighbor had an Erector Set. We never followed the directions, we just built stuff!

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted highly functioning person with autism in the world today. For more information, visit her at

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The Importance of Practical Problem-Solving Skills

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Autism: The Way I See It, The Importance of Practical Problem-Solving Skills
by Temple Grandin
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | March/April 2008

Both normal children and kids on the autism spectrum need to be challenged. Those who have heard me speak or read my books know I think many parents and educators coddle their children with ASD far more than they should. Children with ASD don’t belong in a bubble, sheltered from the normal experiences of the world around them. Sensory issues do need to be taken into consideration, but aside from those, parents may need to push their child a little for any real advancement in learning to occur.

This is especially true in teaching a pivotal life skill: problem-solving. It involves training the brain to be organized, break down tasks into step-by-step sequences, relate parts to the whole, stay on task, and experience a sense of personal accomplishment once the problem is solved.

Young kids learn by doing, and kids with ASD often learn best with concrete, visible examples. When I was a child growing up in the 50’s, I built tree houses and went on backyard sleep-outs with other neighborhood children. In those situations several children had to work together to figure out how to accomplish the task. We had to find lumber for the tree house, design it and take measurements, discuss how to get the boards up the tree and nailed into place. We learned by trying different things; some things worked, others did not. Experiments with wetting lumber to make it easier to cut with a hand saw were a complete failure. From our experiences we learned that dry lumber was easier to cut.

The rigorous turn-taking training I had when I was 3-6 years old served me well in these group activities. In our family we played lots of board games – an excellent teaching method for learning how to take turns. Turn-taking helped me understand that people can work together for a common purpose, that what one person did could affect me and the outcome of the game positively or negatively. It made me aware of different perspectives, which in turn helped me become a better detective when I had to solve a problem.

I can remember the huge planning meetings we had for the backyard sleep-out. There was candy and soda that had to be bought. We all had to figure out how to put up an old army tent. None of the parents helped, which made it a valuable learning experience for us all.

Like myself, many kids with ASD have a natural curiosity about certain things. These interests can be used constructively to practice problem-solving skills. I loved toys that flew. On a windy day a parachute I made from a scarf would fly for hundreds of feet. But not on the first try. It took many attempts before I was successful. I had to figure out how to prevent the strings from tangling when I threw the parachute up into the air. I tried building a cross from two pieces of 5” coat hanger wire to tie the four strings to; it worked. When I was in high school I was fascinated with optical illusions. After seeing an illusion called the Ames Trapezoidal Window, I wanted to build one. My science teacher challenged me to try to figure it out by myself rather than giving me a book with a diagram. I spent 6 months working on it, without success. Then my teacher let me have a brief glimpse at a photo in a textbook that showed how the illusion worked. He gave me a hint without telling me exactly how to do it. He helped me develop problem-solving skills.

Children with ASD (and many of their parents) struggle with problem-solving skills today. This may be partially due to us, as a society, doing less hands-on practical work and activities than did our counterparts when I was growing up. We fix less; we toss things out that don’t work and buy new. Even in today’s Internet world, there is a need for problem solving skills. The key is to start with concrete, hands-on projects that have meaning for the child, then slowly move into abstract problem-solving involving thoughts and creativity, in academics and social situations. The ability to solve problems helps a person categorize and use the vast amounts of information in his mind, and from outside sources, like the Internet, in a successful, intelligent manner. These are important life skills and parents should start early in incorporating problem-solving opportunities into their child’s daily routine.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2008. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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The Horse as a Therapeutic Tool for ASD

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The Horse as a Therapeutic Tool for ASD

By Barbara Smith, MS, OTR/L

Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2012


What Is Hippotherapy?

Horses provide an ideal therapeutic tool for occupational, physical, and speech language pathologists who work with children on the spectrum. There are several types of Equine-Assisted Therapies (EAT) that involve horses, but hippotherapy is the only one that must be performed by registered therapists or assistants to address treatment goals, such as improving manipulation skills or decreasing sensory sensitivities. There are different levels of training and certification involved in hippotherapy, although all practitioners must be licensed occupational or physical therapists, or speech language pathologists. Other types of EAT usually focus on teaching individuals with disabilities riding skills, possibly with the goal of entering the Special Olympics.

By participating in hippotherapy children are often highly motivated by the novel, exciting sensory-based activities that might frighten some horses. The horse must be carefully desensitized and familiar with materials and the movements involved well in advance. The ideal hippotherapy horse has had many years of experience working with unpredictable children and sensory materials.

As an occupational therapist (OT), I work on the same functional goals I might address in other clinical settings. However, the horse provides unique opportunities to promote skills such as emotional empathy; communication using words, gestures, or pictures (related to making the horse go, stop, or turn); sensory modulation produced by horse movement and motor activities; body awareness and postural control required to ride; and visual, perceptual, and fine-motor skills to perform equine-related tasks on or off the horse (e.g., putting away equipment, brushing horse, finding hidden objects on trail).

Because OTs look at the whole person, strategies that promote communication skills and social/emotional health as well as improve sensorimotor skills are included in hippotherapy. This all begins with the child-horse relationship.

The Child-Horse Bond and Empathy

TempleGrandin, the renowned author, lecturer, and animal behavior expert, has written extensively about her autism and ability to understand animals. I developed an interest in hippotherapy after attending one of her presentations and quickly realized the potential benefits to children who have behavioral and sensory challenges.

A properly trained therapy horse (chosen for having the right temperament, anatomy, and gait) is a forgiving friend who provides unconditional acceptance even if the client is making odd sounds, rocks back and forth, or pats the mane with too much force. At the same time the child is taught how to be considerate. For example, the child is encouraged to be gentle while patting the mane and not to kick while turning around to face backward. Developing empathy with the horse is a stepping stone to caring human interactions, and the child-horse bond is a powerful motivator to communicate.

Developing Communication Skills

Hippotherapy involves one person leading the horse (while holding the lead line) with the therapist positioned on one side of the horse and the third person, the side walker (often a volunteer), on the other side. As the child is prompted to communicate basic directions, such as “go” or “whoa,” the leader responds accordingly. Children learn to steer at junctions and choose activities such as sit-ups or trotting. Children are highly motivated to make the horse move, and they learn that ignoring the therapist’s requests to communicate or follow directions may result in the horse’s stopping.  Movement after compliance creates a natural reinforcement.

Following directions and imitation are encouraged when I sing, “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” substituting requests in the lyrics (e.g., pat the mane, touch the tail, blow a kiss, nay like a horse). If children do not participate, the horse is stopped so that they can process the directions (sometimes with physical assistance). Horse movement after engagement again provides reinforcement, and the frequent transition between stop and go provides sensory input that helps children focus.

Sensory Modulation

Where else can a child receive the sensory stimulation his brain seeks while at the same time being confined to a small working surface to perform less preferred activities? The therapist chooses the type and intensity of sensory stimulation according to the child’s needs. Vestibular stimulation (movement that impacts balance) varies according to the following:

  • the horse’s speed
  • whether walking in straight lines versus curves
  • the child’s position, such as facing sideways, kneeling, standing on top of the horse, or posting (i.e., alternating sitting and standing with feet in stirrups), and
  • use of inclines.

The horse’s movement provides proprioceptive (deep pressure) stimulation to joints and muscles, especially when the child hugs the horse or bears weight on forearms or hands. Tactile stimulation to hands is provided throughout the session with the goal of decreasing touch sensitivities in preparation for hand use. Facing backward enables the rider to feel the rhythm of the horse’s hind leg movement with his hands.

Promoting Body Awareness and Motor Planning

Children on the spectrum often have low muscle tone (i.e., they feel floppy). Simply being on a horse increases muscle tone and makes a child more aware of where his arms and legs are and how they are moving. I often find myself saying, “You’re sliding into my arms. Don’t make me catch you!” Learning to keep feet in the stirrups, grasp the reins, and look straight ahead at the same time develops coordination between the right and left sides of the body as well as body awareness.

Motor planning is a term that describes planning and performing unfamiliar motor tasks. Children with poor motor-planning skills look clumsy. Hippotherapy activities that promote motor-planning skills include touching right hand to left foot, sit-ups, arm circles, pulling reins to stop at a named destination, and steering with reins to weave around cones on the ground.

Many parents are surprised when they see their children standing on top of the stationary or walking horse. I might encourage the child to balance by extending his arms like a circus tightrope walker. Sometimes I provide a familiar fine-motor activity to perform while balancing. I have found that nothing makes a child more aware of what his body is doing than when standing on top of a horse!

Many children learn to maintain challenging positions, first while stationary and then during the walk. The following positions promote body awareness, motor control, and strength:

  • quadruped position (placing weight on knees and hands, while grasping handle or placing hands on horse)
  • kneeling with arms extended
  • prone (on belly) over horse’s barrel with arms and legs extended like “Superman,” and
  • standing on horse while reaching for objects, then squatting to place object in container.

Adapting Activities for Hippotherapy

When the child is on the horse, the therapist has an ideal opportunity to work on visual perceptual and fine-motor skills with individuals who might otherwise run away at the sight of a lacing board or crayon! Incorporating a sensory component such as lights, weighted materials, vibration, or fun textures may help some children with autism focus and engage in hand activities. For example, you can use heavy bean bags or fill socks with sand to place into containers, or use toys that light up and make funny sounds. I adapt activities to promote success for the child and to make them easier for me to manage while working with a child on a horse. The following are a few of my favorites:

  • Lace a horse-themed board with only 4–5 large holes (using thick cord).
  • String large donut shapes with thick cord, which is much easier than learning how to string beads. The cord is attached to a mesh bag, making it easier to manage.
  • Complete a puzzle that requires reaching for pieces attached with Velcro to a box lid. The puzzle board is placed inside a flat box. The therapist doesn’t need to hold the pieces; the child works on visual skills to transition between vertical and horizontal planes (a skill needed to copy from the board at school). Positioning the child facing backward enables the horse’s rear to be used as a table.
  • Remove toys attached with Velcro and place them in a bottle. The child stabilizes the bottle with one hand while inserting the toys inside.

I have found that performing hippotherapy is not only fun but also an effective treatment tool when used with children on the spectrum. These children often experience new successes, build confidence, and learn functional skills that will affect their everyday home and school lives. Equine friends help children with autism in countless ways!


Barbara Smith, MS, OTR/L, is the author of The Recycling Therapist and From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s Guide to Hand Skills. Please visit her website,, for more information about hippotherapy.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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The Effect of Sensory and Perceptual Difficulties on Learning Styles

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The Way I See It

The Effect of Sensory and Perceptual Difficulties on Learning Styles

By Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2006


Individuals on the autism spectrum have remarkably varied problems with sensory over-sensitivity and information processing. While these problems originate in the brain – their source is biological – they manifest in behaviors that compromise individuals’ ability to learn and function in the world around them. In my analysis of reports from many people with autism, it appears that the faulty manner in which their brains process incoming information can be grouped into three basic categories. 1) sensory oversensitivity; 2) perceptual problems; and 3) difficulties organizing information.

Sensory Oversensitivity. From child to child sensory oversensitivity is very variable. It can range from mild (slight anxiety when the environment is too loud, too bright or too chaotic) to severe, with an individual going into a screaming tantrum every time he is in a large supermarket. One child may not tolerate fluorescent lights; another, like me, fears sudden loud noise because it hurts my ears. Children may be gagged by certain smells such as perfumes. The taste and/or texture of foods can be repulsive. Light touch can be merely annoying or be actually painful. One child may enjoy water play and splashing and another may run screaming from it. Some individuals on the spectrum are attracted to objects that move rapidly and others will avoid them. When senses are disordered, the attention and concentration that learning requires becomes difficult and in some cases, impossible. Children who spend their days fearful of people and places who, through past experience, have been overwhelming to their senses, have little chance to relax enough to take notice of the learning opportunities being presented.

Perceptual Problems. Problems in this category often determine the style of learning that will be most effective. A child with poor auditory perception may hear sounds like a bad mobile phone connection, where voice fades in and out or entire parts of the communication are missing. The child is more likely to learn best with visually presented information. A child with visual perception problems may learn best through the auditory channel. Children who look out the corner of their eye while reading often have visual processing problems. Suspect a visual processing problem in children who finger-flick in front of their eyes, or hate either fluorescent lights or escalators. To some of these individuals the world looks like it is viewed through a kaleidoscope: flat, without depth perception, and broken into pieces. For others, it is like looking through a small tube, seeing only the small circle of vision directly in front of them, with no peripheral vision. Some nonverbal individuals have both visual and auditory processing problems. They may learn best through their sense of touch and smell. For instance, to learn to dress they may need to be hand-over-hand “walked” through putting on socks or pouring cereal. They may learn letters and numbers best when they can touch them, and trace their shape with their hands or fingers. Representative objects rather than visual charts can be useful in helping these individuals know when it is time to transition to a new activity.

Organizing Information. Because of these faulty connections in the brain, an individual may receive information but be unable to organize it or make sense of it. Donna Williams, a well-known person with autism fromAustralia, mentions that speech sounds like “blah-blah-blah” and the meaning disappears. She is hearing the words clearly but not understanding them. Problems with organizing information affect children’s ability to form categories that is the foundation for later concept formation. Difficulties people on the spectrum have with multi-tasking would also fall into this category. Again, these difficulties are highly variable, and range from mild to severe depending on which brain circuits connected and which ones did not. One classic test of flexible thinking is the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test®. In this test a person has to sort differently-patterned cards, one at a time, into categories such as yellow or circles. A person on the spectrum is slower to figure out new categories as they are introduced.

Sensory overload can cause either vision or hearing to shut down completely. During these times no information will get through to the brain, and learning will not occur. Also, sensory and information processing problems are worse when a child is tired. It is therefore best to teach difficult material when the child is alert and wide awake. Since my oversensitivity to noise was fairly mild, I responded well to a gently intrusive teaching method where the teacher grabbed my chin to make me pay attention. Donna Williams told me that method absolutely would not work with her. The tactile input coupled with the teacher speaking would be overload and could not be processed simultaneously. Donna is a mono-channel learner. She either has to look at something or listen to something, but she cannot look and listen at the same time. Information processing on more than one sensory channel is not possible.

An effective teacher with spectrum children and adults is one who is a good detective and looks for the source of learning difficulties. Often they can be found in one or a combination of these categories mentioned above. A challenge, even one that is considered mild, will dramatically compromise a child’s ability to learn via ‘traditional’ teaching methods. Teachers who truly want to help students with sensory and perception difficulties will figure out the child’s unique learning style and adapt teaching methods accordingly. Some children do best with written instructions and assignments; others will do best through oral methods or oral testing. The best teachers have a flexible approach and teach to the style through which these children can learn.



Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems, and is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of numerous books on autism and is a worldwide speaker on autism topics. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, coauthored with Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk, captured a prestigious Silver Award in the 2006 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition. Her previous book, Animals in Translation (2005) was on the New York Times Bestseller list. For more information visit

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2006. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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  1. Joel says:

    Spot on Dr. Grandin. Sensory overload IS the root cause of all these behaviors. I couldn’t agree with you more.