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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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