There is a pervasive ideology in the mainstream autism parenting and education community that when it comes to autistic children, you have to act fast. That if we are to teach our children anything, we must hammer it into them before a magical developmental window slams closed forever, leaving our children permanently shut out.
This concept of the magic window started innocently enough when scientists began to observe the massive amount of learning that toddlers do, the type of brain growth and development that is never again replicated in our life and concluded (as scientists do) that naturally we must interfere with this process, by providing “stimulation” usually in the form of too-advanced and too-rigid activities such as overpriced contrasting rattles, various “educational” toys and videos named after famous physicists.
While this type of interference is largely benign (if annoying and unnecessary) for typical toddlers, whose development is not under a microscope and who don’t have to constantly try to catch up to their neurotypical peers, the philosophy of “maximum stimulation in minimum time” can do a great deal of damage to the autistic child.
We live in a stimulating world. Every waking second our brain must process and filter sounds, smells, sensations, emotions, our environment, words spoken, directions given among countless other inputs. The typical brain does so, seemingly without much effort. However an autistic child often has problems processing all the stimuli, which feel like an onslaught to him and he will attempt to self-regulate either by withdrawing, performing a calming ritual such as lining up or sorting objects or self-soothing with a repetitive movement or sound. These actions are not wrong, they are his methods for finding his calm and grounding himself. If his cues are respected and he’s allowed to soothe in this manner, the child will often return to the activity he was doing recharged and calm.
The problems begin when his natural mechanisms are deemed “unproductive” or “inappropriate” and the child is forced to abandon them. The thinking is- why waste valuable time on a useless activity such as flicking a piece of string, when he can do a more “appropriate” task, such as a puzzle? And if he’s fighting the puzzle, we’ll just corner him, snatch the string away, firmly say “first puzzle, then string”, force him to make the puzzle by placing our hand over his, squirming and squealing as he may be, complete the puzzle to our satisfaction despite his protests, mark in the book “completed puzzle with assistance”, lavishly praise “good puzzle!” and begrudgingly offer him his string back. Score one for education.
This type of therapy is sadly not uncommon. The child might be 3 or 4, or he could be 2. It could be happening in his own home, where he no longer feels safe. The self-soothing mechanism that worked well before now might trigger anxiety. The child might look at the piece of string in his hand and remember the incident with the puzzle and suddenly feel afraid. Or mad. He might lash out, or meltdown. And have no way to find his calm again because his source of calm has been tainted.
Any time I mention that I didn’t feel intensive behavioural intervention was appropriate for Sophie I am met with the assumption that instead we are doing nothing (because there’s only those two options apparently). I wonder what people mean by “nothing”, really? Unless you are keeping your child in a sensory-deprivation tank (if you are, you should probably stop), you are likely not doing nothing.
I think of my “method” as planting seeds. Seeds are small and might seem insignificant, but yet they eventually produce incredible things. Each morsel of knowledge or a skill I show or model for Sophie is a seed. I share it with her with the assumption that she’s listening even if she appears not to be. I don’t expect her to show me what she learned- I trust she is either processing it, retaining for future use, or not yet ready for this information. I expect that I will repeat it many times, in the same neutral but engaging tone. It’s my pleasure to share it with her, my interest is not hindered by her lack of enthusiasm. Many seeds, over many months, with an expected long-germination time, planted with love.
Since Sophie has a lot of time to do with as she will and her self-regulation methods have never been interfered with, she has a calm and centred demeanour. She trusts us and we respect her. This is the foundation (or the fertile soil, if we’re maintaining the seed metaphor) for learning. I might sit with her and model on her communication app or read a book. I might bring a toy or puzzle and try to draw her attention to it. I talk to her as I dress her and name the articles of clothing and body parts. I point out things on our walks and day trips. I whisper stories and songs as I tuck her in at night. Little seeds, planted throughout the day.
She’s learning and developing. She’s gone through so many phases conventional wisdom would advise us to “nip in the bud” and “act fast before it becomes an unbreakable habit”. Instead we guided, waited, kept teaching… And they all passed, one by one. We never acted fast, we never punished or used behaviourist approaches. This child, who according to autism “specialists” can only understand operant conditioning and cause-and-effect type of teachings is a calm, clever and adaptable girl, who’s a pleasure to be around. She’s so keenly aware of her surroundings, it’s like she posesses a sense we don’t know about for always knowing what’s going on.
And she learns, she’s always learning. This week started pointing. Just like that, one day- oh there it is. She’s pointing to what she wants with her index finger like she’s been doing it all her life. Nobody spent any time teaching it to her directly, although she must’ve observed it through many indirect situations.
Children learn at the speed they are able. Whether neurotypical or autistic, their minds seek stimulation and growth. Using neurotypical milestone charts on autistic children is counterproductive and potentially damaging. Don’t be afraid of this phantom window experts have warned you about. Current studies all suggest that our brains develop and change right until old age. Life itself is a stimulating environment. Challenge, enrich, fill with exciting ideas by all means! Plant as many seeds as you are able. Then step back and admire the garden of your child’s mind begin to bloom. It might surprise you what comes up.