Susan's Blog

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ask a Mommy

Sometimes I wonder about the prevailing autism theory about generalization, about what a challenge it is for some autistics to generalize a learned skill from one environment to a different one. While I have observed that Nat does have trouble generalizing from his school to The House, it seems that his generalization to the latter, newer environment is no where near as lagging as it is here at home.

All this time I have accepted the expertise of docs and therapists who posit that generalization difficulties of autistic people are exhibited when it comes to connecting the dots, extrapolating, and jumping from one area to a similar one (I consider all of these under the category of generalizing). What I have learned over the years is that this is because of limbic system breakdowns in autistics, whereby the usual limbic function is to help information transfer from one area of the brain to the next, connecting disparate information and allowing the brain to pull it all together. (Please understand that this is only a layperson’s interpretation of something two different neuropsych types told me years ago.)

These connecting deficits in autistics’ brains, so goes the theory, explain why someone with Nat’s issues take in a lot of info but then cannot connect it in a meaningful way, and why schools then use “scaffolds” to connect info for them. Why Aspies collect a lot of facts about, say, Presidents or stamps, or bus routes, but these facts don’t seem to go anywhere.

So it is best for Nat to learn anything in a real world context, so that he doesn’t merely acquire static bits of facts that have no relevance to him, right? (This fact makes me wonder, of course, why discrete trial training is so popular. Nat’s current school uses it. In discrete trial, Nat is drilled in a certain skill, bit by bit, until he has internalized it. They then move onto the next, higher level of the skill. But if he is learning these skills in a classroom environment, how can they have meaning in their actual, real world environment? If this breakdown in the limbic system is truly the problem, then it would seem to me that going from one IEP goal to the next in a school day must make very little sense to Nat. Is he then perceiving the world as all broken up, whereby for the first fifteen minutes he is thinking about numbers, and then the next fifteen he goes to the computer and works on words and emailing? Sure, any kid does this hopping around in school, but any kid does not have the kind of challenges Nat has.)

So then if disparate skill learning is, indeed, a problem for Nat, why does he learn so well? If the prevailing theory is correct, then Nat would not be able to make sense of his world.

But he does. He does eventually link things together. His “eventually” takes a lot longer than mine but he does get it. But not all of the time. Sometimes it feels like he just has not generalized, especially when he is at home, because he doesn’t seem to understand cause and effect. He doesn’t seem to know, for example, that when he is hungry he can go get food. Or request it, but obviously for him verbal language is another hurdle. Yet at school and at The House, he seems more competent in this regard. So this proves that he hasn’t completely generalized, because he doesn’t also do it at home.

But today I had a new thought about this lack-of-generalization theory. I know he knows how to clip his nails completely independently. But when I asked him to do it, he adamantly refused. I went upstairs with him, took out the clippers, but he would not take them from me. He made me do all his nails, and I was fuming about how stubborn he is — damned Scorpios — so finally I made him clip just one, and of course he did it.

We could conclude that Nat has not generalized nail-clipping yet. Or, we could conclude that he is different at home. At home, Mommy does it. “Mommy will do it,” Nat says. Mommy does pretty much everything. He likes it that way. Who wouldn’t? He gets to be a prince here, while I do all the work!

I believe that it is not about generalizing, then. I think that there are other explanations. When he “can’t” do something, we should all be exploring other possibilities, like laziness, or teenage recalcitrance. Why not? Is it preferable to attribute lack of ability to lack of ability? I think, actually, it is preferable to attribute the behavior to wanting Mommy to do it, because that is comforting.

Who’s to say I’m wrong? And now I wonder, how many other autism theories are actually only theories (remember the one about how autistics don’t like hugs? or can’t love back? Hah!). I truly believe that the theorists need to ask the Mommies sometimes.


I was just having a similar conversation at one of my sons I.E.P. meetings last week. About how my son can do certain things very well at school-and yet, at home…he seems to lose the ability-or the "will" to do them. I find myself stepping back more (although it is hard)…make myself not so available. Low and behold! I find my boy is very capable when he wants something. 🙂

— added by kathleen on Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 10:57 pm

How very "normal", eh?? 🙂 🙂

How many other "normal" children will do stuff at school but not at home b/c Mom will do it for them??

We've had many a "go round" in our house over it…. so I walk away and guess what.. it gets done.


— added by farmwifetwo on Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 8:24 am

Susan, I'm an SLP in an elementary school, and I find any info that you share about the real-life ins and outs of Nat's life to be helpful in thinking about the programming for my students on the spectrum in a more holistic way. Thanks for that.

— added by Anonymous on Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 5:46 pm