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My husband and I were driving home from northern Minnesota a couple of weekends ago, on a route that we take many times a year. It’s a 200-mile drive, and we were somewhere near the towns of Cotton and Canyon when I realized that I only had a vague guess of what landmark was coming up next.
It made me wonder, what is it like to have extreme difficulty following a “simple” routine like preparing a snack, washing your hands, or playing a board game? This is the case for some people with autism. Does it feel like being on a 200-mile drive, and even though each landmark is somewhat familiar, it’s just hard to remember what’s coming up next?
What is the difference, for me, between the 200-mile drive and a routine like washing my hands?
- Repetition. I wash my hands more often than I take the drive.
- Length. Washing my hands happens faster than the drive.
- Complexity. Washing my hands requires coordinating 5 things: water, soap, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying. The drive has hundreds of landmarks, like towns’ names, billboards, restaurants, rivers, roads, and freeway exits.
- Engagement. When I’m washing my hands, I’m in charge of the task, but when I take the drive, I only really have to remember about four different roads. The rest of the landmarks just pass by the window as I drive in a straight line.
- Logic. The steps to washing my hands feels meaningful. I know the reason why I do each step in a certain order. But the landmarks on the drive are in an arbitrary order. The Laurentian Divide just happens to be north of Cotton and Canyon. ...or is it south?
So for someone who has autism and also has extreme difficulty learning a new activity, does washing your hands feel just like that 200 mile drive? Not repetitive enough to memorize? So long and drawn out that it’s hard to remember the beginning by the time you get to the end? Infinitely complex? Unengaging, like it’s just passing by the window? Not meaningful? And if it does feel that way, what can we do to best support learning?
That is the end of my musing for now, but Hannah read a draft of this post and the idea in her response fascinated me, so I wanted to share it as well:
"Do you think it is harder or easier for kids to learn routine actions if there are minor changes in the context in which it occurs? It seems reasonable to state that for kids whose attention may become acutely focused on certain components of a physical space (e.g., the pump on a soap dispenser-- which may vary according to context), the landmarks are continually changing and/or vary in how remarkable they are to the kid and therefore, contextual changes become that much harder (and maybe don't outweigh the potential benefits of theoretically easier/faster generalization)."