By Jenny Burke, June 27, 2019
Developing critical thinking skills in kids with autism may feel like a challenge. And teaching critical thinking skills at home may sound impossible, when you’re already stressed and busy. But the benefits that a child with ASD gets from learning about thinking is invaluable.
Take an example: A child screams bloody murder when the fries are too hot. He refuses to step on dried leaves on a sidewalk (which makes walking during fall problematic). He says to Grandpa, “I don’t like trains,” right after opening the train set gift from Grandpa. He collapses in a sobbing heap saying, “I will never find my stopwatch. It’s gone forever.” (It’s on his desk, by the way.) He insists that you drive the same route to and from school, and gets very upset when you drive a different way. (The scream ricochets around the car and causes pedestrians to stop and stare.) He often is not paying attention and instead is thinking about something else way more interesting like the numbers cycling on a gas pump. He believes that other kids really like his loud, non-stop singing in the classroom because if they didn’t like his singing, they would for sure tell him. He often refers to women as “he” and men as “she.” (Many people do not appreciate this.) He absolutely will not under any circumstances eat off the plate with the yellow flower pattern (but has no problem with the red and blue pattern plates). And so on.
The infamous yellow plate. I recently busted my now 20-year-old son scraping pizza off this plate onto a plain brown one so he wouldn’t have to eat off of it!
The child above is mine and all that is true. Actually, now as a young man, Danny does not remember saying and doing these things. He scowls at me with total suspicion when I say something like, “No really, you did scream bloody murder when your fries were hot.”
He’s skeptical because that behavior seems totally foreign to him. This is because he no longer acts that way. Well, the paying attention thing is still a big challenge. He also totally ticked off his sister the other day when he reacted in an un-gracious way about her birthday gift to him. But she let him have it and I think he won’t do that again.
Oh, and to this day he’ll avoid that dang yellow flower plate like the plague!
So he doesn’t remember, but I do. In excruciating detail. It took a ton of work, patience, a sense of humor, and chocolate (for me) to help Danny acquire the skills and capabilities to communicate, cope, problem-solve, get better at navigating social situations, and develop critical thinking. He is still a work in progress, but he has come so far, and honestly, aren’t we all a work in progress? I sure am.
Now let me pause a second here to say that I firmly believe that we as a society must stop viewing autism as solely a negative. Autism brings strengths, abilities, and gifts. So please know that while I often recount stories about the challenges, I do view autism as a combination of both positives and challenges.
The trick, in my opinion, to raising a child with autism is to celebrate and cultivate strengths and gifts while doing everything possible to help with the challenges. That’s what we did.
So how did we help our kiddo make progress? We took an all hands on deck, multi-faceted approach to helping Danny with the challenges. This included professional support; effective intervention and structured programming (both in and out of school); and, lots of parent involvement, including during unstructured time. My background in social work really helped because social work emphasizes a comprehensive assessment and approach to tackling challenges.
A very critical component of this approach was to help Danny be an active thinker and develop critical thinking skills. I cannot take credit for that. It is thanks to certain professionals who worked with my own child when he was much younger. These professionals were: the amazing Gurney Preschool “Dream Team,” as I like to call them, of two teachers, an occupational therapist (OT), and a speech and language pathologist (SLP); and a very talented clinical psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Beth Anne Martin.
The approach of the Dream Team and Dr. Martin was totally different. The Dream Team’s method was to work with the kids in-the-moment as they played, ate, did crafts, got their coats on, etc. I can still hear “Miss Bev” saying to Danny, “Danny is thinking about a snack,” or “Zach is playing with the bucket. Danny is thinking Danny wants a turn with the bucket. Danny can say, ‘turn please.’” All day long, the Dream Team would describe out loud what the kids were doing and thinking to help them build language, communication, social, and coping skills.
Dr. Martin and Danny drew this visual together to work on coping. She used thinking bubbles and talking balloons in her masterful work. She’d be the first to admit that having excellent drawing skills is not mandatory for visual teaching. 🙂
In contrast, Dr. Martin and my son sat in a little room at a little table (on little chairs!) drawing and talking. Dr. Martin incorporated thinking into her work with Danny to help him learn to cope with and to problem solve during situations that were hard for him.
While the Dream Team and Dr. Martin had a different approach, a significant objective of both was to help my son become an active thinker and develop critical thinking skills. And all these professionals encouraged me to at home to build on, continue, model, and reinforce all the learning that was taking place in preschool and therapy.
Because getting Danny to think was important to these professionals, it became important to me. When I interacted with my child, I basically said and did what I heard them saying and doing with him. I also created my own visuals to help him learn basic ideas about thinking. Like so many kids with autism, Danny was a black-and-white kind of guy, who required direct, visual teaching of abstract concepts.
I am so grateful to The Dream Team and Dr. Martin because becoming a more active thinker has made a big difference in my son’s journey of progress — from learning to handle hot fries to no longer mixing the pronouns he and she.
I made this visual to teach Danny that people can think different thoughts. He really benefited from this type of direct teaching. Often kids w. autism don’t understand this concept that’s so important for being social.
Am I suggesting that you only develop critical thinking skills and skip things like speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral intervention? Nope.
And parents, recognize there is much you can do during unstructured time and daily routines to help your child be a thinker and ultimately to strengthen communication, coping, problem-solving, independence, and more.
That’s why we created an affordable teaching resource for the parents and other caring adults of kids with autism. It’s called Thinking About Thinking. It’s over 250 pages of engaging questions and activities that teach kids about thinking. It’s full of moments to practice expressive communication and skills like paying attention, following directions, and turn-taking. It comes as a digital PDF, and you can print it out on your own at home. There are printables and extra pages that provide additional guidance for adults.
I encourage you to talk to your child’s team (all the professionals in and out of school who work with your child) about what you can do to help your child become a thinker and how you can use Thinking About Thinking. I also encourage you to take a little time to observe the professional(s) and teacher(s) who you think do an especially good job interacting with your child. Consider them as models for how you can interact with your child when she or he is not in school or therapy.
What about you? Have you had success with helping a child be a more active thinker? Would your child eat off of that yellow plate? Please share!
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