Teach Contextual Sensitivity to Children on the Spectrum

Taken from the article “Autism: From Mind Blindness to Context Blindness”
By Peter Vermeulen
Nov/Dec 2011 Autism Asperger’s Digest www.autismdigest.com
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Remember the scene in the movie, Rainman, where Raymond is trying to cross a street? In Raymond’s mind when the sign displays “Don’t walk,” it means only one thing: “Don’t walk.” We laugh when the sign changes from “Walk” to “Don’t walk” and Raymond stops in the middle of the intersection. Raymond does not understand that “Don’t walk” means many different things, depending on the situation or context. When you’re halfway through the crossing, it means “hurry up” instead!

Here is another example of context blindness: When the doorbell rang, the mother of a seven-year-old boy with autism asked him to open the door. He opened the back door instead of the front. His reaction was logical, but his choice of door was out of context.

Emotion recognition training is immensely popular in the field of autism. Typical materials used in this training are photographs or pictures of facial expressions of emotions.

Although these materials can help children with autism learn about different emotions in a rote manner, they do not reflect emotion recognition as it happens in real life.

First, we rarely see faces out of context in real life. When we try to figure out what a person feels, we look at context as much as we do facial expression: the situation, what that person says, body language, our past experiences with similar situations, etc. In fact we don’t even need a facial expression to recognize emotions. Even without a facial expression you certainly know how the man in the photo at feels, based on the context. Studies on how people process facial expressions have shown that when we look at faces, our brains always spontaneously encode the context and that in certain instances, context plays an even bigger role in emotion recognition than the facial expression.

The second problem with traditional emotion recognition training is the underlying assumption that there is a direct relationship between an emotion and its facial expression. This assumption goes back to Darwin’s idea of universal expression of emotions in which each emotion has its own distinct facial expression. Unfortunately for people with autism, facial expressions are not that straightforward and quite often are ambiguous. Take tears for instance. What do people feel when they have tears on their cheeks? It could mean sadness. But it could also mean happiness or pride. Or it could be an allergic reaction or the result of dicing an onion. How can a brain tell the difference? It uses context.

In recognizing emotions—the same is true for all mental states—the human brain relies on context. When people with autism find it hard to empathize, it is because their brain lacks contextual sensitivity. They are affected by context blindness, rather than mind blindness.

We can teach people with ASD a lot of rules and scripts, but for social understanding and competence to flourish, scripts and rules are insufficient. To effectively teach emotion recognition and social understanding to people with ASD, we must add context to the materials we teach. Even using a term such as “socially appropriate behavior” becomes misleading unless context is specified; behavior that is socially appropriate in one situation might be inappropriate in another context!

Social competence is not about knowing whether a certain behavior is socially appropriate or not, it is the knowledge of when that behavior is appropriate and when it is not.

Research has shown that more able people with ASD know quite a lot of social rules, but they have difficulty adapting these rules to changing contexts or making exceptions to the rules. Most social skill training programs focus on teaching generic social skills (e.g., how to start a conversation). However, having a conversation while waiting in the dentist’s waiting room or visiting someone at the hospital is quite different from the conversation you have hanging out with a group of buddies because the contexts are very different.

Instead of putting our focus on teaching social skills, we should focus on teaching social contexts such as visiting someone at the hospital or hanging out with friends. And then teach all the necessary rules, conversation, and behavior attached to a certain context. When you visit someone who is ill and in the hospital, what kind of present do you take? How long do you stay? What do you talk about? What should you say/not say?

The same logic about context applies to Social Stories™, a powerful tool to help people with autism navigate the social world. Instead of creating stories about certain social skills, we should build them around contexts and introduce sentences that start with if and when. In this manner a story can be adapted to different contexts. For instance, a social story about welcoming guests to your birthday party could contain the following contextual sentences:

• When the person who arrives is a close family member, you kiss them and say “hi.”
• When the person who arrives is not a close family member, you shake hands and say “hi.”

Social competence requires more than social skills; it demands contextual sensitivity— something difficult for people with ASD. Training programs designed to help people with ASD navigate the social world should therefore emphasize social contexts, not just focus on teaching social skills.

Peter Vermeulen, PhD, is a senior lecturer and consultant at Autisme Centraal in Gent, Belgium. He has written 15 books on autism, some of which have been translated into several languages.

About Melissa

Melissa is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and strives to provide information about all aspects of autism through her blog, The Autism Education Site. Follow Melissa on Twitter. Like me on Facebook.

© Melissa Hincha-Ownby and The Autism Education Site, 2008-2013.

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