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The Changing of Tides

The concept of Autism as a motor planning and sensory difference, in many ways, is still emerging: few families have heard of it, almost no schools or institutions approach students with this mindset, and the majority of professionals negate the concept. When I initially heard of this idea and witnessed sessions with providers who supported their ASD student’s movement and sensory needs, I assumed it had only just been conceptualized in the last 5 years or so: why else would so few be aware of this option? You can imagine my surprise when I learned that, in reality, nearly 30 YEARS had passed from the time this idea was first developed by a brilliant mother and chemist to help her young son, Tito, until it reached my awareness.

In those thirty years or so, though, the information and data about individuals with Autism who benefitted from motor-sensory based supports only grew. Single families who shifted to this approach ultimately sparked whole communities in places like Atlanta, Virginia, Seattle, and even around the world in New Zealand, all of whom discarded the “Autism is a social-relational and cognitive disorder” contention that is so ingrained in traditional Autism research and therapy. Videoed sessions, notes, and data from hundreds and thousands of children and adults who gained access to communication and education that, previously, was thought to be beyond them were recorded and shared. And even more recently, research itself supported this shift into the idea of ASD as a motor-sensory difference: for instance, just one study from Stanford University in 2013 summarized the evidence of motor differences in Autism and posited that these may be key markers for identification, diagnosis, and treatment.

The evidence for viewing Autism in this light continues to mount………and yet, the traditional view remains pervasive. Why? When the information in support of this includes data from sessions, reports from Autistic individuals and their families, professional judgement, and the growing body of motor-sensory research, why is this not enough to elicit widespread change?

I’ve wondered this so many times and felt utterly heartbroken when-regardless of how much data, science, and fact is presented-the idea that one of my ASD students is intelligent and capable is summarily rejected. Frustrating and sad as it can be, I felt my only option in these cases was to try to answer that “why”. So, here are my thoughts:

  1. We are EXTREMELY behaviorally driven and social creatures: the actions of others are the basis by which we judge their thoughts, understanding, and intentions. As such, we are all adapted to monitor and respond to different cues from each other in order to effectively interact. For instance, during a training, you may notice one of your workmates begin to tap his pen on the desk, sigh heavily, and continually look at the clock or door. The conclusion? He is frustrated, and ready to get out of there! However, if I were to tell you a different conclusion that seems incongruent with these behaviors (i.e. he is enjoying the training and excited to stay), I highly doubt you’d believe me. Such is the case with many of our ASD students for whom outward behaviors do not tie so clearly to inner thoughts.

  2. Confirmation bias. As much as we would all like to believe that we are impartial and objective in our interpretation of facts, the human brain simply just doesn’t work like a computer. Everything is filtered through and considered in connection with our past experiences, learning, and emotions, and, once we reach an opinion on a matter, it is very difficult to sway. Add in the idea of “cultural cognition” which theorizes that we shape our opinions to conform to the views of the groups with which we most strongly identify (hello, field of traditional Autism research), and this becomes even more evident. (Check out these articles here and here for a more in-depth explanation on these concepts)

  3. Evidence is always up for interpretation, which I think is especially true when considering the fields of psychology and human behavior. Our spellers offer such an amazing example of this: can’t point to the picture of a dog when asked? The traditional view assumes this is because the student doesn’t understand the concept. However, take that same data as seen from a motor-sensory perspective, and the interpretation is that the student doesn’t yet have the motor control to do so. Same response, different interpretations, and vastly different outcomes when it comes to therapeutic support.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to changing the perspectives about Autism, and I hope that understanding the possible reasons why this shift is so difficult can help lead to change. For my Autistic spellers and speaking advocates out there, what are your thoughts? Do these points resonate with you, or are there other barriers you see to this change? I’d love to hear from you and to keep this discussion going!


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