Tuesday, May 24, 2016

It's not that complicated! Or is it?

Our brains can take a complex task with a lot of steps and many different scenarios and put them all together into a simple daily routine that comes very easy to us. But to put that task into words and to teach that task and all the different scenarios to a person with autism is daunting. For example: walking through door.

Who knew there were so many things to consider when you need to get into a building or a room?

You might think that a written procedure for getting into a room or building with a closed door could not possibly be that complicated to compose. It might look something like this:
·      Step One: Approach the door.
·    Step Two: Reach out and grasp the door handle or knob and turn it if needed.
·      Step Three: Push or pull the door open. Open the door wider than your body width.
·      Step Four: Walk through the opening.
·      Step Five: Allow the door to close, or push (or pull) it closed as needed.

However, these steps are actually not enough. As a matter of fact, I cannot imagine being able to create a list that could cover all the things I know about opening a door that my son needs to be taught. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for years to teach Tate all of the steps and rules the rest of us have about walking through a door. What do I mean? Why can Tate not open a door and walk through it? Oh, he has the five steps above down without a problem. It’s the rest. What do I mean: “the rest”? Take a look at the procedure most of us use:
·      Step One: Approach the door, but be aware of all the people around you. Do not brush up against anyone or get in front of anyone who is also waiting to go through the door. Wait for your turn patiently.
·      Step Two: Reach out to grasp the door handle or knob. If someone else is close and they are also reaching for the knob, look at them. By looking at their face and by seeing where their eyes are looking, you might be able to tell if they would prefer you open the door of they would like to open it. Watch their body language. If they quicken their pace, then let them reach for the door first. If they slow down, then you go ahead and reach out for the door. You could also just say, “I’ll get the door for you” if you want to open it, or “After you” if you prefer they open the door.
·       Step Three: Open the door or allow the other person to open the door. If you open the door, do not just assume you should go through first. You might need to open it and hold it so they can walk through first. There are things to consider. Are their hands full? Be sure and hold the door and hand it off to the other person gently if they seem like they are willing to take the weight of the door. If they open the door and step back for you to go through first then go ahead, and then smile your thanks or say, “Thank you.” If the person’s hands are full and you were the one to go through the door first then reach back and hold the door for them. If you watch the other person’s hands and face you might be able to tell if they expect you to hold the door or if they want to hold the door.
·     Step Four: Walk through the door but be sure and look behind you. There may be someone else approaching the door that you should consider. If there is someone only two or three steps away and the door is a self-closing door, give the door a gentle push so the next person can grab the door. If someone is approaching from up to ten steps away, if their hands are full, or if they are on crutches, or if they are elderly and moving slowly, or if they have a dog on a leash, or if they are pushing a stroller, or if they are too small to reach the door, or if they are leading a gorilla by the hand, then hold the door open for them. (I have become facetious here but I want you to see how hard it is to teach EVERY possible scenario!) There are so many.
·       Step Five: Allow the door to close, or push or pull it closed as needed.

Notice the very specific things above: “two or three steps away” and “up to ten steps away.” These are the things I have become very aware of as I have been trying to teach these things to Tate. I’ve become very interested in the social aspect involved in many daily tasks and I have been watching others and breaking down the steps involved in tasks I perform myself. The next time you approach a building to open a door with several others around, notice how everyone seems to know what to do. Watch the same procedure in a downpour with everyone holding umbrellas. The procedure for opening the door is somewhat different as everyone hurriedly closes their umbrella and tries not to get wet, all the while adjusting their moves to fit those around them who are also trying to stay dry. How do we all just know what to do? There certainly was no five step procedure with every scenario listed out for us to memorize.

All these kinds of things have been taught to us by example. We see examples all around us. People are often rushing up to hold the door for someone else who has their arms full. People are constantly walking through a door before me, and then as I approach, they give it one extra push so I can reach out and grab the door. I just KNOW what is and is not socially acceptable when I walk through a door. I know because of the way my brain works. And Tate just does NOT KNOW because of the way his brain works. 

I have tried to help Tate to understand the social cues involved in opening a door for years. Even after much instruction and example we’ve made little progress. This past school year I have seen Tate walk right to the front of a group of people who were patiently waiting to walk through a door and squeeze through ahead of the rest. I have seen him walk up to a door that someone was holding for him to grab, but instead of reaching out to take the door, Tate slid right past and into the building, leaving the other person confused about what had just happened. I have seen him drop a door that he walked through, just as a person with their arms full was just about to struggle through. I have seen him walk through a door oblivious to an elderly person who really needed some help to keep the door open.

I’ve given Tate so much instruction about the door to his school that the last semester he was just trying to time his entry into the school so no one else was around him. He knew he was “doing it wrong” every day so he just decided to do it alone. Major “fail” on my part.


I try to tell myself that these kinds of things are not THAT important. A hundred years from now it will not matter if Tate snubbed someone or dropped a door he should have held. But in daily living, these things can become pretty important. How others perceive you based on your actions determines a lot of things. I want Tate to continue to have friends long after his small circle of friends at the Junior High have moved on. Teaching Tate about body language and how to interpret those things is so difficult, if not impossible. Teaching Tate about how to anticipate what another person is going to do by looking at their face is very difficult, if not impossible. I have found some materials from a real giant of a therapist named Michelle Garcia Winner. She teaches people about social thinking and “thinking with their eyes.” Watching other people and where their eyes are looking can tell you so much. Because Tate has autism and has such a hard time with faces and eye contact I haven’t been able to make much progress in this area. But. I am not giving up. There has to be a way to teach this. A friend with autism suggested I catch Tate on film so he can see what he is doing that is socially unacceptable to the rest of us. I believe I will give that a try.  

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy reading: What brought you here?

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