Autistic Development and Those So-Called “Issues”

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Development, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 01-07-2010

One of the most talked about issues in autism is the issue of verbal communication or “functional” speech. That is, speech that is reciprocal, social, conversational. For Adam, there have been major challenges in this area and he has had to use augmentative forms in order to communicate many things, yet for the person who understands his communication, he is communicating all the time. I do not find it too difficult to understand and the one shortcoming I may have is the tendency to feel frustrated when he is — when he cannot get a more complex message across.

Adam turned eight this year and much of this is beginning to change. Adam began to talk in sentences, began to show me things and started to become “the teacher,” in the sense that he would test me on the things he wanted to talk about in books. He learned certain concepts such as what something was NOT as opposed to what it was, among other concepts.

There are a couple of things I want to write with respect to progress in communication ability, quite unscientifically, in this post, for I have not yet found some good citations to support my theories about autism and development. So take it for what it’s worth and perhaps you may see some more of my posts deal with this — with citations.

I’ve been reading how to teach philosophy to children through children’s books: Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, by Thomas E. Wartenberg. When we refer to teaching “critical thinking” to autistic children, it usually has to deal with teaching the more functional types like putting puzzles together or teaching Feature, Function and Class — for those familiar you know what I mean. These are the basic skills we believe are absent in autistic children because their very expression is difficult to manifest — be it for attentional reasons or motor planning issues, or both.

We do not address for the “profoundly autistic,” “severely autistic” or any autistic child, for that matter, often enough, how to read books, how to question and how to think abstractly because we have decided that autistic people learn literally. While this may be in part true, we miss an opportunity to help along the critical aspects to being human — the ability to question. I’ve read many a time how we wish to teach some flexibility in thinking in autism. To me, teaching through books and by taking a lead in creative ways to view things from different angles is not only an exercise for Adam, but also for myself. We would all stand to gain from working to think in ways that may not be familiar to us.

We are more often concerned with our children knowing how to read the words (certainly this is the first step to reading at all). We do not learn how to talk to an autistic child who has difficulty with that reciprocity, how to really push forward, even though their manifestation of understanding is not what we expect. In my view, I feel it is dangerous to assume that Adam does not understand as much as it is to take for granted that he can just learn the way a typical child does. Yet all those years of puzzles, functional skills and communication issues makes me worried that Adam is missing the most important component of life learning, that is, to ask questions about everything. I’m quite sure I will be writing more about my in-house experiments here.

That said, I have a short story to tell. With some severe weather hovering around Toronto, there was a downburst, or a tornado. Both Adam and I enjoy watching the weather reports. With bad weather, we are glued to the TV. I was talking about funnel clouds and how they are dangerous.

“Why?” Adam asked.

“Because they can rip down houses and trees,” I said.

“Why?” he asked again. I am thinking about a three-year-old I once knew when I was an older kid and how every answer to a question he had ended up with yet another “why?” Like that, the conversation went on a bit between Adam and I. He kept asking me “why?” until I ran out of answers!

For a typical child, asking “why?” is expected. For an eight-year-old developing autistic child, it was another one of our milestones.

With that “why?” also came a series of sentences and conversations this week. With those conversations came difficulty falling asleep and some body jerks. Also interesting that along with an increased in verbal expression came an improvement on his fine-motor skills at the dining table as well as gross motor skills I noticed while watching him outside climbing structures I’ve never seen him climb before. Could this be a reason for the sleeping issues? Could his body be a-buzz?

Again, I am making a possible correlation that needs to be tested because dad let him sleep in over the weekend (school was out) and this is reason enough for not being able to go to sleep the following day and, perhaps lack of sleep and other frustrations lead to more body jerks. Yet I also wonder, only because I’ve seen it before, if sleep issues and body jerks have to do with an increased output of communication and other “manifestions,” — overall “progress.” So often we view “issues” as a result of “delay” and “behaviours” and we label it as if it is something we have to get rid of or something that worries us. Yet, with this example, Adam is trying so hard to express himself and his body may be following him as it attempts to process the steps we have taken for granted. If we take a view that such preservations, behaviours, sleep problems might have to do with processing, progress and development, how might we address and teach autistic children differently?

It’s something to think about when we study autism and when we rethink the, perhaps, very “normal” path of autistic development.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.