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The passionate mind: How

individuals with autism learn

By Dr.Wendy Lawson MAPS
Bss. Bsw(Hons) GDip(psychStud)

Thats typical!
Thats typical I heard her say.
I wondered what she meant?
You always want it your way
She echoed without relent.
I waited, silent as a bird,
And pondered on her words.
She just kept talking,
I kept walking,
What was it that I heard?

Thats typical
I always want it my way?
What other way could there be?
I only know the proper way,
The way thats there for me.
If we do it her way,
It wouldnt be right at all.
It would be wrong and all along,
Id know its wrong and not OK!

Thats typical
So, why cant she understand?
What is it she doesnt get?
I must firmly stand my ground,
I mustnt give in yet!
If I give up shell never learn.
Shell never know the way.
She calls it being stubborn,
But, Im scripted for this play.

What to expect from this talk:

An explanation of what might lead

to The scripts neurologically
typical (NT) individuals have that
inform their learning styles.
A response to the idea that Autism
spectrum (AS) is a deviation from
the norm and, therefore, is
deviant and dysfunctional.
An alternative idea to the common
explanations of AS.

Building on the work of others

The following concepts
associated with attention and
the interest system, build upon
work by Murray (1992; 2001)
and are illustrated in Murray,
Lesser & Lawson, 2005). I also
acknowledge themes on the
internet by Autism Rights
groups (

Deviation or Difference?

It is common to fear what one doesnt

Fear causes us to hide, run, criticize,
ostracize and/or attempt to make the
fear go away (see de Gelder et. Al.
Societys attempts at inclusion for all,
is posing some problems because we
fear what we dont understand and this
means we often fear each other.

Typical and ASD development

To understand ASD we must first
look at typical development
Typical children divide their
attention to accommodate the
changing world around and
within themselves (physical,
emotional and social world).

Typical development

doing certain things at certain times.

We call these mile stones.

Shared attention (follows direction of
adults gaze/finger pointing etc)
Language (develops words uses them
Shared interests (turn taking, listening
to others, understanding other points
of view etc)
Social priorities (social norms,
morality, social conscience, being
social a priority)

What informs typical development?

Nature and nurture (genes and
upbringing) inform development.
Cognitively, however, the ability to
divides ones attention is critical to
NT development.
Having a diffuse/diverse interest
system and being able to access
multiple interests (ones own and
others) relies upon the innate
ability to divide ones attention and
build connections.

ASD Developing Individuals

Because children with ASD are
not typically developing, they
and the typical world
are confused by
one another

Attention & Learning

learning requires attention, interest

and the inter- play between senses
and cognition.
With respect to attention and
interest, NT and AS individuals are
wired up differently.
But, is this deviation or simply an
aspect of neural diversity?

Attention & Learning

In AS single attention (monotropism)
requires ones senses to work more
independently than they might
In NT development integrated sensory
function is primary to typical growth
and development (Bogdashina, 2003).
Therefore, in NT development the
Interest System is informed by multiinterest, divided attention; polytropism

NTs often fear (AS) us because:

We dont fit the typical

developmental paradigm.
we dont usually have multiple
diffuse interests and are not
governed by an interest system
allowing for theatrical imagination
leading to social priorities

Rather, AS individuals tend

towards single interests and nonsocial priorities.

ASD (attention)
Narrow and

NT (attention)
broad and



Tree of Life Experience


----- attention

Wendy & Autism: As a small

Considered to be intellectually
Went to main stream schools
Loved to run freely around the
playground and class room
Unaware of others
Not connected to the world going on
within me or around me

Family life
Unaware of siblings
Scared of sudden noise
Scared of thunder storms
but intrigued by them
Loved to play in the garden with the
Loved the seaside
Bit of an escape artist!

Primary School
Found school very confusing
Didnt understand the rules
Didnt relate to the other children
Didnt like the games or the social
Slow to read
Couldnt keep up with the expected
pace of learning.

Ate only specific and favoured foods
Quite limited diet and very particular.
Made eating out or with others very
difficult because I ate at certain
times, in certain places, from certain
crockery and only specific food
items eg. Potatoes, baked beans,
cheese, bananas & apples.

See the Autism research on diet from Paul Shattock of The

University of Sunderland

I was always a poor sleeper.
I found it difficult to get off to sleep
I also found it difficult to stay asleep
If I manage 4 hours sleep a night
without disturbance, Im doing well!

Teenage Years
Began to recognise that I was different
Beginnings of despair
Started to form over attachments
Obsessive behaviours increased
Sent off to the Guides and Youth Group
Obsessed about earning badges, but
couldnt form friendships
Age 17yrs. first attempt at suicide
Beginning of history with the mental
health system!

Delayed development
primary school: detached
Secondary School: over attached
Uneven development of skill
interests not recognised
Lived with anxiety and depression

School was a nightmare and I lived with constant fear. This lead to
my having an upset tummy fairly often.

Most of my life I feel like an onlooker
Difficulty defining which emotion Im
OK with clearly defined emotions
(happy, angry, sad) but difficulties
occur with the in-between emotions
E.g. frustration
Either excited or enthusiastic a bit
wearing on other people

Self-talk, talking out loud, finger
flapping (help me to make sense of

the world/feel OK)

Pacing up and down/panic attacks

frequent occurrence. Less likely if I am
prepared and informed
need to feel soft material, spin
objects, fix on coloured or reflecting
lights, rock, suck the roof of my
mouth (less often now as an adult)
Comes from strong need to feel in

Very sensitive to light, sound, touch

and texture
Have learnt how to use shades, ear
plugs, avoid people in social situations,
and tend towards wearing non-scratchy
cotton clothing
Need TV and/or radio to be on low
Quickly over loaded by lots of chatter
(crowds in shopping centers etc)

Traditional definition of (ASD)

AS is currently thought of as a
developmental disorder which leads
to deficits in:
Social understanding
Imagination (Rigid Thinking) (DSMIV,1994)
AS is assessed in individuals who
display a particular clinical picture,
based on the above, before the age
of 3yrs.

Major current cognitive theories of


Theory of Mind theory (e.g.Simon

Executive dysfunction theory (e.g. Uta
Central coherence theory (e.g.
Franchesca Happe)
Enhanced perceptual functioning
theory (e.g. Mottron. et. al (2006; 2009)

Differing design for different jobs?

Neuro-typical design fits with the ability

to divide attention and accommodate
multiple interests in the chaotic world
we all live in.
AS design fits with focused attention,
single interest (great in the creative
world of arts, & vocations needing
focus i.e. leggo; drawing; animal
husbandry; librarianism; engineering)

Single Attention & Associated

Cognition in Autism (SAACA)

Monotropism (attention governed by single

focus) from which come the following:

Literality: appreciation of form, black & white
concepts, problems with grey areas, honesty
Thinking in closed concepts, great for
attention to detail
Lack of generalisability (terrific for spotting
patterns and themes)
Timing and sequencing applications to nonsocial activity.
Forward thinking connected with
development of focused (single) interest

NT attention governed by ability to

multi-focus and multi-task

Polytropism (main domain divided attention)

leads to wider & broader connections e.g:

Non-literality (reads non-literal social signs)
Thinking in open pictures (or concepts)
Generalisability especially in social
Understanding of social timing and
forward thinking occurs outside of ones
interest: accommodation of Other

Outcome for NT Learning Style:

Presentation of self
Considers impact of self upon other
Need to look good
Need to accommodate the interests
of others whilst taking care of self
Has access to global map showing
intention, context and scale of
everyday concepts
Social priorities take precedence

Outcome for ASD Learning Style:

No interest in presentation of self

Attention to interest at the time
Interest = state of arousal
accommodation of other if attention
spare or if interest is triggered.
May lead to:
difficulties appreciating the concepts
that rule the world of NTs
Increased distress for self & Other
Feeling like an alien and giving up
from even trying to get it right.

With Speech, NTs are programmed:

If someone speaks slowly, we predict

they need us to slow down in response.
If someone just keeps going and
doesnt stop speaking; speaks in a way
that does not make sense to us; speaks
without listening or doesnt use
speech at all, NTs are unsure how to
respond. They are not programmed to
know how to respond.
Conclusion is these individuals are


NTs supply of attention, with its

emphasis on multiple diffuse
interests, is broad and narrow. It
caters less for highly focussed
interests, (like those we might
In many ways therefore, as long as
the ideas correspond to ones own
morality, value system or accepted
norms, it can assist one to
accommodate the notion of other.

Are NTs better able to cope with choice

and change?

Maybe NTs are designed to cope

better with change, difference and

diversity, but, only if they can
accommodate and not fear it.

Seeing AS as a natural part of

neuro-diversity and
accommodating us (and our
learning styles) can only be a
positive step forward.

I dont want anyone to change who
I am but, just like you, I do want to
be heard, understood and

Dismissing who I am or trying to

see me as part of a tragic disaster,
is not the way to go. As people
with ASD we have so much to give
back to our communities.

Whose Time is This?

Whose Time Is This?
Its 7am. and the alarm clock
time to wake up my little clock
Oh just a few minutes more,
Then Ill get up and be out of the

Whose Time is This?

Knock, knock and knock once more,
come on sleepy head, get out of
your bed
But, I just need more time,
My clothes then Ill find
Ill be down for breakfast, just a little
more time.

Whose Time is This?

Im sorry; Im late, my friend
rushes by. I ran out of time, cant
stop and chat.
The rain and the wind heave a big
sigh, As I get to sit and talk with
my cat.
Why are people always in a rush?
They tell me that time waits for noone. So they queue, push and

Whose Time is This?

But isnt it true, times on our side?
We do not know this, so, from time
we hide.
We take our time deciding whose
Will it be yours or will it be mine?

Whose Time is This?

I dont know what time will bring,
But I do know a couple of things.
Time is our slave and not our boss,
There is time to prosper,
Theres time to be lost.

Whose Time is This?

Whatever the time and for whomever
we call,
There is time for one and there is
time for all.
Knowing which is whose time to be,
Knowing theres time, for you and
for me.

Web pages:
Getting The Truth Out (Positive

Bogdashina, O. (2003) Sensory
Perceptual Issues in Autism and
Asperger Syndrome
Different Sensory Experiences - Different
Perceptual Worlds
London: Jessica Kingsley


de Gelder, B., Snyder, J., Greve, D.,

Gerard, G. & Hadjikhani, N. (2004).
Fear fosters flight: A mechanism
for fear contagion when perceiving
emotion expressed by a whole
body. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, 101 (47),

Lawson, W. (2001) Understanding and
working with the spectrum of autism:
An insiders view London: Jessica
Kingsley Publishers
Lawson, W. (2003) Build Your Own Life
London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Lawson, W. (2005) Sex, sexuality and
the autism spectrum. London: Jessica
Kingsley Publishers
Lawson, W. (2006) Friendships the
Aspie way. London: Jessica Kingsley

Lawson, W (2011) The passionate mind:
How people with autism learn. London:
Jessica Kingsley Pubs.

Murray, D.K.C. (1992) 'Attention tunneling

and autism', in Living with Autism: the

individual, the family, and the professional.
Originally presented at the Durham
conference, UK. Proceedings obtainable
from Autism Research Unit, School of Health
Sciences, The University of Sunderland,
Sunderland SR2 7EE.
Murray, D.K.C. (2001) Wrong Planet


Murray, D.K. C., Lesser, M. &

Lawson, W. (2005: May), Attention,
monotropism & the diagnostic
criteria for autism The
International Journal of Research
and Practice: Autism (Vol.9) Num.
2. 139-156. London: Sage