Sunday, March 12, 2017

Explore and Explain

Ever since he was a little boy, Alex has always loved learning, to the point we nicknamed him “Mr. Curious.” His precocious reading skills allowed him to do his own research from the time he was a preschooler, and he continues to show an interest in seeking knowledge by reading books and doing Google searches online about topics of interest. If he doesn’t know something, he will “check it out,” as he often says, not satisfied until he finds the data he needs. Like Alex, I love doing research and reading about topics I find interesting. After he was diagnosed with autism, most of my reading and research focused upon autism, not only because I found it interesting, but also because I wanted to understand how Alex thinks and behaves and to find ways to help him.

An article published online this week entitled “Autism And The Drive To Explain And Explore” caught my attention as it deals with how children with autism are motivated to learn. In this commentary, psychology professor Tania Lombrozo summarizes research published by M.D. Rutherford and Francys Subiaul last year in the journal Autism. [To read this article, please click here.] This research focused upon how children with autism differ in how they learn as compared to typical children. While all of the children they tested had the same mental age, the children with autism ranged in chronological age from 3-10, whereas the children who did not have autism were four years old.

One experiment involved a physical task in which children had to turn wooden blocks with pictures of dogs on them so that the dogs were standing up. One of the blocks was weighted and would not stand properly. Researchers observed the children’s reaction to this problem to see if they would try to figure out what was wrong with the block by studying the block or touching the table or by asking the adult for help or an explanation of why the block wouldn’t balance. The children with autism were much more likely to engage in “exploratory and explanatory” behaviors than the typical children, touching the table, asking “why” questions, and providing explanations regarding the problem block.

In another experiment, children were given a social task in which they asked an adult for a sticker by holding out their hands. After a while, the adult ignored their requests to see what the children would do. While the typical children repeated the hand gesture, looked at the sticker or the adult’s face, or tried to get the adult’s attention, the children with autism were less likely to engage in these behaviors. The researchers concluded that in this social task, children with autism did not have an increased “drive to explore or explain.” The researchers suggested that children with autism may have increased drive to explore and explain in some realms but not in the social domain.

The author of the article wisely notes that this research regarding the ways children with autism try to find explanations is new; therefore, drawing conclusions may be premature. Specifically, were the children with autism less interested in the social task, or did they possess the same motivation as the typical children but lacked the skills needed to engage in the social task? However, this research describing children’s “explanatory drive,” or the motivation to explain confusing circumstances, concludes that “children with autism have an exceptional explanatory drive” in physical context but not in social context.

As a teacher and the parent of a child with autism, I question the conclusions the researchers of this study made. Living with “Mr. Curious,” I have seen that “exceptional explanatory drive,” where Alex scientifically studies physical phenomena, trying to make sense of them. If he cannot figure out something by observation, he will ask us questions and/or find a book or an online source to satisfy his need to know. Had he been presented the block puzzle in the research project, I can picture him studying that block, comparing it to the others, and trying to find out why it was different.

However, I can also picture him not engaged in the social sticker-begging activity. First of all, I wonder if a different motivator had been offered if the children with autism might have been more engaged in the task. Perhaps if they had been seeking food or a toy that could do something, they might have been more persistent than just looking to get a silly sticker. (We have never found sticker charts to be useful to motivating Alex. However, the reward of cash or the promise of a fun activity works wonders.)
Moreover, maybe children with autism have superior social skills that were misinterpreted in this research experiment. Instead of pestering the adult who was ignoring them, they gave up asking for a sticker. Maybe they assumed that the person was busy and politely left the adult alone, rather than selfishly pushing their own agenda. Having lived with Alex for more than a quarter century, I have found that he doesn’t bother with people who don’t engage with him, and he doesn’t seem to give slights, whether intentional or not, any thought. His feelings aren’t hurt, and he instead seeks those who do interact with him. To me, this shows a superior sense of social interaction: recognizing those who are worthy of our social efforts and ignoring those who ignore us.

While this research on what motivates children to explore and explain is fascinating, we must be careful not to misinterpret the behaviors observed in the experiments. In real-life settings, children with autism seem to have a strong motivation to learn about the world around them. Their responses to social experiments may not be a lack of motivation, but rather a more reasoned reaction to rewards or people who don’t engage them. Jumping to conclusions that they are not motivated in social contexts shows a lack of understanding about how children with autism perceive other people and fails to recognize that they do, indeed, possess social skills that may even be superior to those of most.

“Intelligent people are always ready to learn. Their ears are open for knowledge.” Proverbs 18:15

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