Understanding How Children with Autism Process Information

If you’ve ever traveled to another country and tried to navigate your days without a translator, stumbling over the local language and customs, you might just have a little glimpse into the daily life of a child on the spectrum.

Trying to make sense of a world where everyone else seems to understand each other even though the rules seem to constantly change is frustrating at best, and on many days it can feel quite demoralizing.

Children with autism experience the world this way because from early on they are wired to process information differently. Understanding how they process can help you as a parent not only better communicate with them but can also help you draw on greater empathy during life’s more exasperating moments.

Thinking from the Bottom Up

This may be one of the most important things you can understand about me.

Most neurotypicals (probably you!) think top-down. That means you build a big picture first, and then fill in the details, like this:

Silverware (concept)

Knife, fork, spoon. These are all types of silverware.

Shoe (concept)

Sandal, loafer, sneaker, pump. These are all types of shoes.

Dog (concept)

Great Dane, Pomeranian, Husky. These are all types of dogs.

But I start with the details, and then move outwards. So today I see something walking towards me and you say, “that it is a dog”. This something is white with spots, short hair, and comes up to my hip.

The Process of Categorization: How We Build Concepts and Transfer Skills

Now I think that a dog is something white with spots, short hair, and comes up to my hip. Tomorrow if I see something orange and tiny with fuzzy hair I won’t know it’s a dog unless you tell me.

Once you do, I now add that to the category, but if the next thing I see is very large with brown and white hair and a big droopy face, I might not know that it’s a dog.

I’m seeing the details first. Once I start categorizing all of these different things that count as “dog”, I slowly start to build the concept. It may take many, many examples before I understand the broader category of “dog”.

This also happens with skills. Maybe you taught me how to take turns on the swing set, but that doesn’t mean the skill will automatically transfer to the slide or even playing Sorry or Candyland.

This may seem like a weakness, but it’s not!

Bottom up thinkers like me often excel in research and data analysis, fine arts, data entry, coding, developmental biology, assembly, software testing, design, and other careers requiring detail, logic and/or repetition. Some even seek out people like me for their teams!

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