Knowing Versus Doing: Why You Won't Understand Autism Without Knowing the Difference

This post highlights the essential difference between knowing and doing. You will learn why understanding the difference is crucial to understanding behaviors and setting goals in autism.

"I could totally do that!" Have you ever looked through a magazine or watched a "do it yourself" video and said those words out loud? If you attempted the project, you might have already experienced the amazing difference between knowing and doing. There can be a great divide between understanding the steps to a task and actually "pulling them off." It is this divide that fuels our interest in "Pinterest Fails" (as pictured above) -- the ideal versus reality.

HOW "PINTEREST FAILS" HELP US UNDERSTAND AUTISM How tempting is it to assume that if someone can "verbalize understanding" of how to do something, he can also translate the understanding into reality. I'm confident that the individual who attempted the snowman cupcake had a pretty firm grasp on the instructions. And yet, channeling a verbal concept into a real creation is not always easy. Many of those on the spectrum can demonstrate a reasonably good intellectual description of how to start a friendship ("Introduce yourself. Find common interests. Be nice"). She may be able to explain that it is essential to "communicate" to build and maintain a relationship. Many will quickly state relationship guidelines such as saying please, thank you, and sorry. But when in a real-life social situation, the ASD individual often feels lost. Although able to verbally explain some relationship rules, their navigation through daily social exchanges is often confusing and stilted. 3 REASONS WHY SPOTTING THE DIFFERENCE MATTERS 1. Assessment In the context of my work, I frequently have the opportunity to read through school and medical records for the individuals I am assessing. Very frequently, I will read comments like, "When asked about social communication, she was able to explain several ways to initiate friendships and maintain them. Given her knowledge, it would appear she just chooses not to." To the extent that clinicians, teachers, and other professionals continue to believe that knowledge equals ability, there remains a significant risk of missing a diagnosis of autism in someone who has a "head for facts." 2. Intervention Social skills training is often one piece of an intervention program for the autistic individual. The training relies on teaching intellectual concepts about social exchange: "Five steps for a successful conversation" and "The three things that shut down deep conversations in marriage." Teaching these concepts is helpful because intellectual understanding serves as a foundation for the development of higher social skills. Many ASD individuals comment, "Oh, I didn't know I was supposed to ask that." However, the best social skills training will also involve as much application to "real life" as possible. One approach is to have the individual or couple bring in actual examples of conversations to parse through during a training session. The therapist can help "translate" what went wrong and what went right. There can be an application of previously learned information to the actual scenario. The counselor may say, "This example really highlights why complimenting others is important in relationships." Another layer of application can be role-playing (with the therapist) or practicing with a friend or partner during a counseling session. When the clinician understands that "knowing" and "doing" are not the same, he can take weave the individual's learned knowledge into practice and application. 3. Expectations When we understand that knowledge does not always perfectly translate into "doing," we can remain grounded in our expectations of what social skills training will achieve. Having a social skills training "diploma" does not mean that an autistic individual will no longer be autistic. What you can count on is that the neurologic patterns will remain somewhat constant. The goal is to create compensations and to strengthen learned skills to improve interactions as a whole. Consider the adult who attempts to learn a forsign language for the first time. Most of us understand that children are adept at learning foreign languages. Many studies suggest that the age of ten marks the point at which the learner is less likely to communicate like a native speaker. So to, we can generally expect the ASD individual who employs social skills training to then "speak with an accent." That is, the rules and strategies she uses will likely not appear as smooth and spontaneous as for the neurotypical speaker (the social "native speaker"). Some autistic individuals feel they are able to mimic many appropriate social behaviors but with great emotional drain. Recognizing the difference between memorizing facts and channeling learned information in day-to-day applications is crucial for effective diagnosis, intervention, and goal setting.


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©2021 by Theresa Regan