How do we help our children learn how to change when things aren’t working for them? Welcome to ASD: A New Perspective, RDIconnect’s own podcast show! In this month’s episode, Dr. Gutstein talks to us about the importance of adapting and how to help our kids with autism embrace change.

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Full Transcript

Kat Lee:

Welcome become back to ASD: A New Perspective. A podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Gutstein talks to us about the importance of adapting and our children. Adapting, changing when things aren’t working for us to something different. Let’s listen in.

Dr. Gutstein:

Okay, so the first thing I want to talk today about is what it means … what an adaptation means. I may have talked about this before, but it’s a really important point for you to think about and even more important for you to explain to other people, other professionals about the word … In the autism community, the research community, they use the word adapt and adaptation in a way that no one else uses it. Okay? When we think about adapting we think about several different things. First of all, we think about making some kind of change, right? Adaption, change. When we’re doing something we’re going to do something different. Right? That’s the way everyone outside of autism researchers use the term adapt. Right? What we’re doing is working so we have to change what we’re doing, right? Everybody with me? Okay.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, first of all, let’s think about that. In the autism research world, if you do a search, if you do this yourself, go to Google search and under advanced search, which on the upper left-hand side you’ll see some lines and you go to advanced search and you put in the words autism, adapt, autism adaptation, autism adaptive. You have choices. Then put that for the title and you do a search you get lots, you get hundreds and hundreds of articles, but if you just look at any of those articles or all of them you’ll see that the way they define adapt is different than what I just said. It’s different than the rest of the world because they use the word adapt basically as your score on the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale, which measures things like, do you do your own laundry? Do you button your shirts? More simple advanced things. It has nothing to do with how the rest of the world would define adaptation. Right?

Dr. Gutstein:

It really has created problems because they use that Vineland as an outcome measure to show how people learn to adapt through their interventions and their therapies, which doesn’t show anything about learning to adapt. It just shows that they learn to do certain discreet skills. Right? Okay. So, that’s a real major problem is adaptation.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, now let’s say that … We have to explain that to people in the field because if they see all these articles, they see these professionals talking about learning to adapt they’re going to get a very strange way of thinking. As I said, any layperson or scientist outside of the autism field would scratch their head and say, “That’s not adapting. Adapting is changing basically when something you’re doing isn’t working. You do something different.” Right? Okay.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, now we’ve made that distinction. You’re going to have to explain that. Just like a lot of things in the autism world, you have to explain things you would never have to explain to other people, but you do have to explain it here. Now, let’s say that we’re talking to people who now understand what adapting actually means, which is doing something and you come across something and you realize, “Oh, what I’m doing isn’t working.” Right? There’s at least three levels then of defining adapting.

Dr. Gutstein:

The first level or the simplest is what I’m doing isn’t working so I’ll try something else that I know how to do. Right? I realize that either the task has changed or the method I’m using isn’t successful. I recognize that and I go into my repertoire of moves, whether that’s decisions, actions, whatever, and I pick another one, right? All right, so that’s one level. In fact, that is … Even though adapting is being defined weirdly enough, some of the intervention research, especially with adults and teenagers, whatever, teaches them to do that, to recognize that and to pick something else out of their strategy when it’s not working. Sort of learning how to not be stuck and set. Right? How to shift when something you’re doing … Not to continue doing something when you’re realizing it’s not working. That’s helpful.

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, another level of adapting is you come across … You recognize that something is not working and you don’t have a move to know what to do. Right? It’s not in your repertoire, and that would mean there’s two ways you can address that. One is to what we call improvise, and improvising often is not on the spot. Improvising is playing around with different ways of doing something, practicing, thinking about it, and coming up with a new move. I guess it can be done without improvising, somebody just gives you another move to do, but then you’re dependent on them.

Dr. Gutstein:

But let’s say you develop a new move, and so now you have this new move to deal with that specific situation when your old moves aren’t available. You have something you’ve added to your repertoire. Unfortunately, if you do it through instruction the problem is going to be that it’s very specific to that specific event occurring again. In any generalization, but you’ve got a new move.

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, when we look at outcome, for adults what we see, and even teenagers, is that as they get older and more is expected of them and there’s less formal compensations in the environment, especially as they get out of school, their prognosis for independence of autonomy actually gets worse year by year. It doesn’t get better. As opposed to if you look at typically developing young adults they go through ups and downs and independence, but gradually from almost everyone things get better. Right? Why? Because they learn to adapt.

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, that’s a third type of adaptation. What that type of adaptation is, is learning through facing challenges, through facing situations, experiences where you have to alter and adapt your way of thinking, your way of perceiving, interpreting things. What I call your mental operating system. All right? You have to take on a more complex viewpoint of the world. You’ve got to deal with greater uncertainty. You’ve got to be able to use judgments because you don’t have clear-cut things that you have to deal with, so you really, really have to change the way you operate in the world to be successful in what we call the real world, which is complex and dynamic. Right?

Dr. Gutstein:

It’s that level of adaptation … You could say it’s the other things too, but no one studies that level of adaptation for people with autism, interestingly enough, which is about growth. Right? It’s about what scientists call development of a complex adaptive system. When educators or scientists talk about dynamic development or adaptive development they’re using adaptation in that third way, which is complexity of growth, greater complexity integration, agility, learning to use new mental tools, learning to use your mind in a new way, trying to develop more integration between those ways. That’s the way educators use that term, adaptive learning. Okay? Because they talk about complex people as complex adaptive systems and they talk about the reason that happens is we learn how to engage productively with challenges in guiding and come up against those things that don’t make sense or don’t quite fit and aren’t quite working. Then we have to readjust or regroup, expand, upgrade our way of thinking about something, approaching something, perceiving something, reacting to something.

Dr. Gutstein:

It’s not just adding a move, which is additive. It’s reorganizing. It’s transformational. Not everything changes, but you start to get growth. So, it’s that third type of adaptation that educators do talk about that’s in the educational literature, psychology to some degree, but that people in the autism community don’t talk about. And so, the interventions, the work that’s done, again, first you’re dealing with the obstacle of people defining adapting based on an instrument that doesn’t measure adaptation, which is what the research does. If you get past that you’re getting to the definition of adapting as just learning a new skill or a new way to do a job interview or a new strategy or a new script. Right? Or recognizing when you have to shift from one thing to another.

Dr. Gutstein:

Again, nothing wrong with those things, but they don’t address the real issue which is one of mental neurological growth, dynamic growth. Adapting the way you think, the way you use your mind. Right? The way you use creativity, imagination, the way you use prior experience, the way you integrate different things. The way you think about the future. The way you make judgments based on that. The way you go through the gist of things. All those increases in complexity and also in your ability dynamically to continue to look at the situation as it changes and adapt to ongoing change around you in new ways because you’re not going to be able to predict what’s going to happen next. All right? You’re being adaptive in a dynamic, fluid situation.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, what you’re going to have to explain to people is you can’t use the word adaptation. You just can’t use it and expect it to be understood, right? But you have to understand it. You’re going to have to explain to people what the problem is because they’re not going to understand because it’s not reflected in the literature. It’s not reflected in the way professionals think and people think … And that the real problem if we’re going to create interventions that allow people with autism to have wellbeing, to be successful, to have the flexibility to do what they want with their life. That’s what people don’t understand. They say, “Well, leave people with autism alone to be people with autism,” but that is very rigid. That says, “Okay, then they’re only going to be able to do this much. Their choices are then going to be this.” I’m saying our goal is to give them a wide variety of choices.

Dr. Gutstein:

If they still want to be autistic in the traditional sense. That’s fine. That’s a choice, but I want to give them the options to be whatever within … Everybody has certain limitations, but I think that we can expand those limitations dramatically if we help people with autism to develop the capacity for what we’re calling dynamic adaptation. Lifelong ability to adapt based on challenge, based on facing things that challenge the current mental operating system. That’s how growth occurs, and to be able to engage productively, not just throw somebody into the deep end of the pool. That’s not a challenge. That’s a threat. But to engage productively with that, with the help of guides and eventually, hopefully, find their own.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, let’s start with that, which is that’s dealing with adapting. So, what are we adapting? What kind of challenges are we adapting to? Well, now we’re going to get into the difference between complicated, complex, and complex and dynamic things. Dynamic intelligence that we’re talking in our goal has, really, two facets to it or several facets to it. It’s not just being able to think in one way, which would be my core, dynamic way, which doesn’t make any sense actually. Just be able to use your mental resources in an optimal way based on what you’re dealing with and what you’re trying to do. What the situation is, what the task is, and what you’re trying to do in it. We can make one distinction between things that are simple, right? And things that are either complicated or complex, and then we talk about that. Simple. Okay?

Dr. Gutstein:

I was just talking earlier with my dynamic intelligence group about a man with autism who learned when he was a child that you’re not supposed to eat before going to the dentist. Okay? So, he was facing a party that he actually had arranged, a dinner party, but it was luncheon and then it was followed by a dental appointment. He was freaking out because he said, “I’m not supposed to eat before I go to the dentist. What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” What had happened was there was a simple thing he had learned as a child, right? Don’t eat before you go to the dentist. Simple association. Don’t eat before you go to the dentist, right?

Dr. Gutstein:

And all he needed to learn, and he was able to get through this in about a minute when his consultant was able to say, “Wait a minute. There’s a condition here. It’s conditional. It’s not just simple.” People with autism are able to do conditional things without RDI, without anything, which is you can eat if you have a chance to then brush your teeth, or if you have a party, or there’s a bunch of conditions where it’s okay. He said, “All right. Now I can go. I’m not worried about the party.”

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, he didn’t learn to do anything differently. Think about adapting. He learned to adapt based on what was already in his repertoire. He already knows conditional thinking. He was just stuck and set. You see what I mean? He was stuck in that simple way of doing it as a child and the consultant was able to point out something that’s he’s able to do now, which was is thinking conditionally. He has no trouble. Very bright guy. Static on cue. Was able to fix it right like that. Right? So, he adapted in that very simplistic way. Did he grow in any way? Did anything change in his nervous system? No, of course not. It was within his system. Okay, so that gives you an example of simple to complicated. Now, what do I mean by complicated?

Dr. Gutstein:

When something’s complicated it means that we can’t just use that simple association anymore. We start to think in more of a conditional way. All right? Well, what if this, this, this? We think of several possible conditions that will lead to different responses that we have. That’s one aspect of things being complicated. Another aspect of things being complicated is if they’re what I call hierarchical or conceptual, so give you an example of a conceptual problem. How are birds and trees the same? It comes out on an IQ test. How are they the same? They’re both living things. Right? You’ve got to pick the right conceptual level. It’s sort of a conditional thing, but it’s learning sort of hierarchically, right? Concepts. And figure out which is the right level to use and then you get the right answer, right?

Dr. Gutstein:

People with autism can do that. That’s more complicated or there’s a longer sequence of things. First, I have to do this … And then combine that with conditional thinking. First, I have to do this and if I get A result then I have to go that way. If I get B result then I have that way. Then you have sort of a flow chart, right? Each time you do something you can see a series of conditions and then go to the next thing and the next thing. It can get pretty complicated, right? Combine that with conceptual thinking.

Dr. Gutstein:

Another thing that makes things complicated is if things are symbolic. Maps are symbolic. Language is symbolic. Right? Representation. Right? Those add to the things that are complicated.

Dr. Gutstein:

So, what we know is that people with autism are able to function and use complicated ways of thinking to deal with complicated situations. Complicated tasks. I shouldn’t call them situations. Complicated tasks and decisions where they can use conditionality, where they can compare which has more good things or bad things. Right? Where they can use different levels of analysis, different types of analysis, where they can even use concepts. Right? This man who was one example was able to do that would be able to do even more so.

Dr. Gutstein:

I’ll give you a more complicated example of complicated thinking. When I was a teenager, a high school junior, I was preparing for a standard test in the United States called the SATs. The Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which were in those days very critical in terms of getting into college or the college you desired and how your school was better. The SATs had several different sections. Each section was a bit different in the way you had to deal with them. All right? Whether that was a mathematical thing, or whether it was what we call analogies, which is … Let me give you an example of an analogy. A caterpillar is to a butterfly like a blank is to a baby. You might say fetus is to a baby, right? Maybe not the best, but that would be an example of something. You have to do that, but there were different sections.

Dr. Gutstein:

But the types of things stayed standard year to year. The exact content changed yearly, but what they gave you, whether it was analogies, or math, or this, always stayed the same. I took the SATs without any preparation. We didn’t know in those days that you’re supposed to do a lot of preparation, and I got a score that was okay, but it wasn’t great. And so, I decided that I needed to take one of those little courses to prepare myself for the next time I would take it. I’d take it again. I went to this person named Stanley Kaplan who was in Brooklyn, New York when I was there and he was a very good teacher. He helped people prepare for the SATs.

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, that became a multi-billion dollar industry, Stanley Kaplan, but at that point, it was just me, and Stanley, and a bunch of other students. He died a long time ago. Anyway, what he did was he taught me very good conditional complicated thinking. Complicated. When you get to this section here are the strategies, here are the techniques, here’s the way you approach each of these different sections of the SAT, and you practice, you practice, you practice, you practice, and you recognize, “Oh, I’m in this section so I’m supposed to do it this way. This section this way.” Right? Then you’ve got these other strategies about what to do first, and what to do if you’re running out of time, and how much time to spend on this and that and that, and when to guess, and when not to guess, and when to blah, blah, blah, blah. A whole lot of conditional types of thinking.

Dr. Gutstein:

It turned out that I worked hard at that and my score went up 200 points. Right? Not because I got smarter. By the way, not because I learned to think differently in the world, but I learned how to do this complicated thing of the SAT. This specific complicated task. Right? It was complicated but not complex. Let me give you an example. When something gets complex it means we can’t do Stanley Kaplan. It means that it doesn’t fit into conditional thinking. We can’t use that type of reasoning, sequential conditional thinking, to help us make the right judgments, help us make the right decisions. Either there’s just too many variables or things are just subjective. Right? Or contextually relative that there’s just no way to use any of our formal reasoning to get where you want to go with that.

Dr. Gutstein:

Anyway, I got this kit to build a sandbox for my grandson. I happen to know I’m not a great … My eye-hand stuff is not great. My motor stuff is not great. Why I’m a psychologist is because I’m a failed optician, by the way. My father was an optician back in the days when you had to have very fine motor control to grind lenses and things, and he wanted me to be his assistant. I was so clumsy he literally denigrated me. He kicked me out and said, “You better go be a professor because you can’t do anything right.” That was an insult for him because he was such a craftsman, so I became a professor because I thought that was all I could do right? I was handicapped, so all I could do was be a professor, which is fine. Or a psychologist. Use my mind.

Dr. Gutstein:

Anyway, so I’m not great with my hands although I’ve worked at it. I got this kit and I start building the sandbox. The instructions were written by someone from another country whose English was not very good and there were no diagrams. You started building it and you realize, “Oh, I have no idea what to do next.” There’s no helpline. There’s nobody to ask. Besides which you realize, “Oh, some of these parts may not be machined perfectly, a lot of these wooden parts,” and so the problem may be that I read the instructions or that they just didn’t make it right. Right? Or I’m trying to take the wrong piece and put it into the wrong place or I’ve actually done something several steps before that got me into this problem because I used a piece there and I should’ve used a different piece so I would have it now. Right? You have all these different things that come up, which is … What do you do when you reach that type of issue where things are not quite working? Which always happens to me with one of these kits.

Dr. Gutstein:

Well, that’s when things get complex because I have no way to use conditional thinking. Now you can say, “You go back and start over again,” start over again until you die or just keep plunging ahead and break everything. I’ve done that in the past where I try to force something and then the whole thing’s split. The wood split. The whole kit’s no destroyed and I can’t return it. Return the kit, I guess, which is a big hassle from some kit probably made in China and god knows if the company’s even there. What do I do? Right?

Dr. Gutstein:

So, now things are complex because I’m going to … I’ve got to do something at some point. You’re not going to just leave it forever, but I can’t really predict … I don’t have a strategy that someone can give a pull up of what to do next. Now, I can use prior experience with kits. One thing I get from my prior experience if I’m working for a couple hours and I get frustrated it’s probably not a good time to make a decision. I learned that about me, that I need to take a break. I want a break. I don’t know if I’ll get through on no break. I’ll just forget it and say, “The heck with it,” but if I don’t take enough of a break I’ll just be tired, frustrated, so I take a break. I did learn that about myself.

Dr. Gutstein:

I learned that my tendency personally is to try to force it to happen and that doesn’t work very well. So, I sort of eliminate that one as a good idea. Well, sometimes you just have to do that, by the way, or you may have to drill another hole. It was a big hole, I made it bigger. I’ve done that in the past too. Anyway, what I try to figure is, what can I try now that won’t irreparably break the thing? Right? There’s a bit of a trial and error, right? Which is, can I do something that doesn’t completely take it apart, I’ve spent hours, and doesn’t completely risk breaking the thing? Right? But there’s a lot of leeway in there, and so I see it as complex.

Dr. Gutstein:

I can’t use any of those nice types of reasoning. I have to use my judgment, my past experience. I can ask other people, which I did. I asked my wife. Everybody’s sitting around confused because the instructions sucked. I mean, they’re terrible and nobody can figure out A and part Z and part B. They’re supposed to be lettered and they’re not. Anyway, eventually, you build the thing, but anyway … There’s many examples of things that are complex, but I just wanted to give you an example of complex.

Dr. Gutstein:

Now, let’s look at the concept of dynamic. Concepts of dynamic because that’s really the mix of that truth. Interesting. Let’s go back to that same task I was just talking about. Well, on one level you could think of it as dynamic. Dynamic meaning there’s a sense of a process where your actions, you can’t totally predict the impact of your actions on the environment, right? And so, you can take the best action and think of … see what happens and try to take the next one. Learn as you’re going along. But the way I think about a task like that, and you probably do too, is not dynamic. I think of it as static and I’ll tell you why.

Dr. Gutstein:

I think of it as static because I can walk away from it. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t yell at me when I walk away. It doesn’t cease to exist. It doesn’t disassemble. It just is there. The wood’s there. Nothing changes. The task is just there. Right?

Dr. Gutstein:

I could think of it as dynamic. I could, if I wanted to, say, “Okay, there’s this process. Let me take the next step and see what happens. Then based on that I’ll take the next one, and sometimes you start getting to the roots to the dynamic mode. But basically, I think of tasks like that as more static. Complex but static.

Dr. Gutstein:

Take something like a conversation and you don’t think of it as static anymore. Because guess what? If you do nothing things keep changing. Someone can say, “What the heck are you doing?” You can’t just walk away in the middle of it because things aren’t working. Right? Riding a rapids. You can’t just walk away. Now, you could stop. Although you can stop and … While you’re in the rapids, you can’t. Before the rapids, you could stop. While in the midst of the rapids you can’t just stop and say, “Well, I’ll just paddle over to the bank,” because you can’t. The rapids are moving you around. They’re moving. They’re changing, and you can’t just walk away.

Kat Lee:

Thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective. A podcast show where we help you understand the mind of your child and we always encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.

 

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