I have always been on the autism spectrum. Two of my three daughters have always been on the autism spectrum. By no means do I claim to be an expert in all things autism, but I do have a good sample size in my own home which provides me with a unique window into the minds of autistics.
The ‘Tape Recorder’ Effect
One characteristic of autism is what I like to refer to as the tape recorder effect. Hopefully everyone still remembers what a tape recorder is used for and its functions (Hey, I was born in the 70’s!). A tape recorder has a record button, stop button, rewind button, pause button and a play button. A person records a sound, song, or speech and then rewinds the tape to play back the recording.
Some of us on the spectrum have a characteristic similar to a tape recorder. Not only are we able to memorize facts, speeches and numerous files of information but we can play back almost verbatim what we have experienced.
Also like a tape recorder, we can press pause. Have you ever started a conversation and had to cut that conversation short or excuse yourself in the middle of it? Sure, right? Everyone has to walk away from an unfinished thought from time to time. The difference between typical conversations and autistic conversations is that we press the pause button and pick right back up at the exact spot when we return to that conversation.
My oldest daughter loves to tell me about her day at school. She just started her freshman year of high school where her days are quite long and eventful. She likes to share every detail. (Which, by the way, is pretty awesome since she is a teenager and still talking to mom). The thing is, if I have to temporarily stop her to answer the phone, talk to my younger daughters or any one of the one hundred and one million things moms do each day, she will literally pause mid-sentence and wait for me to start the conversation again. She is unable to move onto the next thought until she finishes the previous thought.
Just like a tape recorder my daughter’s mind has figurative record, rewind, playback and even pause buttons. It’s a huge asset when she wants to remember a class lecture or directions for an assignment. But it hinders her social skills when she cannot move on to another subject until she finishes her thought.
This “tape recorder” effect becomes burdensome because there is no ability to provide an edited version. While most teens tell their parents very little about their school adventures, I hear literally everything. While I am elated that she wants to share with me, I worry that her peers may not feel the same way. So she and I use social stories and scripts to help her practice communicating in social settings.
Role Play Conversations
We often role play conversations to give her an experience she can relate to her daily life. We recently role played how to ask a teacher for extra help. I tailor these role playing exercises to fit her needs and functioning level. As a result, she feels more self-assured and is having a positive experience during her first year in high school.
It is important to let our children be who they are and use the tape recorder effect as an advantage. But it is also crucial to teach specific social skills that will help them go out into the world with confidence. We’re their guides on this journey we call life.