The following is an interview I had with my son Kyle, where I asked him questions about school and a book that he read recently. I wanted to demonstrate the difficulty that autistic children have with abstract thinking. Kyle is thirteen years old, and has autistic disorder.
Abstract vs. Concrete
Remember that abstract thinking involves predicting, forming an opinion, understanding emotions and motivations, etc. What is interesting to note is that when I ask Kyle a concrete question where I'm looking for a specific fact, he is able to answer it quickly and correctly. But when I ask an abstract question, he struggles to come up with an answer. When he does answer, he often poses the response as a question to me, as though he's not sure whether the answer is "right." Sometimes there is no "right" answer, for example, when I ask him his favorite subject in school. But for Kyle, everything is either right or wrong.
With concrete subjects, such as mathematics and geography, Kyle is a super-wiz. But simple abstract questions often confound him. I have typed his answers, verbatim, and have put the abstract questions in italics.
Kyle, I'm going to ask you some questions.
KYLE: What kind of questions?
Just a few questions about school.
What grade are you in?
What's your favorite subject in school?
KYLE: What's a subject? My favorite subject is to do worksheets.
What kind of worksheets do you do?
KYLE: Mathematics. Hoowa hoowa hoowa.
KYLE: Yeah. (Clapping.)
What do you like about school?
KYLE: Writing? (Asking me as though he's not sure the answer is right.)
What is your teacher's name?
KYLE: Ms. Robson.
What do you like the most about your teacher?
KYLE: Yep. I said Yep.
You like it when your teacher reads?
What kind of things do you like to read about?
KYLE: Read about....hmmmm...I can read about....hmmmm.... Holes.
The book Holes? (Holes is the Newberry Award-winning book by Louis Sachar.)
Who's in the story Holes?
KYLE: Stanley Yelnats.
What does Stanley Yelnats do in the story?
KYLE: Dig Holes.
Why does he dig holes?
KYLE: Because...he likes to? (In the story, Stanley did not like to dig holes.)
He likes to dig holes?
What makes Stanley Yelnats sad?
KYLE: The Holes? Digging holes?
What does Stanley Yelnats want to do in the story?
KYLE: Stanley Yelnats wants to go home?
Why does he want to go home?
KYLE: Because he's tired of digging holes. (This is the one time Kyle answers an abstract question confidently.)
What happens when Stanley Yelnats goes home?
KYLE: Maybe he wants to take a nap?
Why does Stanley teach his friend Zero to read?
KYLE: To read? Because Zero needs to read it right?
Why did Stanley want to help Zero read?
KYLE: He needs to read words?
What do you think Stanley will do with his part of the treasure?
KYLE: He'll say, "Wow, pretty."
But what will he do with his treasure now that he's rich?
KYLE: Pay money?
Who will he pay money to?
Why will he give Zero the money?
KYLE: Because he will be poor?
Because Zero is poor?
KYLE: No, Stanley.
Stanley will give Zero the money because Stanley is poor?
Kyle, what is your favorite part of the story?
Well, that's a perfect way to end. Thank you, Kyle.
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