If you have been in this field for a while you must have heard the Einstein analogy at some point. “Einstein didn’t talk until he was 5 and he ended up a genius”, “Einstein spent days at a time in social isolation yet he was successful in his life”. On the same line of thinking we hear a lot of the following statements: “My husband (no offence to our male readers :)) is totally on the spectrum and he made it thorough school without a diagnosis. Why are we diagnosing these kids with all these issues now, when before, they were not such a big deal?”
Well, today’s society is much more complex and dynamic! Our children have to learn a lot more information in a shorter time and have to navigate a social world that is a lot more complex and dynamic.
The amount of information our children have to learn and APPLY during grade school is quantitatively and qualitatively different from what our parents and grandparents learned. I often hear a lot of my clients’ parents making statements such as, “It is unbelievable what our kids have to learn in kindergarten. We used to learn that in 2nd grade!”
While our children may have mastered the skill of memorization, they are definitely struggling with using a lot of concepts and applying them in daily situations and problem solving scenarios. Our kiddos need to start applying concepts and solving simple and complex problems a lot earlier than previous generations. Further more, in today’s schooling system our children are assigned group projects earlier and more often then ever before. While in the past, most of the assignments were independent, today, due to a huge increase in the amount of information to be researched and learned, schools are moving more towards introducing the group projects and team approach to solving a problem a lot earlier (in most cases starting with 1st grade).
Participating in a group project requires a complex level of social interaction. Being part of a group is a very complex social skill that requires a lot of awareness of people’s presence, thoughts, and intentions, requires perspective taking abilities, requires an understanding of how our behavior influences other people, and many more complex skills. Our society requires these skills to be mastered and used fluently and a lot earlier in life because our children struggle with that awareness of other people’s presence. The older they get the bigger the gap becomes. This is one of the main reasons professional sources (including The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) state that “impaired social interaction is the hallmark feature of autism”. Social expectations change with each age group and continue to change during our professional life – while in the past, the requirements for a particular job remained constant for years, today, job descriptions and expectations change at least once a year if not more often.
While most intervention programs for individuals with autism concentrate a lot on language acquisition (which is absolutely necessary!), there is little emphasis placed on social skills. Our programs need to be more comprehensive and address social deficits a lot earlier in order for our kids to “make it”.