The 'Autisme Centraal' Approach

ABCDEF: the autism alphabet

It is not because the autistic behaviour can be quite puzzling that the pieces of the autism puzzle cannot be put together. Just as any other puzzle piece, once you find the right spot, you can match it perfectly. To find the right match with autism, Autisme Centraal proposes six basic principles. These are not only based on scientifically valid information about autism, but also on experiences and a lot of ‘Flemish common sense’. And together they put autism and autism friendliness in the centre of our focus (in Flemish: autisme centraal). Following these six principles will help you to support people with autism to develop, to flourish and to thrive and, finally, find a place in society where they can be happy and proud of what they contribute to society, taking into account their abilities, ‘diffabilities’ and disabilities.

The six basic principles help you to take a different, refreshing look, not only at the behaviour of people with autism but also your own behaviour towards them. The six principles are easy to remember with the first six letters of the alphabet. Together they make up the “Autisme Centraal approach. This approach will help you create an autism friendly classroom, school, work place, group home, community or any other environment. The approach is not a strict method, it is not a package with a fixed set of rules telling you what to do and what not. Every person, with or without autism, and every situation is unique. Therefore, the six principles are only general guidelines, not a kind of strict ‘prescription’. Moreover, the six principles do not constitute a magic potion that will miraculously eliminate all issues and challenges. It is however a clear list that is meant to inspire you and to help you identify where opportunities lie. And they apply to people with autism of all ages, intelligence levels and personalities.

Autistic thinking
Understanding autism means understanding the unique way information is processed in the autistic brain. At Autisme Centraal we refer to this as the autistic thinking. It is the A, or the first letter in the Autisme Centraal method because, as mentioned earlier on, any human behaviour is the result of information processing in the brain. A profound knowledge of the autistic thinking helps to understand the why of the behaviours, reactions and difficulties we see in people with autism. Why people with autism can successfully fulfil all expectations in one situation and yet fail and be full of frustrations in another one. A glance at the autistic thinking gives us a view on precisely what is so difficult and challenging for autistic individuals. And although we cannot look inside someone’s brain, the different cognitive theories about autism give a good insight into the reason of the autism characteristics. According to these theories, an autistic brain struggles with theory of mind, executive functions and central coherence. Within Autisme Centraal we consider context blindness as the common pathway in these three cognitive abilities: the autistic brain struggles to use context spontaneously in order to make sense of the world and to give meaning to (especially new, vague, ambiguous, unknown) stimuli. This makes the world chaotic and confusing for people with autism.    

Basic comfort
When you lose track, have difficulty understanding others or cannot think of any solutions for confusing, overwhelming or troublesome situations, then both learning and appropriate functioning become a really difficult task. For all people with autism, both the more able ones as the ones with additional (severe) learning disability, the world can be as baffling and overwhelming to them as they are to the world around them. Moreover, a brain that has difficulties processing context, often suffers from chaos, confusion, stress and anxiety. Autism sometimes changes day-to-day life into day-to-day survival. And no one, autistic or not, can learn a lot or fit in well, under circumstances of high stress. Therefore, anyone trying to teach a person with autism new skills or knowledge or expecting  a person with autism to ‘behave’ needs to ensure that there’s enough basic comfort so the person with autism has enough energy left to meet those expectations. Ensuring this basic comfort involves having an eye for environmental adjustments, making situations autism friendly so that people with autism can do the effort we expect from them. So, basic comfort does not necessarily mean avoiding challenges and lowering expectations. But it means creating the conditions, so that people with autism can be successful in facing those challenges.

Concrete communication
The best way for making the world understandable, predictable and manageable for people with autism is clarifying things in such a way that a context blind brain can understand them. The best tool for doing this? Concrete communication! Concrete communication clarifies what you want and expect, whether it’s an instruction in a classroom or a question in a therapy sessions, it clarifies activities, how they are done and in what order, it clarifies the invisible world of other people’s minds etc. And that doesn’t even have to be in words. But it doesn’t necessarily means overwhelming a person with autism with visuals either. And it certainly does not mean making messages infantile or oversimplifying meanings. It’s all about clearly stating what you mean, giving concrete and unambiguous information, not too much and not too little, and in a positive way. Aim for a form that is as visual and non-transient as possible, taking into account the comprehension level of the autistic people you are living or working with.

Double track
A wide range of adjustments and tools is available for creating an autism friendly environment, in order to ensure basic comfort for the person with autism: day schedules and planners, timers, step-by-step plans, timers, clarifying visuals, time timers, … the possibilities are virtually endless. Be aware that your person may well be the most important part of the environment, so dare to toss aside all prejudices about autism and start making yourself autism friendly. Watch and learn from the person with autism that you are concerned with and do more of what works. However don’t forget that neither the environmental adjustments nor you yourself will always be there. Society is (unfortunately) not (yet) autism-friendly, which is why it’s necessary that people with autism also develop a number of skills needed to live/survive in a society that will never be fit for all the variations within neurodiversity. That’s why Autisme Centraal favours a Double Track approach:  we do not only adapt the environment (first track), we simultaneously follow the (second) track of adapting the person to the environment, by teaching skills in a variety of domains that help the person with autism to survive in his/her biotope. Some of these skills are academic, but other ones have to do with organizing things, socializing or communicating, skills that people with autism do not develop as spontaneously or as easily as their non-autistic peers. Likewise, independence and domestic skills, as well as leisure skills often need to be taught as well. Obviously, all this teaching always happens in tiny steps, using concrete communication, with a lot of patience and with attention to the generalisation of the learned skills.

Each person is unique
Which environmental adjustments work? What skills do you have to teach? What exactly has to be concretely communicated? How do you create basic comfort? Perhaps all the questions already popped up in your mind when reading about the previous letters. The one and only, generally valid answer doesn’t exist. People cannot be poured into standard moulds, and that includes people with autism. Each person is unique. That is why the individuality of people with autism plays a crucial role. A person with autism cannot and should not be reduced to his or her autism. There’s more to a person with autism than his/her autism. Personal interests, the unique personality and the person specific talents play an equally important role in defining autism friendliness and an appropriate approach. In addition, we need to take into account the personal sensory profile of people with autism, involving both over- and underresponsivity. And it goes without saying that age, intellectual abilities and socio-emotional development also each have their own influence on the concrete application of the principles of autism-friendly counselling/coaching/teaching. For that reason, get to know the unique person with autism. Via formal or informal assessments, readymade or created on the spot, or, when possible, simply a good chat, you will perhaps quickly find out what you can and cannot use to enable a person with autism to make progress or to flourish.

And finally, when you adapt the environment or when you teach things, make sure the person with autism can use it (preferably already today or tomorrow).  Save all your energy (and the energy of the people with autism you support) for things that are functional. Our goals must be adjusted more than once so that what we teach can be directly useful or functional for the (nearby) future. In this way, we teach people with autism how they can live and survive, but about life as well. Think of the ability to cope with stress or do things independently, but also about leisure skills or even social-communication skills.  If you teach things ‘for later in life’, then clarify the link with the future in such a concrete way that your teaching activity becomes useful and meaningful for the person right now. But even better: let the person with autism experience here and now the functionality of what you teach or adapt.

Get moving!
Like components of a smoothly running engine, that’s how these six principles work together in a constant interaction. Although we introduce them using the first six letters of the alphabet, there is no stereotypical or fixed order in implementing these principles. Whoever wants to work on one principle, will automatically have to take others into account. They are all linked together. Until all six of them are making the engine run. The Autisme Centraal approachhelps you and the people with autism you live or work with to get moving. Even if it is only in the way you look at autism and your own attitude and behaviour towards it.