This article was contributed by Nancy Popkin, Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region and mom to a son with autism.
One of the keys to parenting, working with, or just hanging out with an individual with autism is to truly understand the core characteristics of autism. Applying these core characteristics enhances our understanding of why our child, student, employee, or friend might do some of the things they do. In doing this, we are able to anticipate challenges, develop strategies, and in some cases, find those extra ounces of patience that allow us to support them when challenges arise. Over the years, I have developed something I call “The Hula Hoop Analogy” to help me teach others to understand the individuals with autism in their lives. Not only does this help me explain aspects of autism to others, but it has allowed me to help my son understand himself. Here’s how it goes:
Imagine that every person with autism has an invisible Hula Hoop™ around themselves. They are in the center of the Hula Hoop, and everything inside the Hula Hoop matters to them. Everything outside of Hula Hoop, not so much. And this makes sense, because the root of the word autism is “auto” which means “self.” This is not to say that individuals with autism are selfish, but their perspective of the world is sometimes or often limited to their own perspective. And this helps us understand one of those autism characteristics. Individuals with autism, to varying degrees, struggle with taking the perspective of another. They have difficulty understanding how their actions may affect someone else. And this is because of this invisible Hula Hoop.
This thinking can be applied to help us understand other core characteristics of autism. For instance, we know that individuals with autism benefit greatly by having a visual schedule or visual cues to help them navigate their world. Often though, consideration is not given to the location of the schedule. To be effective, it must be within the invisible Hula Hoop for that individual. This is why, if the schedule for a classroom is in the front of the room for all students to see, the student with autism may not know it applies to them and will not attend to it. The schedule might need to be on their desk or on a notebook. At home, the schedule and visual cues need to be where they will be processed effectively or where the task or activity takes place.
We can apply this analogy to understanding social differences, too. Individuals with autism often do not respond to their name unless you are very close. It is like we need to get in their Hula Hoop to get their attention. At school, if the teacher is talking at the front of the room, often the student with autism will not process what the teacher is saying. The teacher isn’t in the Hula Hoop, so it’s as if what they are saying doesn’t apply to the student. And sometimes, individuals with autism don’t recognize personal space. This may be because they feel like you need to be in their Hula Hoop to interact with them.
The size of the Hula Hoop will vary from one individual to another. It also might expand and contract depending on the individual’s abilities, stress levels, and environment. Individuals with autism often have difficulty processing a lot of information at once. If they are overwhelmed with information (sensory or otherwise), the Hula Hoop will get smaller, and they may not be able to attend to as much information as when they are calm. This is important to know when helping someone manage themselves when they are upset. If the tools and strategies used to help them regain their sense of calm are not in close proximity when the Hula Hoop contracts, it will be harder to get them calm. This is why many of the visual cues and other supports for someone with autism need to be portable and with them at all times.
Not only does the Hula Hoop Analogy apply to physical space, it also applies to temporal space and individuals’ ability to manage time. Imagine the Hula Hoop represents this moment in time. Individuals with autism are most comfortable living in the present. Thinking about the past might be uncomfortable for them and they might resist talking about past events. The exception to this is when reliving past events repeatedly as a way to stim.
But more significantly, this temporal effect has an impact on planning for the future. Individuals with autism are not good at thinking about what might happen in the future and planning accordingly. This affects things like figuring out what jacket to wear or whether to grab an umbrella for later. It affects planning what work to get done now and what to put off for later.
The good news is, with practice we can help an individual with autism expand their invisible Hula Hoop to take in more and more information, include more people, and anticipate what lies ahead. But we need to start this process where they are, within their Hula Hoop. And when issues arise, consider that maybe this invisible Hula Hoop has gotten in the way. That is when we step inside their Hula Hoop, with all the patience we can muster, to guide them into the future.
Nancy Popkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-894-9678.
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