Teaching the Autistic Student: A Method Based on Arousal Modulation and Neural Asynchrony: A Critical Examination, Article Critique Example

For decades researchers have worked to determine what causes Autism and have struggled to find ways to teach Autistic children and adults. While the condition is better-understood now than ever before, it is still largely baffling. The cause or causes of Autism remain a mystery, researchers cannot agree about what is happening in the minds of people with Autism, and there are numerous approaches to teaching those with Autism that are often directly contradictory to one another.

Considering the confusion surrounding the subject of Autism, it would seem futile to attempt to present a brief, comprehensive summation of what is known about Autism, along with information about the primary methodologies used to teach those with Autism. Astonishingly, author Robert DePaolo accomplishes just that: he manages to discuss much of what is known about Autism in a manner that serves to edify the reader without getting lost in scientific minutiae and medical jargon. DePaolo’s primary goal is to make a convincing case for educating those with Autism that accounts for the unique neurological workings of the Autistic mind. In this, DePaolo succeeds admirably, offering his readers a prier on Autism that leaves them feeling like experts in the field.

DePaolo devotes considerable space to explaining how the brains of those with Autism operate according to an unusual set of operating instructions. The author has a real knack for describing the brain activity of people with Autism in a manner that provides solid scientific information set in the context of colorful, easy-to-understand language. When discussing how the brain of someone with Autism is “beset with a timing problem,”  DePaolo  offers the following thoughts:

“Research findings have shown that whatever neuropsychological “maestro” is charged with inter-coordinating input, reaction, selective activation, inhibition and memory is problematic”

As clearly as DePaolo makes a discussion about the “timing” issues in the brains of autistic individuals, so too does he present a discussion about how autistic brains function. Those with autism are prone to exhibiting both hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, often vacillating between the two states. Because autistic individuals have difficulty processing sensory input signals, their brains tend to compensate for this difficulty by “compartmentalizing” incoming information, focusing on one narrow stream of information to the exclusion of all else; this compartmentalizing  is associated with the state of hypo-arousal.

Conversely, autistic individuals sometimes respond to an overload of sensory input not by shutting it out in a state of hypo-arousal, but by switching to a state of hyper-arousal. It is this state that autistic individuals reject the touch of other people, often in an exaggerated or even violent manner. In either state, the brains of autistic individuals are having difficulty processing sensory input and dealing with other necessary neurological functions. One outward manifestation of neurological dysfunction in many autistic individuals is the development of dyspraxia. Those with dyspraxia have difficulty planning for and carrying out physical actions, especially those involving fine motor skills.

These and other symptoms of autism, taken as a whole, often make teaching autistic individuals a daunting challenge. Many traditional methods of teaching autistic individuals are built upon the conceptual foundation of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). The field of ABA encompasses an array of different methodologies; put simply, however, using ABA to reach those with autism involves one form or another of behavior modification. Even within this approach, researchers and educators disagree about what sorts of behavior modification techniques are best for teaching autistic individuals. While some people believe it is best to use techniques that avoid the risk of sensory overload, others insist that near-continuous sensory overload is just the way to ensure that new routines become quickly established in autistic individuals.

DePaolo makes the case that ABA techniques for teaching autistic individuals are less effective than techniques based on the neurological patterns exhibited in the brains of those with autism. Support for this approach can even be found, in a roundabout way, in the successes that are achieved with ABA. The behaviors of an autistic individual are simply physical manifestations of brain activities, of firing synapses and signals sent to muscle cells. It is just more efficient and effective, asserts DePaolo, to look directly at the source of behavior as found in those brain activities.

As described in the article, the brains of autistic individuals are “asynchronous;” this refers to the timing issues found in these brains. DePaolo notes that there are often lag times between the introduction of stimulus and the brain’s response to it; these lag times are not typically seen in the brains of those who do not have autism. Efforts to teach autistic individuals, posits the author, must take these lag times and other timing issues into account. Methodologies designed to account for the unusual neurological patterns seen in the brains of those with autism offer more direct and effective ways of teaching.

The main thrust of DePaolo’s thesis involves the use of specifically-timed sonic cues that are designed to account for the timing issues and lag times in autistic brains. Noting that some researchers believe that intelligence is largely a function of efficient brain rhythms, DePaolo makes the case that appealing to and compensating for the rhythms that are unique to autistic individuals allows for the effective development of neural pathways that work to allow those with autism to function and behave in a more controlled manner. This is, of course, an oversimplification of a complex conceptual model that is presented in the article, but at its core, it is both simple and elegantly logical. I cannot say with certainty that DePaolo’s ideas about how to teach autistic individuals are superior to well-established ABA approaches and methods; what is certain, however, is that DePaolo makes a very strong case in their favor.