03/04/2012 09:27 am ET Updated May 04, 2012

Direct Learning

Chances are, no one ever sat you down as a child and gave you a Powerpoint presentation on how to put on a sock. Most likely, you simply grabbed a sock intuitively at some point during your late toddler years, first mouthing it to savor its pithy taste, then managing after a few failed attempts to maneuver the slip of cotton haphazardly onto your waiting foot. Voila, mission accomplished! The same with learning to open a door -- no one ever deconstructed the steps; most people are able through indirect learning -- that is, through observation and subsequent trial and error -- to learn relatively simple tasks that involve a series of smaller movements.

My son who has Asperger's and I have spent countless hours over the past fifteen years both deconstructing actions and decoding emotions, as he very often struggles to learn things indirectly. His challenges result both from his dyspraxia, which makes planning and sequencing challenging, and from his difficulties reading social cues. We have found ways to overcome these challenges, and Willem can master both complex sequences of movements and reading emotions; nevertheless, it has, over the years, taken perseverance on his part, and a large dose of parental patience and ingenuity.

Let's go back to the sock example. The only way that my son finally mastered this action was by my repeating the mantra "kick your nose with the heel" as I dangled his Gap anklet in front of his nose, swinging it with a faux-jauntiness so it would tap him on the tip of his nose like a cotton pendulum. This much-repeated verbal cue served to remind my son to hold the sock so that the curved bit of fabric where the heel of his foot should fit in was facing him, only then can you properly orient your foot into a sock.

My son is now a master at putting on socks, but the breakthrough only came when what was to him a jumbled multitude of steps had been broken down with the use of both memorable visual and verbal cues into an intelligible series of smaller tasks. I have had, as a parent, to take a semiotic approach to everyday life. This can be exhausting, and needless to say, by the time that first sock had been comfortably fitted to the foot, I was ready for a big glass of Chardonnay.

Now, many years and many glasses of Chardonnay later, I can look at my son's progress with incredible pride. I am fortunate not only that I am good at making up silly songs and mnemonic devices, but most of all am lucky that he is incredibly bright and eager to learn. His nervous system is simply routed in a way that is not always in synch with the way our society is set up, a bit as if he were driving a British car (with steering wheel and pedals on the right) in the USA, where the other drivers are accustomed to steering and maneuvering vehicles from the opposite side of the road.

Children on the autistic spectrum need to carefully learn and practice behaviors that come relatively naturally to the rest of us. Despite the extra effort it may take my son to integrate these behaviors, he ultimately masters them with great aplomb. Much of the credit must be given to the outstanding speech and language therapists at my son's school (an independent specialist school in London catering to kids with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other specific learning difficulties). He has worked with the school's therapists regularly on such issues as voice volume control and improving inference skills. I always feel proud when we have friends over for dinner, and when my son comes in the living room to greet our guests, offering them a firm handshake and decent eye contact (well rehearsed). Years of social skills practice have paid off, and he is a charming and attentive conversationalist. My son has learned to ask other people about themselves, and to listen thoughtfully to their answers. I know that he needs to constantly resist the temptation to "orate" (he could easily hold forth for at least an hour on the evils of American capitalism) but he more than manages to keep a neurotypical dialogue going.

So, if you have a child on the Autistic Spectrum, remember -- do not expect direct learning. Start thinking of clever mantras and songs to help break down complex sequences of movements -- practice, practice, practice ... and don't forget to put that bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge.