Creating Algorithms
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Creating Algorithms

Creating algorithms for social interactions helps greatly in getting along in the neurotypical world. Social algorithms can be constructed with others, or depending on the situation, by the person on the autism spectrum theirselves.

Whereas most people learn social rules by observation, those on the autism spectrum often need to acquire them cognitively in order to approximate an intuitive sense of social interaction, It feels similar to running Windows PC emulation software on a Macintosh. Although running Windows software in emulation mode on a Macintosh usually works very well, performance suffers in terms of speed, smoothness, and other minor differences. To an experienced Windows user in this situation, it is clear that they are not on a Windows machine.

The neurotypical person learns the rules governing social interaction by observation and incidental interaction with other people. The social skill set of typical people can be considered as a circle whereas those on the autism spectrum start out with a square. Like an automobile tire, the circle rolls very easily as opposed to the square that would have four large bumps if it were used as a wheel. This development of social interaction does not come naturally to people on the autism spectrum in the way it comes to typical people. Social situations must be
worked out one at a time in order to create a repertoire of responses for appropriate social understanding and interaction in the typical world.

For example, when I was in third grade I remember arguing with a friend because he said he felt like a pizza. My position was that since he certainly didn’t look like a pizza he couldn’t feel like one. It was only years later that I realized he felt like eating a pizza. It is common for people to leave out the word "eating" when they make these types of statements. Once I was able to see my friend’s side of this "feeling like a pizza" social interaction, the sides of the square that represented my sense of social interaction doubled. This is because I am now able to take everything that I know about this type of social engagement and apply it to similar case situations. What was a square has become an eight-sided polygon. For each social situation algorithm built, the polygon doubles the number of sides as the person’s repertoire of being able to take on the other person’s point of view increases. The increasing number of sides makes it more and more difficult to calculate the area of this polygon, whereas figuring out the area of a circle remains relatively easy. As social interaction skills improve, the sides continue to increase in number. However, a perfect circle is never quite achieved. Even though the polygon becomes ever more difficult to differentiate from a true circle, you still would get a bumpy ride if you used it as a wheel for your car.

The analogy just described means that those on the autism spectrum need to learn social interaction cognitively rather than by observation and incidental interaction with others. It is at this point where many efforts to include children who are on the autism spectrum in the public schools, fail. A successful inclusion effort must go far beyond the "Roberto will spend two periods a day in the regular classroom in order to learn how to socialize with his peers." The inclusion effort must be prepared carefully with "Roberto," the regular school teacher, the special education teacher, the aide, and most importantly, the regular education children that will interact with "Roberto." Most likely, a small subset of the children in the regular education classroom should be chosen to become "Roberto’s" buddies so that he has a few "safe" peers to interact with at first.

While it may be possible to approximate intuitive social interaction skills, things can remain rough in some places just as a multisided wheel of a car will give a rougher ride than one that is a perfect circle.
I am indebted to Philip Schwarz for enlightening me to, and allowing me to use this metaphor involving polygons and emulation software (Personal communication, February 4, 2001, Phil Schwarz)

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