Why Autistic People Have Difficulty With Generalizing

Imagine that you're a young child at a cousin's wedding. You're walking through the receiving line, and your father has just instructed you to "shake hands with Mr. Jones," the father of the groom. So... you shake hands with Mr. Jones. 

What will you do when Mrs. Jones comes by your table to say hello? Chances are, you won't think "I shook hands with Mr. Jones, and here comes Mrs. Jones... I wonder what I should do now?" Instead, you'll remember "Oh, that's right, we shake hands with adults we don't know well," and you'll put out your hand politely.

If you are able to think "X was appropriate in this situation, so it's probably appropriate in other, similar situations," then you are able to generalize. In other words, you are able to identify the significant similarities in two substantially different situations.

At the wedding described above, there were some real differences between the meetings with Mr. and Mrs. Jones: he's a man, and she's a woman. You met him in the receiving line, and you met her at your table and you met them an hour apart. How did you know which details were important (adults, not well known, formal situation) and which were not (male/female, where you met, time of day)? You just, somehow, figured it out from a combination of social, visual, and other cues.

School bus driver checks children off as they get on bus
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Why Generalizing Is Tough for People With Autism

People with autism often have a very difficult time generalizing. A child with autism, for example, may have no problem at all with lining up for the trip to the cafeteria but have no clue that the class will also line up in the same way for the trip to the gym. Meanwhile, for typical children, it seems "obvious" that if you line up for one thing, of course you'll line up for another. Most of the time.

There are several reasons for these difficulties, not all of which are obvious. One significant issue is that people with autism tend not to watch and imitate others. Thus, while a typical child might wait and watch to see what their peers are doing, a child with autism is not likely to do so. This lack of imitation also makes it hard for autistic people to intuitively grasp cultural norms. How far should you stand from another person? How loudly should you talk? There are no absolute rules about these things: most of us "just know" because we are constantly surveying and responding to social cues.

Difficulties with generalization can arise, in particular, when a child with autism is taught skills in a separate, one-on-one setting and then expected to use those skills in a social situation. In a therapeutic situation, for example, a child may be perfectly capable of tossing a ball back and forth but they may not understand that they're learning this skill in order to use it appropriately on the playground. Or they may have no issues with sharing toys with a therapist but be unable to apply the "share" rule to classmates.

For most autistic children, then, the issue isn't "can they learn to do X," but "can they learn to do X in all the right situations, in the right way, at the right time, with the right people."

In order to help people with autism to generalize, many therapists may begin their work in one-on-one settings to teach a skill but quickly move into a "naturalistic" setting to practice the skill. In other words, a physical therapist might teach the skill of ball tossing in an office, but will often go out into the playground to practice. In a well-constructed program, the physical therapist will coordinate with the teacher and a social skills therapist to create play circles so that the autistic child can practice ball-tossing with peers in a typical setting.

The hope, of course, is that the child will begin to understand that ball tossing is a social activity to be shared with peers on the playground. Even with that new understanding, however, it may be necessary to explain ball-tossing with peers in the classroom is not acceptable, while ball tossing in the backyard with mom is a great idea. Each of these different situations is both different from and similar to the playground and it can be very difficult for the child with autism to determine which details are important enough to change the rules.

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