Contextual Behavior, Autism, and the Theory of Relativity

Printer-friendly version

Introduction

    Behavior research has developed a methodology for people suffering from severe autism to engage in a task by means of utilizing an antecedent, behavior, and a condition. However, how do we help these same people to see the context of the task?

As Dr. Peter Vermeulen, the author of "Autism as Context Blindness", stated:

"Understanding autism as context blindness is the cornerstone of an autism friendly approach." 

    Looking at this problem from another discipline, theoretical physics has addressed the issue of context as a means of quantifying issues where there are various observers taking on various perspectives of an event. 

    This is the theoretical foundation to the Theory of Relativity. Many people have seen this represented in a variety of SCI-FI tales, including the recent film "Interstellar", where an astronaut returns to the earth after a short period in outer space to find that the relative time that has elapsed for his/her world is much greater than his relative frame of reference.

     For a people with autism, the innate and natural reaction to see contextual issues can be challenging. Scenarios in the Theory of Relativity such as the astronaut's frame of reference with respect to time being a few months, whereas the temporal frame of reference of the earth elapsing 50 years may help to quantify and discuss the theory of the contextual perspective.

 Part 1   

    For those readers that have treated people with autism, could the following text be written by an autistic adult almost a century ago?

    "In your schooldays, most of you made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid's geometry, and you remember--perhaps more respect than love--the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for hours by conscientious teachers."

      Before I tell you who wrote this, let's examine this for a moment. An individual's theory, Euclid's geometry, is discussed as a structure, something abstract is described in reference to the concrete. There is reference to your memory of the learning event as something of "more respect than love." This could read as more respect than instrinsic motivation.

   What truly connects to working with young students dealing with autistic behavior is the reference to teachers conscientiously chasing the learner, which is much like the difficulty in getting the students to have your attention. Not that this is necessarily written by an autistic person, though that has been considered by researchers, but that the writing is something autistic students could relate to.

   The quote was written by Albert Einstein in the first page of "Relativity: The Special and General Theory." This style of writing is employed because classical geometry was called into question. Einstein starts out the manuscript from here with "thought exercises" on one observing events such as a man on a moving train dropping a ball, and moves on to the Theory of Relativity.

   What is intriguing is that the context of various event-scenarios are presented that build up to create an explanation of a monumental theory in physics. For autistic learners, this format might be an ideal method of creating an awareness of context in real world situations. In terms of behaviorist theories of learning, an adult student could see tangible results in seeing what are the two perspectives of a ball falling from a moving train, encouraged by the benefit of the exercise being one step towards understanding the Theory of Relativity. In other words, there is the benefit of piecing together various perspectives as well the deferred benefit of starting to learn an important theory in physics.