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How We Make Sense: Sense-Making and Autism | Ep 103

Updated: Nov 15

Based on the CONNECT with SUCCESS Autism Podcast Episode 3 With Dr. Lynette Scotese-Wojtila and Dr. Richard Smith

“Sense-making” is simple concept, but we don't always talk about it, because for most people, it just happens. Keep reading to learn how sense-making happens for individuals with autism.

What is sense-making?

Sense-making is the process through which we learn, or we come to understand or comprehend something. It's how we arrive at an understanding of people or things, events, experiences, and how we make sense of what's going on around us, and what's going on within us.


When a child is born, they don't come out of the womb already knowing and having a lot of sense about their world. They slowly evolve to understanding through their experiences.


For example, when we were young, we felt a sensation of thirst, a very normal experience. We have all felt thirst this, and sometimes it doesn't always register. It's sort of in the background, but as the day goes on, the longer it is between times when we drink and quench ourselves, our feelings of being thirsty rises up, and all of a sudden it moves from this little something to something that grabs your attention, so you focus on it.


And even though there are many sensations coming into our bodies all day long, this particular sensation – thirst – bubbled up above all the others, and grabbed our focus and our attention. For those of us who are old enough to have language, we know the feeling of thirst and we have learned to put a name to it: “I am thirsty. I need a drink”


And so once we were aware of it, we label it and we do something about. We can take action about the thirst. We find a water bottle or a drinking fountain. We quench our thirst. This is sense making.


Do children with autism have trouble with “sense-making”?


For children with autism, sense-making does not come this easy because it's not always so natural.

Remember that sense-making relies on experience and a brain that can process that experience; and it also relies on sensation. Our senses inform the brain and help the brain to become aware of something, something becoming figural, that we can then attach meaning to and make contact with. And so this reliance on awareness and sensation is critical.


Most everyone processes through this cycle and the circle of awareness because the brain and body are designed to work together so that experiences are meaningful and we can thrive and sustain. But sometimes there are blockades in the cycle. And, you know somebody maybe doesn't have good language and so we might be attaching the concept of thirst or bottle or drink to a child, let's say a toddler, and if they're not grasping the concept that are the words that we're labeling, they may not have a lot of sense-making around that sensation of thirst because they miss the tie to the language. So when mommy says do you want a drink? Are you thirsty? If the child is not processing that word, they might have the sensation of thirst, they may have that bodily sensation, but it's not tied or associated or connected.


So do people with autism make sense of things that the way others do? Is it the same for everyone in that process, in terms of having autism?


It is the same process for everyone. Those six or seven steps that we go through from the sensation to something becoming figural, or in focus, and that becoming aware of it, and taking action to get in contact with it, those steps are very natural and normal for everybody that can process well; but for kids with autism and other sensory processing problems, they get stuck, and they get stuck at various places in a circular process. Sense-Making is a Circular Process


So when we talk about processing information, or sensation, we have to recognize that it is a normal and natural process. Our brain will inform us -- these senses will inform us -- that something's going on we have to pay attention to, and as we become aware of it, we sort of go through this circular process, and it's actually in the field of Gestalt psychotherapy.


There is a circular process of awareness, and what happens in this circular process is:

· we take in lots of information and sensations

· one particular sensation kind of grabs us

· and we become aware of it

· and we put a name to it

· we move from being aware of it, to wrapping our brain around it, and getting in contact with it.

· And when we come into contact with something, we have sense-making about it.


If we said to a young toddler, “You're thirsty.” A toddler who is tumbling around at 13, 14, 15 months probably doesn't understand what “thirst” is because it's kind of an abstract concept. Thirst is a sensation, but they might associate a bottle or a typical sippy cup with the concept of thirsty. So this is how we learn. This is how we have sense-making through experiences, through sensation, through becoming aware of those sensations and those turning to put labels to them, and fix or make contact with whatever it is that we are having sense-making about.


Sense-Making is a Natural Process


Sense-making is a normal, beautiful, spontaneous, organic process, where it's very subconscious. It's not robotic. It's not heady. It's sort of natural and almost subconscious, but experience is accumulating in our brains all the time. And that's how associations are built through experience.


So what does sense-making rely on, specifically?