Dynamic Intelligence for a Dynamic World
It takes only a glimpse of today’s world to realize that we are living in unprecedented times. We flip from answering our cell phones, to sending email to friends, to writing to-do lists at lightning speed. Our minds can barely keep up with the demands of our fast-paced world – this requires us to be able to think in a truly “dynamic” fashion.
Consider how incredible our brains are – imagine sitting on a beach, gazing at breathtaking scenery (ahhh). As you gaze at the sparkling water and sink back into your chair, you notice the soft breeze against your arms. Where does your mind go? If you’re like most of us, your thoughts wander. As you look around at the people in your midst you wonder where they live, or wonder about the conversations they’re having. You study their body language and facial expressions. You may begin to ponder dinner options for that evening. Perhaps someone you see reminds you of a friend, and you realize that you owe her a call. Suddenly, your mind goes to your work, and you realize that on Monday you have a meeting, and begin mentally preparing for it – you realize that you’ve left your planning to the last minute and do some fast thinking about what you can juggle to free up some extra time. You root through your bag for a notebook to jot down some notes – but as you search for your notebook you see the sunscreen, and remember it’s time to slather more on the kids. You remember the time you last forgot the sunscreen and how awful you felt. Incredibly, all of these mental processes occur in a remarkably short period of time!
Dynamic intelligence represents the ability to mentally “stick handle” when obstacles show up – to think in shades of grey; to use our past experiences (the sunburn for example) to avoid future mishaps.
Being on a beach may allow our minds to wander, but this isn’t always possible! Consider driving your car. Sure, you can mull things over if you’re on a straight stretch of road without other cars around, but in a busy intersection it’s much different! As you make a left hand turn at a busy intersection, you’re able to shelve all other thoughts that may compete for your attention, as your priority is avoiding a collision, pedestrians and cyclists! I think you get the picture. However, dynamic intelligence isn’t just thought – but being able to use these thought processes to interact thoughtfully with others, collaborate, and meet our own needs at the end of the day. No small feat.
So what is static intelligence?
By definition, static means unchanging. Two times two will always equal four; the capital of Canada will always be Ottawa, and apples and oranges will always remain in the fruit category – but don’t ask me how tomatoes made it in there. Think back to your driving experience… we know that green means “go” and red means “stop.” We tie our shoelaces the same way, and use the phone book to look up numbers the same way. Typically, children with autism and other developmental disabilities can excel in the realm of static intelligence, yet they lack dynamic intelligence, which creates the lion’s share of their frustration.
The beginnings of “dynamic intelligence”
Picture a parent with a young infant At this age, the child listens intently when Mom or Dad speaks – what are they saying to the child? How are they speaking? Likely, they’re not reading War and Peace, or telling jokes. No, they’re up close, using big facial expressions, cooing and using simple sentences. They speak softly and use “sing-song-like” intonation. The child responds by cooing back, giving Mom and Dad the feedback that they need to stay in sync with the child. When I began to realize how magical the “dance” between parents and their children is, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We are nothing short of hard-wired to communicate to our young in exactly the fashion that they need, in order to learn how to understand our nonverbal communication – long before they learn to communicate using words! When the words develop, they enhance the “emotional feedback loop” that’s already there!
It’s through the miraculous, ever-changing relationship between parent and child that dynamic intelligence begins – through understanding nonverbal communication, then through developing resilience and eventually through learning to borrow the parent’s perspective. So – our children learn the foundation of “dynamic intelligence” through parents and caregivers. Eventually, once they are able to relate to others – we teach them static skills, like brushing their teeth and using a knife and fork. It’s assumed that by the time a child is school-age, they are able to function in a dynamic environment – and we all know how dynamic a kindergarten classroom is!
Can dynamic intelligence be “taught?”
Unfortunately, common belief these days is that children with ASD and other developmental disabilities can only be taught “static” skills. This is NOT the case! Their brains may be wired differently, but they are more than capable of learning “thinking skills” if guided in the right manner.
I have been trained to coach parents to “guide” their child’s cognitive, emotional and social development – to teach parents, grandparents, teachers and other significant adults to re-construct the “guided participation relationship” through which dynamic intelligence is learned.
Parents break down learning to think and perceive a world full of change and complexity into small, simple components. Adults learn to slow down and amplify information feedback, so that both adults and children are more readily able to understand and adjust to one another.
Parents learn to use the activities of daily life to embed safe, but challenging experiences for the child. Children learn to respond in more flexible, thoughtful ways to novel, increasingly unpredictable settings and problems. Safety and trust emerge as children learn they can see regularity and pattern, even in a continually more complex world. Real-world competence emerges as they take ever-greater responsibility for conquering authentic tasks and problems with many partners, in many settings.
Through their parents, the “apprentice” learns authentic, give and take communication. They develop the ability and desire to create states of connection between themselves and others on many different levels. They learn that real communication is a product of what we are thinking and feeling in relation to what our partners think & feel.
What can you do to help your child think in a more dynamic fashion?
You can start right now by slowing your rate of speech, and being aware of when you “pepper” your child with questions! Children with developmental disabilities often need extra time to process information; their mental “stick handling” isn’t as well honed as others’. Take a few moments each day to think about how you speak to your child, and imagine how you would feel listening to your own communication… a little extra breathing space is often good for everyone – parents included!
Understanding autism more deeply
Despite the fact that autism is all around us, it is still widely misunderstood! What causes autism? What can we do about it? While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I can tell you that autism is no longer the life sentence it was once thought to be.
Autism is a complex bio-psycho-social disorder. From a neurological perspective, the brains of autistic individuals are simply wired differently, which impacts many aspects of life – how the brain works, how it processes information, and how the individual relates to the world around him or her.
Those who haven’t been up close and personal with autism often think of it as purely a social and behavioural disorder. While these challenges may be present – they are not autism! These difficulties represent the by-product of deeper, neurologically-based issues. So, communication, behaviour and social challenges are the manifestation of processing issues. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you spent much of the time in a state of confusion and frustration, you’d likely demonstrate challenging behaviour as well.
The mystery of autism is that in many individuals, specific types of “thinking skills” are incredibly adept, yet other types of cognitive abilities appear to be severely impaired, “limiting their ability to respond flexibly and in a more holistic manner to changes in their world,” says Marcel Just, who heads the Center for Brain Imaging, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA . Hence, the reason that an ASD individual’s ability to cope in complex environment breaks down.
So what do these processing issues look like? Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
A child who possesses these cognitive challenges can be thought to be lacking in “dynamic intelligence,” or the ability to successfully navigate through our complex world on a day-to-day basis.
Why education about autism is important
Understanding the challenges of ASD, as difficult as it is – is critical. What you don’t understand, you cannot conquer. Developing a profile of how an individual presents allows us to understand not just his or her challenges – but strengths as well. After all, despite the often crippling difficulties faced by these brave children, they are gifted with a different perspective on the world, and always, always have something to teach us.
As a parent, having a child on the spectrum can present enormous heartbreak and frustration. I know first hand – when my son was younger life was very different! No amount of patience and “good parenting skills” can overcome the challenges faced by parents of an ASD child. These children have been unable to benefit from the hundreds and hundreds of hours of interaction that shape typically developing brains.
As a result, they haven’t had the benefit of developing the resilience that typical children have, who have learned by being “off course” through countless small learning experiences with caregivers. Similarly, they haven’t learned how to “dance” with the emotions of their parents and caregivers. In part, this is due to the fact that the emotional “feedback loop” has been severed, leaving parents frantically doing emotional damage control. Finally, their child has been unable to see the world through their eyes, borrowing their perspective, and learning how to interact with others along the way.
No doubt, this is bad news, but the good news is that there are mountains of research to support the fact that pathways in the brain can indeed be changed! This is referred to as “neuroplasticity.” In other words, there is no point at which pathways in the brain are fixed, as was previously thought. What does this mean? Essentially, the cognitive skills that were missed to to autism and other developmental disorders can be learned… Parents and their children, can be “guided” through the journey of development in a slow and steady fashion. It is possible to build dynamic intelligence!