When Thinking Hurts

“Today we will brainstorm topics for speech writing.”

Are the groans audible? Do you sense the less than enthusiastic response to your statement?

And yet, we do it…

We often ask our students and kids to brainstorm: to suspend judgement, release organization and structure to thinking and allow any and all ideas to flow willy nilly out of brains.

Brainstorm all the ways a paper clip could be used. Brainstorm words that describe a scattered thoughtscharacter. Brainstorm words that can be used instead of ‘said.’

I for one, hate brainstorming. As the name implies, I feel as though a powerful fan was aimed at my brain and the result is storm of ideas that ricochet inside of my skull. When I was young, the fan just blew air but nothing moved. No ideas. No insights. Just a blank paper in front of me and an anxious feeling in my gut. I could not suspend judgement. Not even if I tried! For me, the task of creating a mind map where my central thought is in the centre and all of my random thinking sprawls out in all directions only creates a ‘mess’ of ideas but no meaning. Brainstorming in this way leaves my mind helter skelter.

As it turns out, many students with autism feel the same way. In fact, just the mention of the word ‘brainstorm’ can throw some minds into a frenzy. This really should not surprise us: students with autism generally crave structure, rules, and concrete thinking. When we ask a student to brainstorm ideas around a central question or concept, it feels as if there is no structure to the task. Autistic brains may not be able to send a net out into a vast arena of ideas and ‘net’ ideas that are relevant. The task of creating a mind map may be too cluttered and confusing to brains that think sequentially or logically.

At the same time, brainstorming is an important skill to be taught as it can be used to develop more flexible thinking, social interaction skills and abstract thinking. We cannot give up brainstorming just because a child has autism. But, it is imperative that we directly and explicitly teach and practice brainstorming systematically.

So, how do we teach students with autism to brainstorm?

1. Provide structure to the thinking task by identifying categories of ideas or a narrower perspective. By narrowing the thinking you are giving the student a starting point or a ‘better net.’Use graphic organizers (possibly linear) and be sure to explain the categories and give an example.

Uses for a paper clip: in the classroom/ in the garage/ in your playroom

Characteristics of a character: emotions/ physical/ social/ intellectual

Instead of ‘said:’ loud words/ quiet words, angry words/joyful words

Favourite words: music words/ emotions words/ math words/ astronomy words etc…

What makes you happy: at home/at school, toys/books/people/places

2. Provide a visual representation to make the task more concrete: pictures of paper clip, pictures depicting emotions, physical appearance, social interactions, and brains, and so on. Kidspiration and Inspiration software works for some students with autism because it is visual.

Remember that showing what you mean is far more effective than trying to explain what is in your own mind as a teacher or parent.

3. Ask probing questions to guide thinking: What are ways your mother might use a paper clip? What is something you like to do in the winter? What school subjects might the character in the story like best?

Brainstorming is an abstract thinking skill that can and should be taught to students with autism. But, we can never simply assume that once we explain how to brainstorm a topic our students with autism will be able to perform the skill independently. Like many higher level thinking skills, brainstorming requires explicit teaching and a lot of consistent practice. It also demands scaffolding so that our students with autism can achieve success!

The results will be well worth it!

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