When I first started my career, I was oblivious to the importance of patterns and pattern recognition. I didn't understand why there was just an emphasis on this in infant and preschool learning, and I didn't think to purposefully incorporate patterns into my activities. I was under the impression that children with autism thrive in structure and routine, yes, but that they also tend to become overly fixated on it, thus requiring a desensitization to the "unexpected" nature of life.
I cringe as I think about my previous ignorance. I assumed that pattern recognition was an asset to my children with ASD, when in fact it is often a weakness. But if it's a weakness, why are they so quick to find patterns and stick to them incessantly?
First, let me explain why patterns are important and why our brains love patterns. We first learn to distinguish patterns as a way to peak our fight or flight system. This innate system is what tells us at a neurological level whether we should run away or stand our ground with impending danger. How do we learn to sense danger? By detecting differences in our environment. How do we learn to detect differences? By understanding and appreciating what is normal or expected.
This is where the concept of pattern recognition comes into play. We have visual patterns, auditory patterns, temporal patterns... everything has a pattern to it! We learn to visually expect certain things around us, at certain times of day and with certain sounds. We also learn, over time, how patterns of sounds are words and patterns of vocal inflection carry emotion from our caregiver. This about how your baby's face changes when you suddenly use a stern or angry tone. Most likely, that tone was not the pattern they expected! Still over more time, they learn that stern tone with the sounds "S" "T" "O" "P" means "Stop!" and trouble is coming...
For many of our children with ASD, there is a breakdown in pattern recognition. This means they are constantly living in a stage of "fight or flight" mode because everything seems different and potentially dangerous. When they do learn a routine, or pattern, it feels safe in its predictability.
Let's pretend you were fortunate enough to get a ticket on Elon Musk's first trans-solar system SpaceX cruise ship. Oh no, your cruise ship has crash landed on another planet, far away. You are unfamiliar with the surroundings and weather patterns. The days are a different length and, aside from whatever perishables survived the crash, your food options are unknown. Luckily, you can breathe on this planet though! What's the first thing you are going to do, once you've exhausted your calls for help and set up a shelter?
Most likely, you're going to survey the land. You're going to learn what's around you and create a map to help you orient yourself. This tool relies on patterns in order for you to have a map that is understandable and relates to the environment around you. Over time, you will learn the day/night schedule and start to be able to predict weather systems moving through. As you try new foods, you will learn which shapes and colors satiate you and which make you sick.
What if you were unable to view the sameness or differentness of the natural elements around you? You struggled to connect when the temperature drops and the leaves turn upward, rain is coming? How will you feel when that rain suddenly surprises you? You had no idea it was on the way and now your warm fire is gone!
Patterns are what allow us to make sense of the elements in our world in order to predict what will happen next and how we should react to it. We already understand how our children with ASD often have difficulty with predictions and inferencing, however no we're starting to understand there is another breakdown before the prediction stage.
How can we make an accurate prediction if our pattern is wrong?
Talk to your child about patterns. If you see them lining their toys up, see if you can get a pattern going (think color, shape, size, category). Come up with motor pattern sequences, like new dance moves, together. Change patterns when they start to become repetitive by saying "Let's try a new one!". Try to be more predictable in front of them. Overemphasize your emotional vocal tones and act slower to help them process what you're doing next. Before you go disturbing their routines, make sure you've given them supports to cope with such a chaotic occurrence. If we look at some of the "obsessions", "rote behaviors", and "repetitive actions" as a difficulty in establishing pattern sequences or a challenge in creating more complex pattern sequences; I believe we will improve our empathy during the resulting "tantrums" that often occur.