July 6, 2019

Ue Your Special Interest to Understand Your Thinking Errors! Children With Intellectual Disabilities

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are all well and are having a lovely summer.  There will be two posts this month to make up for not having one in June.  In this post, we will be exploring how you, whether a therapist, parent, care provider, or someone else, can help your child with special needs understand how their thoughts work by connecting them with their special interest.  Doing so is not hard at all.  It can actually be quite fun as you can get as creative as you want when coming up with ways to visualize the invisible concept of thoughts and how they affect feelings and behavior.  This second post is the follow-up to the previous post on using special interests to explain thinking errors and the concept of thoughts to children and individuals with ASD and other developmental diagnoses.  Here, we will be looking at implications for using special interests to connect with people with intellectual disabilities. 
      It is critical to distinguish between ASD and other developmental diagnoses such as learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities.  Individuals with the former have challenges around accurately processing and interpreting information due to differently mis-firing brain mechanisms.  However they do not have a reduced capacity for short-term memory.  Their cognitive functioning is not limited, rather how they go about accurate knowledge formation is more convoluted and not organized.  Limited short-term memory is characteristic for intellectual disabilities, for reasons, we shall see below, and results in lower cognitive functioning, ie. the ability to make knowledge from meaning and accurately understand information being received.

Special Considerations: Using your child's special interest as a metaphor for understanding their thoughts and thinking errors is definitely useful for many different developmental diagnoses.  However, using metaphor without use of visual aids that depict each concept in gory detail, is not recommended for individuals with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.  There are several reasons for this mainly around short term memory and processing skills.

Short Term Memory is critical because it is the receptacle for all information coming into our minds that gets processed into knowledge and cognition ie. the ability to think and use information accurately and competently.  Short term memory is divided into separate areas for processing verbal and visual information.  Children and individuals with Down Syndrome and other developmental diagnoses have a reduced capacity for storing information in their short term memory.  Consequently, they have lower cognitive functioning since their ability to retain information and correctly process what they are capable of holding onto is incomplete.

Processing is how our brains take short term memory information and make meaning so that we can have knowledge to use to navigate our world.  The two types of processing most relevant here are verbal and visual processing.Children and individuals with Down Syndrome and other developmental diagnoses have fundamentally strong gaps between their verbal processing and visual processing skills. 
        Verbal processing as affected by limited capacity of their verbal short term memory makes it very difficult for those individuals to take information and turn it into complete meaning.  The more complex the topic and concept, the greater difficulty around taking in and processing information accurately.  An individual will have a much more difficult time understanding a metaphor about thinking even if it is directly on target with their special interest because of the verbal complexity of the explanation and lack of imagery to make it more concrete and more understandable.  Here's why...
         Visual Processing is for reasons not fully understood, much stronger in individuals with Down Syndrome and other developmental diagnoses.  One hypothesis is that what is missing in areas of verbal processing capacity is being compensated for in visual short term memory.  This does not mean that the individual no longer has an intellectual disability.  Rather, they are able to retain more information in a visual context and can make more complete meaning if pictures to illustrate concepts are provided.

So what can you as the caregiver do?  Here are a couple of ideas in case you want to try using a metaphorical example.

Simplicity: Even if you know your child with an intellectual disability understands a great deal about his special interest, do not assume that they understand the concept of thought or how it works.  Also, remember that due to processing issues in visual and verbal memory, keeping it simple will help them retain and make correct meaning of more of the information.  Consider using one concrete example from their special interest and connect it to one concrete concept.

Relevance: Special interests are usually not consistent within a topic.  Many times the special interest will be hyper-focused one a specific sub-topic within the overall topic.  Find out what their primary interest is and then focus in on that to find the appropriate and most effective visuals to help your metaphor.

Visuals: Use relevant visuals to illustrate the concept you are trying to teach.  Only use visuals for what you can visually and verbally explain yourself!  Again, simplicity!

Verbal: The fewer words the better and they need to be super specific.  If you cannot explain the concept using the special interest metaphor you have chosen to yourself in simple language, then they will not understand it either.

Patience and Self-Compassion: Using your child's special interest to connect with them around how they think is a great way of building empathy and compassion for them.  Remember that you can only do your best and that you may have to try again and again to understand how they view their thinking challenges, as they are aware of them,  so you in turn can understand and connect.


  1. Thanks for another original and highly detailed post with such specific and useful ideas! Thank you so much for your contributions to our group and also to the community of individuals with ASD.

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