Supporting problem-solving skills

Sherry A. Moyer

When people use the phrase “problem solving” the natural tendency is to assume that there is something wrong if you need to problem solve. The truth, however, is that everyone problem solves on some level continuously throughout their day. We decide what clothes to wear and what food to eat, and we prioritize our tasks and any number of the myriad other problem-solving opportunities that present themselves during the course of daily life. Most of us do these little things so routinely that we don’t even consciously think of “problem solving,” but for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), the process of problem solving can be quite a challenge (Minshew, Goldstein, & Siegel, 1997).

The focus of this article will be restricted to the very first and often overlooked step in the process. Long before we respond in any way to a situation that requires problem solving, we have to assess our circumstances. To have an accurate assessment of the situation, we need to understand the cause of events influencing our world. When people are involved, we also need some idea of what they might think or feel and their motivation for behaving the way they are. This concept constitutes what is known as theory of mind and is extremely difficult, if not absent altogether, for individuals with ASDs (Baron-Cohen, 1985; Baron-Cohen et al., 2000; Frith, Happe, & Siddons, 1994).

Assessing our circumstances is known as causal attribution. Attribution is our ability to accurately assign causation or motivation to another person’s thoughts, words, or deeds as well as the events that influence our world and our own achievement (Weiner, 1986). It is a key component skill of self-regulation and self-determined learning models (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994, 1998, Wehmeyer, Palmer, Agran, Mithaug, & Martin, 2000).

Without support or interventions, those who struggle with accurate attributions may become defensive in an effort to avoid unpleasant interactions. They may also appear unnecessarily aggressive or hostile in their responses to circumstances because they have assumed an incorrect causation or motivation and feel threatened in some way (Weiner, 1986). One study of adolescents with Aperger Syndrome showed that more than one third of study participants demonstrated these negative attributions styles and symptoms of depression (Barnhill & Myles, 2001).

The process of retraining attribution is a simple three-step process that helps to redirect inaccurate assessments in a cognitively oriented way, which by default removes much of the emotion and confusion from the process. Weiner (1986) found that humans attribute using the following three parameters

Is the issue internal or external in locus?
Did it happen because of something about you as a person?

Is the issue stable or unstable?
Do you get the same outcome every time?

Is it controllable or uncontrollable?
Can you influence the situation at all? Let’s take a look at the following real life example…

Situation: Shawn does well in most of his subjects at school except for math. When his parents question why there is such trouble with math he explains that there is nothing he can do about it because he has just “never been good at it and that will never change.”

Child Response: By analyzing Shawn’s response we can see that he has essentially learned to be “helpless” when it comes to math. Through his experiences he has decided he has no natural skills or talents in math and will have to live with it. He has closed his mind to any possibility for change which certainly does not support positive progress and can become very depressing for him.

Another Possible Explanation: If Shawn’s teacher and parents got together with him, perhaps they would find that there is a specific area of math that causes him more difficulty, a learning disability or attention deficits that cause him trouble during class. Arrangements could be made for a tutor or special accommodations that would allow him to find more success and a sense of control over his outcomes. Shawn would see possibilities for controlling the situation and then build on small successes until he gained confidence in his ability to achieve moderately well in math.

We can help individuals with ASD’s assess or attribute their circumstances by working through each of these questions systematically. Usually, the first or natural attribution of the situation isn’t quite accurate and falls into the negative or hostile pattern mentioned above, removing the perception that there are possibilities for improving the circumstances and increasing aggression unnecessarily. When the process is repeated with the support of a parent, teacher, or clinician, the result is often a more neutral or positively oriented attribution that does allow for consideration of possibilities to improve the situation. Here are a few hints for facilitating the attribution retraining process. Be sure to use all three parameters during the course of analyzing the issue at hand.

1. Start with concrete concepts or events and then move to abstract/socially based issues because those are more challenging.
2. Teach when everyone is calm!

For more information about using the attribution retraining process to support problem solving for young people with ASDs, email Sherry Moyer at

Sherry A. Moyer, B.S. Regional Asperger Consultant, NHS Human Services

Courtesy of AAPC

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