“I’d like to work with senior citizens,” said my daughter.
“Do you think those people will like your hair? I am a realist,” said the professional job coordinator.
My daughter’s head tilted.
“I am a realist. Do you think those people will like your make up?” she continued, not waiting for a reply.
My daughter’s eyes squinted.
“Do you think those people will like your earrings? I am a realist, I am just being a realist,” she said.
Silence—We were safe, I noted my daughter’s eyes glaze as she moved into her inner world. My daughter is an adult navigating an abstract world with concrete thinking and an auditory processing disorder. When she asks for my services I am her cognitive translator. I interpret what has been said in abstraction into concise language. She did not signal me to react, so in this case. I remained silent.
I wondered, “what she was hearing compared to what I had heard?” I was stunned.
Safe in the car I asked, “What did you think of the job coordinator.”
My daughter answered promptly, “Who was that? I didn’t get why a Realtor cared about how I looked, Grandma always says she likes my hair and make up. And Grandma’s friend told me to get more piercings and said she’d do it herself if she was my age. That Realtor was weird, she was wrong about people like grandma.”
Step One – Recognize concrete vs abstract thought processing —
For those of us who live, laugh, work and love persons with concrete thinking we sometimes “get it” and sometimes we don’t. We are often so busy living our lives that we miss the understanding of the person we are trying to mark trails for success and plant opportunities of learning.
Instructions given by professionals, parents, caregivers, teachers and other people close to the person with concrete thinking must take their thought process and life experiences into into consideration at each step of communication or instruction.
Here’s an example:
“Emotions are like waves, you simply ride them up and ride them down,” said the therapist who repeated her statement three times for understanding, moving her hand up and down like a wave and finally finishing with “You ride it up and down.”
In the car, I encourage playback of what happened in the session and work through additional understanding.
“You know what I don’t get?” my daughter asked.
“How come she wanted me to get in a wagon and ride up and down.”
I translated what the therapist was trying to explain and how emotions can be loud or calm, big or small, how the energy we feel in our body can be different at different times. We talked together about examples of loud emotions and calm emotions and when they happen and how they change.
Then we talked about what the waves in an ocean are like – we live in Minnesota – and how they work — even Lake Superior waves are not very ocean like.
Find the love in each stepping stone.
Step Two – Recognize concrete thought processing is a valuable skill and honor it —
Concrete words name and describe things in detail. They provide clear direction, and what you say is what you get. My friend, is a manager in manufacturing and he shared how he values the people doing visual inspection of his products versus the robotics and machines they had implemented.
“I would put my functional employees up against my abstract thinking employees, visual computerization and robotics on any given day. My functional teams would beat them hands down in quality, consistency and skill. I have one department I’ve been thinking of changing to the employees who understand what I need and once I tell them what the job is that I need complete—it is exactly what they do.”
A word, picture (sign) or phrase is concrete if:
- It provides specific meaning.
- It is specific, particular, real and tangible
It is characterized by or belonging to immediate experience of actual things or events
- Is factual
A word, picture (sign) or phrase is abstract if:
- There is little or no attempt at written pictorial representation or narrative content
- It is unclear, indefinite, imprecise, indistinct, slight, hazy, vacant or obscure
- The words or phrases do not provide specific meaning
- It is insufficiently factual
- It has only intrinsic form
National Security Example:
“____, return to Homeland Security. _____, return to Homeland Security.”
I looked at my daughter, “What did you do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I forgot something,” she answered and we trucked back up the concourse to miss our plane and see what we forgot.
“Are you ____?” the uniformed agent asked my daughter.
“Yes, I am,” she answered.
“Were you carrying a lighter?”
“Were you carrying a lighter?”
“You were carrying a lighter?”
“No, I put it in my sock so I wasn’t carrying it.”
My daughter is beautiful and no one would realize she had a hidden difference. “We are heading to a conference to speak on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, my daughter has a brain injury. She is answering you honestly.”
I pulled out our book, The Best I Can Be, Living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“Your sign was wrong,” my daughter said.
“What do you mean?” asked the agent
“Your sign said, do not carry lighter, so I put it in my sock so I wouldn’t carry it. You should put a lighter with a circle and line through it. Then I would have thrown it away.”
On our return flight, my daughter noticed that all the signs had been changed in ALL THREE AIRPORTS – Kentucky – Chicago – Minneapolis.
Step Three – Persons with concrete thinking may hide —
He is so witty and funny and expressive! But what if what you thought was funny was actually the way that persons understood what you said. What if the question you asked was also the question that person answered. What if what you asked was a matter of life or death?
||Winner 2012 Best USA
Books – Young Adult
Fiction, Mom’s Choice
Gold Fiction – Adults
and Young Adults
Excerpt from The Whitest Wall
Turner pressed record. “Are you Kevin James Abbott?”
Turner recited the Miranda warning. “Do you understand?”
“Can you sign this paper that says I have read you your rights?”
“Sure.” Kevin liked signing his name.
“Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes.” Kevin knew he was innocent. He hated Doc Johnson, but hating someone was no good reason to kill him. He’d tell the truth for a ‘stay out of jail’ pass. He was a good talker and had bamboozled his way out of police situations before. What was that word—no contesto, no commento? Kevin fixated on a small black fly as it walked across the table.
“Kevin, do you know why you’re here?”
“I killed Doc Johnson?”
Turner was surprised the confession came so easily. “Did you have an altercation with him?”
“Tell me when Doc Johnson made you mad?” Turner sat back and relaxed with his arms behind his head. Kevin’s eyes rolled up to scan from left to right. He was quiet. Turner waited and smiled.
Step 4 – Realize it is brain based and for some people it cannot be altered Sometimes the path and stepping stones we follow can get a bit messy. Sometimes they seem to have random patterns we find hard to understand.
Concrete ideas are usually visible and objective.
Thoughts in concrete thinking are derived from the senses touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste). Thinking is characterized by actual words, objects, events and the absence of concepts and generalizations. Therefore, problem solving is accomplished in a concrete, systematic fashion based on what is perceived, keeping to the literal meaning of words, as in applying the word dog to a particular animal and not to all dogs.
Most children move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking between the ages of seven and eleven. These children begin to process ideas that involve complex visual or language-based ideas that are not easily associated with concrete ideas.
Abstract ideas are often invisible, complex, and subjective. Abstract words refer to concepts or ideas-things you cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Examples include; love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy, and any -ism.
Children entering abstract operations began to understand the meaning of things learned with a desire of trying to explain the how and why. They begin to interpret, summarize, and discuss. As they progress they are able o break down knowledge into parts and show relationships through comparison, experimenting, and categorizing. Eventually the production of something original is brought together from the components of previous knowledge and they are able to make judgements based on established criteria.
A child with organic brain injury may progress into adulthood with concrete thinking. What I have observed with these adults is that they ARE ABLE to compare, categorize, experiment, judge and produce original work, but they do it with tangible information. The ability to have SMART concrete thought is a value in today’s information abstract world. We must learn to understand and value it. One of the FASD Survival Strategy Teachers I consider a friend explains, “My mind walks, it doesn’t jog. If my world gets too loud, I have to find space to quiet my brain.”
Anne Russell from Australia gives an excellent example: “One young woman with FASD was told, ‘Don’t come home after dark,’ so she stayed out on the porch all night.” This is an example of a person with organic brain damage trying to do the right thing but because of the injury to her brain was unable to be sufficiently flexible to see that the instruction meant something different.
Last week my husband had a conference to attend, and after dinner, one of my adults piped up, “Dad saw Superman today.”
“How did he do that?” I asked knowing he is not a great fan and he had not told me anything about it in the morning.
“He drove his car,” answered the man looking at me like my brains had just fallen out of my head.
“Ya, you know – rectangular box with wheels and a steering wheel,” chimed in another.
I laughed at them poking fun of me.
Later alone, with my husband I asked, “How’d you get to Superman today?”
He answered quickly, “After we had lunch at the conference, they passed out 3D glasses and told us they had a surprise – our classes were over and we got to watch the premier showing before it was available to the public.”
Step 5 – Know the difference and appreciate when you fall in between the cracks
Be aware of what you are saying – all the time.
- Understand that if the person is doing something that you have expressly told them not to it may to YOUR CHOICE OF WORDS
- Review your instruction and see if the person has translated what you said literally.
- Did you use specific language: people, places, numbers, dates, and details.
- Be wary of particularly ambiguous terms.