How Would A Child with Autism Read this Common Core Aligned Test Question?

Can a lawnmower “speak to you”?


I’ve heard from mothers of children with autism and read in accounts from autistic adults such as Temple Grandin that these children (and adults) have difficulty in thinking abstractly.  Grandin has written about how she thinks visually when presented with a concept.  From My Mind is a Web Browser: How People With Autism Think:

Also, I understand concepts visually. For example, all objects classified as keys will open locks. I realize that the word “key” can also be used metaphorically, when we say, “the key to success is positive thinking.” When I think about that phrase, I see Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, and I see myself back at my aunt’s ranch reading it. I then see a stage where a person is getting an award and I see a large cardboard key. Even in this situation, the key still unlocks the door to success. The ability to form categories is the beginning of the ability to form concepts. Keys in their physical form open physical locks but abstract keys can open many things, such as a scientific discovery or career success.

She explains her decision making process when confronted with a situation:

I see the decision-making process in my mind in a way most people do not. When I tried to explain this to a person who thinks in language, he just didn’t get it. How my decision-making works is most clearly seen in an emergency.

On a bright, sunny day, I was driving to the airport when an elk ran into the highway just ahead of my car. I had only three or four seconds to react. During those few seconds, I saw images of my choices. The first image was of a car rear ending me. This is what would have happened if I had made the instinctive panic response and slammed on the brakes. The second image was of an elk smashing through my windshield. This is what would have happened if I had swerved. The last image showed the elk passing by in front of my car. The last choice was the one I could make if I inhibited the panic response and braked just a little to slow the car. I mentally “clicked” on slowing down and avoided an accident. It was like clicking a computer mouse on the desired picture.

She doesn’t think as the same person who thinks in language.  In a speech this year she criticized Common Core and its abstraction needed to be successful for children with autism.  From Grandin down on common core, says world needs a variety of thinking models:

It is important for teachers to know, Grandin said, that many autistic students use bottom-up thinking, not top-down, meaning that they learn from example and specific behaviors, not in abstract.

Read this passage from Test Anxiety: Common Core Exam Questions Are Made Public and try to think of the right answer if have autistic tendencies or it is difficult for you to think in the abstract.  This question was for fourth graders:

Or how they would answer this question about a boy learning to drive a lawn mower: “In paragraph 8, when the narrator says that the mower spoke to him, he most likely meant that he suddenly: became more confident about using the mower; enjoyed the sound of the running motor of the mower; understood how the different parts of the mower work; became more interested in using the mower to make money.”

I hope moms with children with autism will chime in and let us know how their children answered that question.  When I first read it, my first response was maybe the narrator needed to be taken in and examined by a psychiatrist if a mower spoke to him.  I don’t think this is an indication that I have autistic qualities but if I am reading a story about a boy learning how to drive a lawn mower, I wouldn’t expect a question about the mower, an inanimate object, speaking to the main character.

What do you think of this question for any “common” 4th grade child?  In the comment section, I was surprised to see that not one commentator mentioned the difficulty for children who just don’t think abstractly.  How do you score children on a common test who don’t think “common”?  Who don’t think in language?  Can we determine that there is no “common” appropriate standard for every child?





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  1. Avatar

    After refusing the state testing for my 4th grader with Aspergers, our school gave us a hard time, so we started homeschooling last Fall. However, I asked my 10 year old what he thought it meant if he read a story about a boy learning to use a lawn mower, and the story said the mower to spoke to him. He began to laugh and imitated the lawn mower saying “Hey, quit pushing me around.”This is the answer I expected form him. He thinks in literal terms first and foremost. After giving him the choices, he picked what I perceived as the correct answer. I asked him how he decided that was right and he said, because he thought it was the one that might make the most sense. It was still a guess. He had no idea if he was right.

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    I know my son (9th grade) would only think of this question concretely. He would NEVER understand it without spelling out for him that it is “an expression,” and then explaining that this particular expression means one of those options. He requires step by step explanations, and still he can only think concretely on his own. He has to be REMINDED to go through the steps in his mind — EVERY TIME he encounters something like this. If he were to see the question again the next day, he may or may not remember that this was an expression, and that he is supposed to determine which choice that it means. In other words, he would NEVER be able to think without prompting, “Hey, I wonder if that is an expression…”

    Also, I know my son. If he were to read this EXACT question, he would probably automatically picture the tractor-tipping scene from the movie “Cars,” and picture the tractor speaking. EVERYTHING to him has only a literal, concrete meaning, unless clearly explained to him that it is an expression. I shall show this to him later, and hope he proves me wrong — that he has progressed.

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    this is interesting to me because i think in pictures quite often too. i wonder if some kids are lost in school because a variety of learning styles aren’t embraced. i don’t have autism. i had a.d.d. long before it was understood and therefore i was labeled, lazy, easily distracted, fidgity, feather-headed and a host of others. some teachers admitted i was intelligent, but just didn’t appyly myself. as an adult i have discovered my mind doesn’t work like most and neither does my daughters and grandkids. we are learning to embrace our incredible brains and are trying to discover the best way to engage them. we are very creative, but i also have a strange connection with numbers; i seem to remember numbers much more readily than names and other details. the only real disibility (aside from my spelling issues today!) is in not welcoming our uniqueness and finding ways to become our most awesome self, not another cookie-cutter-drone. 🙂

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    I can’t answer your question about how my child with autism answered that question because I refused to allow my third grader to take the state’s standardized test last year, and plan to do so until several things change about the system that is currently used in my state to measure a student’s progress. It is because of the lack of accommodations in the test, ridiculous questions like the one above, that are painful to the student’s who are “hyper literal”. Terms like “cut it out” or “knock it off” bother him – he has no idea how to process those statements. CC$$ tries to cram students like my son into yet another pigeon hole – make them another brick in the wall – but does little to allow the student to demonstrate where he or she is very adept and adroit.

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