NLP and Autism

June 14, 2010

Michael and Rowan – a personal story

Rowan and I have decided to walk the Great Wall of China (well part of it) in October 2010 to raise funds for the National Autistic Society. This walk will be the first of the many adventures.  We are calling our project ‘Walking for Autism’.  Our goal is to raise funds and awareness of this condition.  In this article (as well as others) I will share my NLP experiences and my experience as a father. I hope I can help and support other parents guide their children and adults through the challenges that people on the autism spectrum face.  If you would like to support our walk by making a donation, there is a link to our ‘Just Giving’ page at the end of this article.

As a father, I have watched and coached Rowan through primary school, secondary school and college. Now Rowan is 21 there are new challenges such as supporting and guiding a young adult on the autistic spectrum through many social complications and getting a full time job. The frightening fact is only 1 in 5 adults on the spectrum are in full time employment.  Personally this statistic repulses me.  I find it sickening that in a modern and equal society, certain groups still remain marginalised. Anyone who knows me will confirm I am a deeply private person and have until now, never written up my experiences about how I have used NLP to support my son.  This is in part motivated by something quite fundamental in me, and that is a deep commitment for inclusiveness and equality in all parts of society and that includes my family.  After all, I didn’t write up about how I have used NLP with my other three (non autistic children) so why should Rowan be written about publicly or his case study feature in an NLP course?  I have taken a different stand on this now, with Rowan’s permission with the intention of raising awareness and funds.

Rowan is my eldest son, his mother and I were so proud (as we still are) on the day he came into this world on 7 April 1988. To me as a young man, being a Dad was a little scary, yet I was relishing the years ahead. From an NLP perspective, one builds internal representations (a mental future) of the father/son relationship unfolding through the years ahead. Rowan was a quiet baby and toddler. We didn’t realise at the time that this is one sign of autism in a child. Rowan in his early years demonstrated many other attributes associated with autism such as fixation on certain toys and games as well as slow language development.  One of his earliest fixations was Thomas the Tank Engine; he would play for hours with his Thomas the Tank toy and watch the videos many times. Then he got fixated on Mr Men where he could draw, with perfect detail, all the Mr Men characters. There have been many fixations since, the current one is 1970’s comedy shows, particularly Dad’s Army.  Fixations are one pattern that are a feature of autism, and in my opinion as long as they do not become obsessions they are harmless. In fact I take part in Rowan’s fixations; he is delighted when I watch Dad’s Army with him. Captain Mainwaring and his crew give us many useful discussion opportunities that I can map to real world situations.  In NLP this is an example of pacing and leading, an essential NLP skill.
Diagnosis of autism is a slow and complicated process and in some cases takes as long as 4 years.  We wanted a diagnosis so that Rowan could be eligible for extra support at school. However, we never used the label at home and Rowan and his younger siblings did not know what autism was for many years.  This was a personal choice that we made as parents. Labelling is only useful in helping parents research the condition to find support.  Labelling, if parents/family and teachers use the label to box the child or young person, becomes a constraint.

Acceptance is the most important element for a parent of a child on the autistic spectrum. The ‘state’ of accepting isn’t always easy for parents who have created in their minds (prior to diagnosis) what they perceive their relationship with their child might be like. Many parental expectations will change when a child is diagnosed. People on the autistic spectrum often enjoy their own company and may not want the rough and tumble of kicking a ball around a park with Dad, or other activities their parents consider to be normal. I think it is important as a parent to accept your child (whether autistic or not) for what that child is and not try to change your child for your own benefit to what you wish him/her to be.  By opening up and accepting, a rewarding parent/child relationship can emerge.  One father of a boy on the autistic spectrum told me he felt embarrassed with the way his son interacted publicly; I reframed this with an NLP ‘apply to self’ pattern, in that his son should be embarrassed to have such a Dad.  His eyes welled up with tears, this man wasn’t a bad man, he just wasn’t accepting his son and was overly concerned with social norms. As a parent of child with autism you have to accept that there will be social faux pas along the way, and your job is to educate and teach the social norms (if there such things ) and never be critical. A state of congruence, and not being overly bothered about what others think is useful here.

Since the mid 1980s one psychological explanation – the theory of mind (ToM) approach has been particularly influential in the diagnosis and creating interventions for autism. The theory of mind is said to be a person’s capability to interpret another’s emotions, beliefs and states. The philosopher Daniel Dennett’s (1978) pointed out that if a person was unable to recognise other people’s thoughts, beliefs and intentions, social interaction and communication would remain a mystery.  Many people on the autistic spectrum do find social interaction and communication a mystery. It has been said that people on the autistic spectrum are challenged with ToM and thus are less able to interpret another’s mental life. People on the spectrum are usually tested in ToM tasks as a part of their diagnosis.  From an NLP perspective ToM technically is the interpretation of another’s perspective from your first position (self). Another point of view is Hobson’s theory (1993). Peter Hobson argues that rather than processing information to derive conclusions about the thoughts and emotions of others (as in ToM), typically, developing children have an intuitive understanding of others feelings (Roth 2009). Hobson’s theory states for people to empathise they ‘feel for and with’ the other person.  So part of recognising an emotion involves experiencing something like they feel. Hobson’s theory fits well with NLP rapport, second position and micro muscle mirroring.

Multiple perceptual positions is a useful NLP tool for helping people access and experience the world in the perspective of another.  It fits with both the ToM approach and Hobson’s theory.  Second position, (stepping into another’s shoes) is a superb way to get empathy. At home, when our family was very young we used to play a family game called impersonations.  The only rule was that everyone had to play full out with the mimicry. I would lead off with an impersonation of a distant relative or friend who we don’t see much. Whoever guessed correctly would take a turn impersonating someone outside of the immediate family. As you can imagine, this was great fun. Slowly we would work in to closer relatives and friends and the final impressions were of immediate family members. The children would impersonate a whole host of people including siblings and parents.  I found these games fascinating, my kids perceptions of me was real eye opener.  From an NLP perspective we were all accessing different perceptual filters. In each new character we changed physiology, voice tone, breathing patterns and so on. This game was of great assistance in helping Rowan (and my other kids) develop their interpretation of others’ internal processes and develop empathy skills. It was also a great way for us as a family to get precise feedback of how other family members perceived our individual behaviour. Moving forward 15 years or so Rowan has superb empathy skills that he puts to use regularly in his volunteer work, family and social life.

In the impersonations game, Rowan also accessed increased communication capabilities through tonal variation and intonation when in a different character.  The family always thought we were just playing, which we were, but we were playing with a purpose in mind. The intervention was created to work on multiple levels but the design was a game that we were all a part of. We all learned about ourselves and others in the game. Rowan wasn’t singled out for sessions with his NLP Dad or surrogate Uncle,  John Grinder, if he was singled out he would have resisted, and rightly so.

In NLP we have a Meta program called chunk size.  Meta programs can be seen as filters that determine how we unconsciously select what we pay attention to.  With chunk size filters, some people like the just the big picture, some people like the detail. Some people like the detail first which seems to be less frequent. Uta Frith, a leading developmental psychologist working at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London , was one of the first to propose that a strong bias towards detail could be a core processing deficit in autism in 1989 . She suggests the majority of people focus on form and meaning rather than specific details. So if recalling a film, most people will talk about the theme or gist and not exact details about what a character said. Frith called the focus on form and meaning as ‘central coherence’. People on the autism spectrum, often are said to pay attention to detail at the expense of the overall form and meaning, and this processing style is known as ‘weak central coherence’.

I am amazed at the level of detail Rowan can describe to me about a given event he has attended. He can recall specific details, that occurred on specific dates at specific times going back years. The challenge is that the details do not always connect. A person on the autistic spectrum will often be fascinated with details, for example they might stare at the micro patterns on a painted wall for ages. Others will enjoy specific details in their favourite books or films. I don’t think a tendency for detail needs to be seen as a deficit as Uta Frith suggests. I propose teaching people flexibility, which in this case would mean stepping back and seeing the form and the meaning or connecting the details to create form and meaning.

In NLP taking a third position, stepping back and viewing the relationships between people and events helps people connect to the big picture, or as Frith would say – develop central coherence. Chunking up questions is useful as well,  including the intention frame for self and others, what is my intention here, what is your intention?  Or, what are examples of this?  When I taught Rowan the intention questions, I did so on the premise that it was a way of establishing where other people were coming from.  He used the intention question routinely for a while. I would be overly caught in the detail deliberately, so he could use the intention question on me.  In the responses he received from other people he was unconsciously learning to ‘chunk up’ and recognise how details relate to form and meaning.  This was a particularly useful way of creating a context where my son could learn new skills without ever empathising , what could be perceived by Frith as a processing deficit (weak central coherence). In addition, the intention questions deliver information from detail to overall form from another’s perspective, this would have helped Rowan with his theory of mind skills.

I want to emphasise that my relationship with Rowan is a two way learning exchange, I have learnt so much from Rowan. He is a beautiful young man who is intelligent, tender and loving. He volunteers in an organisation assisting children who have severe learning and physical difficulties.  He also volunteers at Age Concern.  Both of these jobs require an ability to utilise the skills I have written about in this article (and many more) i.e. being able empathise and experience the world from multiple perspectives and see the big picture.

In this article, I have shared how two NLP formats, perceptual positions and chunking up can be used with a child on the autistic spectrum.  I did not use these NLP formats in a standard way, I rarely do. The tools are much more powerful when deployed covertly. In future articles, I will write about state interventions, language and breaking patterns. I have a lot to share and hopefully the information can be of use to other parents, carers and teachers.

Rowan and I will be walking the Great Wall of China on 23 – 30th October. We are raising funds for the National Autistic Society. Your support would be truly appreciated. You can donate on our Just Giving page


Dennett, D (1978) Brainstorms; Philosophical essays on mind and psychology. Montgomery, VT, Bradford Books and Hassocks, Sussex, Harvester
Frith, U (1989), Autism: explaining the enigma: Oxford Blackwell Publishing
Roth, I (2009) The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century:  The Open University, Milton Keynes

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