Big Picture

The big picture can be tricky to see sometimes. This is true for anyone but my students on the autism spectrum seem to consistently miss the grander scheme. I know why this happens for them. Their brains are gifted at minutia. Whether it be a piece of sensory information, remembering a long forgotten detail, or wanting to understand every aspect of one slice of the story, I know some students who excel at specifics. Whether it be verbal semantics or physical positioning, a person with ASD often has a clear picture of what is going on. But is their picture the big picture and is that important?

I would argue no and yes. No, their clear picture is not likely to also be the big picture and Yes, the big picture is important. It is through no fault other than their brain wiring that they have a clear picture but not a big picture. I don't fault people with ASD for this but I do challenge them to stretch their thinking. I am often corrected if I misspeak and I will reply with a simple, "I bet you still know what I meant even if I didn't use that word." Or when telling a story, if a student becomes tangential about a detail, I will make a confused face and draw their attention back to the main idea by saying something like, "that is a good detail, but I don't get what it has to do with __?" These are verbal examples but this kind of big picture thinking is practiced with non-verbal or more challenged students too. For example, I always slow down, bend down, and take a student by the hand to describe the big picture as I see it. At the swimming pool as the lesson is about to end, I focus on the incoming students and say, "I see more kids coming. Out turn is over and now it is their turn." Or in the hallway at school, I pause and point to the students walking and say, "I see the kids going to class. We can go to class." I don't expect these simple encounters to flip a switch in the person's head and make the big picture come to light. Instead, I think of each encounter as a small amount of light shining like a fader on a wall switch. Each encounter allows the big picture to come more into focus.

And the big picture is important. First, it is important for safety. One student I know has a large online presence but without a larger context, he has been the victim of hacking and trolling on the Internet. He doesn't understand that there are nefarious people out there and that not everyone is on YouTube for cat videos. But beyond safety, the big picture is what allows humans to be compassionate and forgiving, not just to others but to ourselves. Too often students are stuck in a right or wrong land that doesn't actually mean anything. The big picture give those rights and wrongs a reason for being. And what could be more important than that?