Making Associations and Learning

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“There is nothing in this one.”

I look down at the table and see a postcard, I believe advertising the price of mulch, ripped in one hundred pieces.

“There is nothing in what?” I ask Declan, with a perplexed look on my face.

With wide, matter of fact eyes, Declan takes a big sniff.

“This package is empty,” he says pointing to the pile of postcard shreds on the table and walks away.


About a week ago the entire family was searching high and low trying to find THE Spiderman for bed.  It had to be the 2 inch Spiderman, with the silver spider on his chest, right thumb down.  We must have found 20 of these 2 inch Spiderman figures.  But something was wrong with each one of them.  Declan was distraught.  Declan of course wants to sleep with his beloved, but is also concerned for the Spiderman’s well-being.  Is he okay?

We finally appease Declan and let him know Spiderman is going to be okay.  He has Captain America with him.  We will get on the computer and find a new Spiderman figure, with the silver spider on his chest, right thumb down.  The mail will bring him to us in a couple of days.

Declan checked the mailbox  with such fervor and was thrilled when the package finally arrived.  To be honest, we all were.  We all jumped for joy when the 2 inch Spiderman, with the silver spider on his chest, right thumb down arrived.  Sleep was restored!

Checking the mail became a part of Declan’s routine.  Everyday he took out the mail and would shred a piece.  It was until he told me, “there is nothing in this package” that I realized what was happening.

Associative Learning and Autism

We all learn by making associations, including individuals with autism as discussed here.  We look for a relationship between two items and draw a conclusion.  One of the most famous examples of associative learning was the experiment by Pavolv’s dogs.  In the experiment Pavlov rang a bell (the stimulus) and then offered the dogs food.  Eventually the dogs would salivate to the sound of the ringing bell.  They associated the bell with food, and salivation became a learned behavior.

But sometimes we draw the wrong conclusion based on the associations we see.

In our house we used to play the game PIE!  This game involved picking up a throw pillow and putting it in the face of a loved one, yelling “PIE!” as if we were putting a cream pie in their face.  When it was Declan’s turn, he was ecstatic, laughing uproariously.  Declan pulled the drawer out of a sofa end table and threw it at someone’s face.

To him the pillow was just an object.  So was the end table drawer.

Declan drew the wrong conclusions based on his associations.  To him:

“If it comes in the mail, it is a package.”

“If you play PIE! you throw an object at someone’s face.”

When I am looking at the end result of Declan’s thinking process, I sometimes have to back track the thought process to see where the learning error is.  I see a postcard ripped up on the table.  Declan said there was nothing in his package.  Declan got a package a few days ago.  He opened a box and got out a toy.  He thinks the postcard might hold a new toy.  Oh, okay.

“Declan a package is a box.”

It is not always this easy.  But did n’t I hear the next day.

“I want to open a package.  Was there a box in the mail today?”

And a good association was made.  Learning!