Posted by: CJ | January 30, 2009

Can’t vs. Won’t

As a big disclaimer, I don’t know what exact issues I have or had in childhood, so I’m not claiming I have some sort of high-functioning autism. But I did have a lot of characteristics similar to it, so I think reading about it is worthwhile regardless. Which is how, a few months ago, I found a great article on children and autism.  Some of the things are easy to understand, like that a child with autism is a child first, is a concrete enough thinker (so some expressions and idioms just will not make sense), and unconditional love is required. Some of them show that more work is required from a parent, such as a great deal of help with social interactions, or figuring out how and when meltdowns occur. (The latter is particuarly important because it’s likely the child won’t be able to discern the pattern themselves or abstract away enough to find ways to avoid or short-circuit the process.)

But the one that I found most interesting was the distinction between can’t and won’t, and I think in ways it’s the most important one. When you’re dealing with someone with certain autism-like patterns, there are some things that they don’t do which are immensely frustrating because they seem so simple. But it’s not always just because they so scared of it that they won’t do it, or that they’re too innatentive, or even that they’re ignoring you. It sometimes just that they honestly can’t function in a certain way. This is particularly true of social interactions, or sensory perceptions, or even just certain modes of thought. What’s even more pernicious about it is they sometimes can do it but it not only takes training but also effort and concentration, to the extent that they can’t do it all the time. In those cases they need to not be pushed beyond their limits, since that can risk all sorts of hellish meltdowns.

The big immediate question for these children, then, is how to handle the difference. For this I don’t have any good answers and I suspect that it depends on the individual child. Of course, recognizing their issues and starting to deal with them as gently but also as early as possible is the most important thing. But that’s also in an ideal world. What scares me is the thought of a parent or teacher or peer trying to force a child who can’t do X just because the person thinks the child merely won’t do X or doesn’t want to do X. While I’ve never or rarely had to deal with that, it’s easy enough for me to envision to give me pause.



  1. ummm….I can discuss this in much more detail. Wonder why….good intro to a HUGE topic.

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