People with autism spectrum and related disorders have a preference and a tendency to engage in “Instrumental” rather than “Experience Sharing” interactions.

Instrumental social behaviors are a means to achieving an end; they have little to do with the specific person with whom we interact.  Experience Sharing on the other hand, has as its focal point, the pleasure derived from specific social encounters as a unique end in itself Steven Gutstein

At first glance, the differences appear simple and straightforward.  However, upon closer inspection, distinguishing between these two forms of interaction is not as easy as expected. Instrumental Interactions and Experience Sharing are similar in five ways:

  • The same behavior can be used for both purposes.
  • The same activity can have both Instrumental and Experience Sharing goals.
  • The purpose of Student’s play can be either Instrumental or Experience Sharing.
  • Both types of behavior can produce emotional reactions.
  • Conversational formats can be used for both types of interactions.

… How, then, can we reliably distinguish Instrumental interactions from two Experience Sharing behavior?…

  •  The predictability of the end product: We engage in Instrumental interactions with a clear goal in mind.  There is something very specific we expect to receive by taking certain actions with another person.  Furthermore, we become quite disappointed if we take the requisite actions and do not receive the expected result.  In contrast, Experience Sharing occurs for no particular reason.  It is undertaken without any clear objective, except the enjoyment or positive feelings we derived from the interaction.
  • The relationship of the partner to the goal: In the Instrumental encounters, we engage other people because there is something we wish to obtain from them — information, an object, or participation in an activity.  Other people are agents, perceived as necessary only to deliver the product to us.  If we can achieve our goal without interaction, we will do so….
  • The interchangeability of partners: Any partner who knows the right rules and possess the necessary knowledge or skill will serve in an Instrumental encounter.  In this respect, partners are fairly interchangeable.  We may also — and in a decidedly detached manner — exchange a partner with whom we have shared experiences for a new inexperienced partner, if the new partner is more willing to provide us with what we seek out of the interaction.  In  contrast, memories of shared experience with a particular person greatly enhance the pleasure of Experience Sharing.  Our relationships are strengthened by the perception of a shared past and potential common future.  In addition, we learn that partners who are aware of each other’s unique ways of relating have an easier time maintaining the relationship.
  • Reliance on scripts and rules: Instrumental interactions follow highly predictable scripts and roles enacted in a specific order.  Once the scripts and roles are learned and can be performed on cue, participants believe that they should be successful most of the time in achieving their objectives.  It’s like playing the same videotape over and over.  In contrast, Experience Sharing depends upon partners constantly evaluating the degree to which there is a “match” between their experience and that of their partner(s).
  • The need for emotional communication: People may have emotional reactions while engaged in, or as a result of Instrumental interactions, but emotional communication is not necessary for success.  Participants can largely ignore each other’s emotional reactions and still attain their desired objectives.
Instrumental v. Experience Sharing Interactions

Instrumental interaction is task oriented and hence is the type of language used for task performance. Interaction occurs mainly or solely to obtain something wanted or needed from another person.  If either communication partner can obtain the information without interacting, he or she will, and we often see people with autism doing exactly that.  Here are some typical characteristics of instrumental (static)  interaction and communication….

  • There is a maximum of predictability and minimum of uncertainty.
  • There is a heavy reliance on rigid scripts, rules, and role actions.
  • There is an expectation of highly predictable sequences of actions taken by both partners and highly specific, predictable end products. Hence, there is very little need to anticipate changes or adapt quickly or flexibly
  • Failure to reach the expected end point can lead to frustration and/or anger.

Despite shared history, partners in instrumental relating may be interchangeable so long as they possess requisite skills and knowledge.

Experience Sharing interaction is quite different.  Experience sharing is new every time. The positive anticipation of unplanned results is a critical reason to engage in the interaction.  We interact for novel experience.   Interaction is conducted mainly to create a unique, shared experience with a partner that cannot be duplicated through individual actions.  Prior history with partners makes future interactions more satisfying.  Partners are highly valued for prior shared emotional experiences.   Experience Sharing interaction is only partially reliant on rules and role actions.  Mostly rely on both partners’ ongoing observations and actions to maintain mutual understanding and coordination.

Static v. Dynamic Systems

Characteristics of Dynamic Systems
  • A dynamic system is fluid – it is marked by continuous and spontaneous change
  • A dynamic system is constructed to manage a great deal of novel information
  • Novel information is produced through the interaction of the elements (participants)
  • Cannot be overly restrictive -  the system is regulated and maintained only partially through its structural elements
  • No specific end product to guide behavior.
  • Participants cannot count on a specific chain of actions to provide predictability.

What then keeps the system from degenerating into chaos? Ongoing co-regulatory actions are employed in place of specific structural elements.  Participants reference the emotional reactions of their partner(s) on a moment to moment basis and use the information to determine whether they should increase, or decrease, the level of variation – in other words, they exhibit emotional coordination. Characteristics of Static SystemsA static system is mostly unchanging.  It is marked by predictability and stable outcomes.

  • Created to limit the flow of new information into the system
  • System members are assured of highly predictable outcomes.
  • Critical for many of our society social functions

Static Systems rely on:

  • Specific rules
  • Repeatable sequences of actions
  • Clear outcomes (right or wrong answers; no gray areas)
  • As a result, static systems are relatively simple to teach in a scripted manner
  • They require little ongoing maintenance actions by system members
  • People are relatively interchangeable – as long as they follow the prescribed rules and scripts
  • As opposed to fluid systems, adding novel information or attempting to vary the structure in a static system is viewed as disruptive.  System members typically try to sanction or exclude people who persist in such actions.

We note here that the above sets of skills comprise the vast  majority if not entire curriculum of most conventional ABA curricula!

Management of Anxiety/Distress

In the face of anxiety or uncertainty, one’s choices are… To close the system and seek more control

  • Static systems lower anxiety because they are predictable
  • Static systems require tracking fewer variables and elements, and therefore require less mental processing
  • Static systems rely on procedural and/or declarative memory systems [←needs links]
  • Withdrawing and isolating are ways of forming a static system
  • Becoming rigid and controlling is another “static system” type defense mechanism to manage anxiety (child controls variance)

To open the system: seek dynamic information

  • Understanding the other person’s point of view can reduce anxiety
  • Understanding the feelings and intentions of others can also reduce anxiety
  • Sharing one’s own point of view influences others in the same way

Difficulty managing uncertainty – or the lack of dynamic thinking and processing skills required to do so, explains the need for defensive reactions from children with neuroregulatory disorders.  The common terms we use such as “rigidity,” and “desire for sameness” may merely describe defensive behavior.  Defensive behaviors can come in many forms, but are usually described by people as passive (e.g., ignoring; withdrawing; helplessness; purposeful forgetting, etc.) or active forms (e.g. protesting; aggression, etc.) of resistance.

Communication Dysfunction

Communication dysfunction should be considered as a secondary deficit (this is not necessarily Gutstein’s or Sheely’s view).

I maintain that social communication evolved and evolves to support interaction.  Because Experience Sharing is typically not a goal in the interactions of people with autism, there is little impetus to develop what is called “Declarative” forms of communication.

Declarative vs. Imperative Communication

Imperatives are statements made when a definite response is in mind.  They include communication with the function of directing, questioning, requesting, demanding, prompting, and other forms that refer to specific, right or wrong responses Declaratives on the other hand are statements meant to simply share observations, feelings, and emotions.  These would include comments, observations, declarations, reflections, etc., that do not require (but usually evoke much better than imperatives) responses.  Declaratives are not necessarily right or wrong.  There can be many right answers. Typical communication contains 80% declarative communication, and 20% imperative communication. Studies with people who have autism show that less than 1% of communication used is declarative.

Using declarative communication can make a dramatic difference. Declarative communication removes the pressure off of the Student to perform and provide the right answer. Declaratives are invitations to interact, while questions are typically cues to provide a right answer. Declarative communication is more than just a way of talking. It is a way of interacting/being with another person. It is taking a side by side position with another person, where you look out at the world together. Declarative communication uses language forms that involve relative thinking processes — they imply that between two speakers there can be different views of reality. Examples of declarative language include invitations (“Let’s play with cars”), declamations (“I’m tired of playing with cars!”), self-narratives (“I’m walking over to the table to pick up some cars.), indirect prompts (“Now is a good time to decide which car you want to play with”), celebrations (We did it!), etc. It is common belief that ASD children suffer from processing disorders. It seems to me that the common practice, however, is to use the ‘inverted funnel’ approach. They can process less, so we, in error, pour in more. Further, we become entrenched in testing/probing for signs of knowledge I ask and they give the correct answer, then they ‘know.’ If indeed their pathways are more restricted it would seem that we would be very judicious in communicative approaches. Ironically, whether we are Guides, Specialists, Teachers… we simply use imperatives FAR more frequently with fragile children than we do with typically-developing children. We are bothered by the lack of communicative initiation of spectrum children and go to great lengths to hear them speak. However, setting them up in roles of Responder for the vast majority of the time will likely only encourage their isolation, their lack of self and their lack of initiative.

Imperative v. Declarative communication

Imperative communication is preferred by people with autism spectrum and related disorders because it is the language of predictable responding, whereas declarative communication comprises about 80% of the utterances for the rest of us. Imperative languageis the language used most in static systems, whereas declarative language is the language used mostly in dynamic, experience-sharing systems. Imperative language functions and forms usually require a “right or wrong” or yes/no answer (digital); is used to obtain an answer or (functional) information, and;  is the kind of language that often can be replaced by a computer.

Imperative forms of relating and communicating are the most common skills taught to individuals with autism.  This is because it plays into their autistic strengths of rote memorization and responding – hence, they are simply easier to teach.  They can be rehearsed and there is usually a limited set of correct responses to memorize. They are not necessarily the most important or “applied” skills as they tend to promote terse and instrumental relating.

Imperative language tends to shorten and shut down interactions.  They can put people on the defensive or make them feel pressured to produce a correct response.  Monologues are forms of static systems often observed in speakers who have autism.  They are not open or they do not require adjustment to incoming information and they require little referencing of the listener. Declarative language is the language used in dynamic systems.  It is used primarily for the purposes of sharing experiences, information, feelings, ideas, perceptions, memories, etc.  This enables true dialogues, but they require complex and multi-layered processing of incoming information for meaning, and for formulating responses (based on the meaning of incoming information).  It requires anticipating various (rather than singular, right or wrong) consequences of the responses.

Conclusion: People with Autism show differences primarily in the functional or purposeful use of communication.  Instrumental, or “task oriented” communication is easier because the context or the task provides a limited but clear set of communications that can be taught as memorized scripts. Instrumental communication requires less (in some cases much less) active mental processing, instead relying on overlearned procedural and declarative forms of memory (facts; statistics, etc.).

Instrumental interactions form static systems. Static systems feature stability and predictability, and they rely on forms of thinking and memory that represent strengths for many people with difficulties with relating and communicating.  Static systems serve a needed purpose in our lives, but they are out of place in social interactions that value spontaneity and variation.  

Social interactions for the purposes of sharing each other’s experience form dynamic systems. Partners maintain the stability of the system by constantly making adjustments to “feedback” from other members of the interaction and unplanned events that occur (hence a dynamic system).  People with difficulties with the kinds of quick and variable thinking can get lost or confused in dynamic systems. They may either withdraw, or try to impose a static systems on others (which can make partners uncomfortable because the previously open system now feels scripted, repetitive, circular, or otherwise rigid and constricting).

Imperative communication is the language of static systems and instrumental social interaction, whereas, declarative language is about sharing. Instrumental language is good for tasks since it relies on unchanging facts or repeatedly necessary social scripts (e.g., manners) that can be learned, memorized and implemented rotely.  Social scripts are easier to teach for this reason and accounts for why most “social skills” classes focus on social stories and scripts.

The ability to spout the proper social script in a given social situation is limited as you might imagine, since there is so much natural variation in even our task oriented conversation. But this is operating from memory – not from real events in the here and now, and scripts and rules often lead to odd matches with the current context.  Further, the person can become even less connected to the “here-and-now” of the interaction because she expends so much mental energy searching for “the right” response. This cause the person to “go up in their heads” more and pay less attention to the dynamic feedback going on in real time. 

By using declarative language more, you model how to share subjective experience. You give enough of an example that it is easier for every type of person to respond. In other words, most people “open up” and share more (even if just to disagree!) when you stimulate conversation with declarative, rather than imperative language.