An Overlooked Consequence of Trump’s Rhetoric: Kids With Autism Are Taking It Literally

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Over the past few days, as members of the media have begun their election postmortem, several have returned to an argument about Donald Trump that Salena Zito made in The Atlantic back in September: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” How literally we should take him now is still up in the air, but there’s one group in particular that’s having an especially difficult time with that question: children with autism, who take things more literally than most.

At the Pediatric Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, which provides outpatient care for kids with developmental and neurological disorders, psychologists have spent the campaign season working to accommodate their clients’ Trump-related anxieties into regular treatment. Science of Us talked to three staff members about how their clients have been handling the election: Nancy Grace, the clinic’s director, Rochelle Schatz (disclosure: she’s a good friend of mine), and Daisy Bueno, both doctoral interns in behavioral psychology.

A common worry among her clients’ parents, Bueno says, is that their children will mimic some of the offensive things Trump has said about women and minorities. “They’re concerned,” she says, that his new title will confer a halo of acceptability on unacceptable things — “that they’re going to be more inclined to imitate because it looks like it’s okay to do that since he is the president, or will be the president.” There’s also the concern that some of his more inflammatory statements will be used in scripting (when people with autism continuously repeat certain words or phrases out of context).

On the flip side, the clinic also sees kids who are dealing with their own fears about a Trump presidency. One of her young clients, Schatz says, has been dealing with increasing anxiety symptoms in the lead-up to this week: “This was something we had been working on regularly in our sessions, being able to control certain things and not others, and this was a situation that would be out of his control,” she says.

Something like the election, Schatz adds, can be a common anxiety trigger: “Many of the kids that we have here have ongoing issues related to anxiety,” she says, “and oftentimes a lot of situations in the world — whether they’re big issues like this one is, even for typically developing people, or smaller things — can be made into a sort of big fear in terms of impacting daily life.” For example, “some of them are picking up on phrases from the news related to deportation. ‘This particular group is going to have to leave, so I’m going to have to leave’ — hearing those phrases and attributing them to themselves.”

In the face of uncertainty, though, all anyone can do is focus on the controllable. In the clinic, that means breaking the controllable down into granular units — deep breathing, calming words. And because children with autism respond well to concreteness, Grace says, her team encourages the children they see to put away all unresolved questions in favor of what can actually be proven. “One of the strategies we generally use with kids is rather than just to have a thought about someone, to try and judge a person by what she’s doing, which is a very concrete way to respond — instead of thinking you’ve got this bully over here, let’s see what the bully really does, to see if that really does comport with that idea [of them],” Grace says. And “if not, you have to readjust what you’re thinking about. That might be a thing we would do to help a child not become overwhelmed by their fears, and rather become detectives about what is actually happening.” In unsettling times, in other words, a tendency toward the literal can be used to soothe as well as to frighten.