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Research shows that if a person feels under too much pressure this can cause stress and the production of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released by the amygdala in response to threat and it causes one of three reactions in the body: flight, fight or freeze.

Children on the autism spectrum have an overactive amygdala which means that their bodies are often flooded with cortisol in response to situations that they have identified as a threat. It therefore follows suit that children with autism are also much more likely to produce cortisol when under pressure and it is this that causes them to shut down in response to that pressure.

Let me give you an example. Rowan has recently been learning about prime numbers. He took on board very quickly the concept of a prime number and we played games and did activities around identifying prime numbers. But when his Mom asked him directly whether 5 was a prime number he couldn’t answer. Even though earlier that day we had discovered together that 5 was a prime number and he was excited about it.

For this reason in Horse Boy Learning we always introduce a new topic or concept slowly without, at first, expecting any feedback from the child at all. Instead we simply talk about the concept in the presence of the child whilst also partaking in an activity that the child enjoys. When the child feels ready they will voluntarily begin to take a more active role in the conversation. 

We also never directly test the child. Direct testing automatically puts pressure on someone. Rowan’s fear of failure is so strong that rather than risk getting the answer wrong he shuts down. Sometimes he even says ‘I’m not answering that.’

So how do we ensure that he has taken something on board without eliciting this response?

We either wait for the child to voluntarily confirm that they know something by talking about it or do what we call stealth testing. Let’s go back to the prime number example. Instead of asking Rowan directly what a prime number is or whether a certain number is a prime number we invented a game where I tried to ‘ruin’ the prime numbers. Each of his beloved cartoon characters was assigned a different number and I made cardboard cut outs of them all. We then separated them into two piles, one for the prime number characters and the other for the composite number characters. As we did it I would sometimes put a character into the wrong pile and see if he would correct me. When he did I knew that he had gotten it.