When when Daniel was 5 and Dylan was still 2, I noticed something about the way each would eat.

When Daniel would eat, he would pile food on the spoon and then uses his hands to try to put the food in his mouth. He would also pick up food from off the plate. As a result, there was typically a big mess where he was eating. Rice is the worst. It gets scattered everywhere. And he loves rice.

When Dylan would eats, he would carefully stab the food with his fork or scoop up the food with his spoon. All in all, there is minimal mess.

Neither my wife nor I directly taught either child how to eat with a fork and spoon. And neither have most parents. Dylan learned how to eat mostly through trial and error — and observing others eat. He learned the proper way to eat because he has the instinct to copy what others are doing. To him, human actions have meaning. This is instinctual, so that when he copies what we are doing, meaning is immediately attributed to those copied actions.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not have a strong instinct to copy what others are doing. He does copy people, but his copying does not have social meaning, like Dylan’s copying does. It is social meaning which has to be taught to Daniel, and which his mother and I have to teach in regards to how Daniel feeds himself. In other words, we have to directly teach him how to eat with his spoon and fork and not to eat with his hands and make a big mess. This means repeatedly telling him how to eat properly, until he gets it.

Here is how to understand the difference. Dylan acquired his ability to eat properly because of his social instincts that allow him to copy our actions, which he sees as meaningful. Language is acquired the same way. We have a language instinct, but the specifics are acquired in context, which is where meaning is also acquired. Daniel, on the other hand, cannot acquire these social skills; rather, he has to learn them in a more direct fashion. Reading is learned the same way. There is no reading instinct on which to rapidly build one’s reading skills;l this is why learning how to read takes so long.

Now imagine that your social skills were more learned than acquired. That’s the situation with Daniel. That’s the situation with autism.

Coincidentally, Daniel is almost 8, and he still piles food on his spoon. But he’s at least a bit less messy.

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