The Importance of Keeping it Black and White

Ah, us humans sure like to talk! Many of us like an explanation for EVERYTHING (myself included!) However, is this necessary for us or the kids we are insistent on providing the explanations for? This may depend on the type of thinker we are conversing with!

Presenting concepts and explanations to the individual with Autism or anyone else that is a black and white thinker can be challenging. 

Black and White Compared to Gray Communication

Individuals with Autism are known for being black and white thinkers. The majority of our students can think gray with a fair amount of ease so we can converse with them in gray, especially as they get older. Room is left for interpretation and for the recipient of our chatter to “read between the lines” of what we are communicating. This goes for everything from saying something sarcastically to simply over-explaining concepts or situations.

Gray communication is natural for the majority of students we will work with and won’t cause any meltdowns at all. However, this is also the type of communication that can frustrate the heck out of the black and white thinker.

Imagine you only speak English, but someone insists on explaining something at length to you in a sarcastic tone and/or with a lot of abstract thinking involved in another language that is not similar in any way to English. Would this be frustrating? You betcha! Would this help you to relax and follow the instructions of the communicator? Highly unlikely!

Yet this is often what is done to our black and white thinking students. To help them out, it is important to keep directives short, to the point and black and white, leaving no room for gray. Gray allows for misinterpretation and confusion for these students.

Let me explain… A student running down the hall has knocked over another student without realizing it. The gray thinker will be able to connect the events when they are explained. The black and white thinker will likely become overwhelmed if we sat him down and took 5 minutes to explain the events, brought feelings into it, etc.

It is much easier to let this student know, “You were running in the hallway and you ran into another student. A school rule is that students must walk in the hallway (communicating behavior we want to see). Walking keeps students safe. You need to walk in the hallway.” If you feel the need, you could have this student apologize. However, it may be difficult to make sense of this if the student does not realize he knocked over someone else from running.

The same goes for the student who is refusing to work. We can ask the gray thinker why she is not doing the work as well as explain all of the reasons why we need her to get her schoolwork done and this may or may not motivate her, depending on the reason for refusal (i.e. Is the work difficult? Does the student understand the work? etc.)

The black and white thinker? Well, assuming we know the work is at her instructional level and that instructions are understood, we tell this student that it is work time. If we sense she needs a break, we may say, “I am going to come back in ____ minutes. When I come back, I need you to be working.” I call this the lead and leave approach.

Let this student process the words that were spoken to her rather than continuing to chirp at her. Not doing so is setting the student up to be overwhelmed. Furthermore, you will soon be sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher to her, frustrating both of you. This student requires short, black and white directives with no room for misinterpretation.

One thing that may work for the student in the latter situation is to have a visible timer for the realistic number of work minutes you are expecting the student to work on a task for. Should the student refuse to work, the timer stops. The student only earns whatever incentive there may be when the full amount of time has been put into her work. The timer has made this situation black and white. It can be seen and stops when the student stops working or when it is at the end. Furthermore, it can be used to slowly increase the increments as the student’s focus improves and can be put into a measurable goal in the student’s education plan.

Doesn’t everyone need to learn to think in gray?

Some fear they sound rude when talking in short, black and white directives. However, wouldn’t it be more rude to talk in a manner that overwhelms or is not understood by the student?

Let’s keep us and our students sane by communicating in black and white to the black and white thinker. There will be many other opportunities to teach abstract thought to this student, such as when working on reading comprehension. We owe it to all of our students to communicate in the manner that will be most effective for them! Not doing so often causes excess frustration and meltdowns.

A Humorous Example of the Importance of Black and White Communication to the Black and White Thinker

One last comical example regarding a youth I worked with years ago… One of the workers in the home said, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to hit the road!” What did the black and white thinking youth do? He went and got a hammer so the worker could hit the road! The hammer wouldn’t have been retrieved if the communication was made clear to the black and white thinker. 🙂

I would love to know your thoughts on this topic and/or experience with it! Please feel free to leave a comment below or email me at


Spread the love

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *