Model of Imposed Adaptation in Childhood Learning Environments — Application to Autism. A precarious game of developmental Jenga



Academic and social expectations place ever-increasing stressors on young children. The failings of our academic system to address these concerns greatly impact the general population but may be even more harmful for children on the autism spectrum, who are shown to have significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in later life. The relational and ecological demands indiscriminately placed on autistic children to achieve one-size-fits-all academic learning goals is examined in this paper, along with current evidence exploring the risks faced by autistic youth. Sensory Integration theory posits that brain development and function are driven by actions of the environment upon an organism, and correspondingly the reactions of that same organism on the environment. This notion, an important principle of pediatric occupational therapy, fits within a dynamic systems approach to child development, where environment, relationship, neurobiology and genetics co-act and self-organize through dynamically sustained states. An idea foundational to the proposed model in this paper. We will explore this model using the analogy of Jenga towers to discuss some of the hazards that a reductionist approach to education pose to child development. Finally, questions are asked regarding the implications of these adaptive responses from the perspective of dynamic systems theory.

General Information

Keywords: child development, autism, camouflaging, sensory integration, dynamic systems theory, environment, education

Article type: scientific article


For citation: Spielmann V., Porter L. Model of Imposed Adaptation in Childhood Learning Environments — Application to Autism. A precarious game of developmental Jenga. Autizm i narusheniya razvitiya = Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2019. Vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 18–33. DOI: 10.17759/autdd.2019170203.

Full text


The development of the child is often portrayed as following pathways punctuated by milestones in a predictable and orderly manner [10, 51]. Indeed references to milestone attainment long ago entered everyday parenting vernacular [47]  throughout the world [4, 10, 12, 39]. Ester Thelen (1995) traces this milestone framework back to the works of Gesell (Gesell & Thompson, 1938, as cited in Thelen, 1995), McGraw (1943, as cited in Thelen, 1995) and Dennis & Dennis (1940, as cited in Thelen 1995).

This analogy of milestones has been helpful within the child development community in promoting early identification of children at risk of developmental delay, however it can also be problematic [44, 45, 47, 53]. Some but not all limitations include: perceptions of milestones as linear and neatly ordered into predictable stages [49]; treatment of milestones as rigid [53] benchmarks for ‘normal’; and an anxiety provoking perception that non-linear development is ‘deviant’ and must be course-corrected towards ‘normal’ development [47].

This ‘pathway’ metaphor depicts a pre-mapped out, unidirectional journey through progressive stages marked with easily recognizable signposts, where genes are the engine driving the vehicle. This metaphor better describes mass-production of robots than uniquely individual human beings. Even if we suspend belief, and run with this analogy for a little longer, the flaws become increasingly apparent – what consideration is made for an uneven road surface, on-coming traffic, inclement weather, seismic activity, or (rather importantly) fuel?

On balance, all metaphors are imperfect, and as Thelen says all theories are metaphoric [48]. However, commonly held reductionist views of the needs of the developing child drive policy makers, at all levels, to over simplify solutions to the challenge of raising healthy children [9, 13]. New analogies may be beneficial, not necessarily to replace the pathway and milestone adage but perhaps to complement, enhance or increase our understanding. Even, perhaps, to become commonplace examples used to illuminate some of the complexities of human development. Therefore, the proposed Model of Imposed Adaptation in Childhood Learning Environments aims to explore certain aspects of child development within the metaphor of a Jenga tower. This will be described in more detail later but as an introduction:

The rules of the model follow the rules of Jenga, with one exception, when all 54 blocks have been used, new materials are supplied via social relationships and there is no limit to supply within a socially supportive and nurturing context. Each layer is a foundation for later growth and blocks represent proficiency development. When assembled in an appropriate, timely and careful manner, height is achieved while maintaining structural integrity and density. As the tower reaches greater heights states of development are sustained by the compression, bi-directional tension and torque of the structure as a whole, and more bricks can be added as other players join and supply resources that can be utilized as building materials. Each time new building materials are added there is instability – but the structure settles and the next stable state, or height, of development is achieved. However, when construction is rushed, the structure becomes taller and has holes where units should be, causing it to become increasingly precarious. When subjected to stress, the tower may lose equilibrium altogether.

This analogy, we argue, can be used to highlight the challenges placed on neurodiverse children forced into a school system which even places unreasonable expectations on the neuromajority. According to Dr. Ross Greene [19], “kids do well when they can,” using the tools they have to meet these high expectations [6]. But as stressors are increased learning and self-esteem may suffer, creating an especially heightened risk for children for whom proficient development requires consideration of a dynamic and socially supportive system.

The Context – Human Development as a Dynamic Self-Organizing Structure

Several key beliefs are posited as truth in the presentation of this model.

·         Development is non-linear [14, 45]; it is dynamic and occurs within a system of causality [14].

·         Development is driven by interactions between systems and change in one aspect of a system impacts other aspects of the system [13, 48].

·         Systems are self-organizing and emerge toward and settle into patterns [27 ,47] that are dynamically sustained [5, 26].

·         Nothing occurs in isolation, everything has a bidirectional impact [17, 43, 50].

These key beliefs form a lens through which a new paradigm of child development emerges, one that is dynamic and complex rather than linear and formulaic. From this departure point we begin to be ready to explore the Model of Imposed Adaptation in Childhood Learning Environments but beforehand we need to set the scene.

The Setting – The Ecology of Early Childhood School Systems

In past decades the focus of our school systems has transformed from child development to early academics [37]. While human development itself has not altered, our support and acknowledgement of early childhood needs has diminished, and academic expectations increased. Not surprisingly, along with this shift in focus comes evidence indicating a continuous rise in stress and anxiety of our school-aged children [6]. High stakes assessments and a push to do well in school not only impact stress levels of children, but also of teachers and families thereby disrupting the ecological balance of entire systems.

Academic competition in early education has dramatically altered demands and expectations even at the preschool and kindergarten levels [37]. Per our proposed model, this equates to increased height in our tower without consideration of structural integrity. Maintaining homeostasis (or structural integrity) requires the ability to cope with the stressors in our environment. To do so necessitates optimal brain function, which depends on our ability to efficiently take in, integrate and respond to a constant stream of sensory information [1]. When stressors are increased, the ability to regulate and respond effectively to sensory demands is correspondingly decreased. Subsequently, efficient formation of a solid developmental structure is diminished. Again highlighting the requisite attention to each ever-changing system.

The Population

Between 1% [23] and 1 in 59 [2] of the population are identified on the autism spectrum although literature indicates that girls and young women are frequently mis- or under-diagnosed [3], suggesting a possible under representation of actual demographics.  Recent literature has begun to suggest that historical treatments and interventions have produced a generation of traumatized autistic adults [16, 28, 32]. Autistic self-advocates are speaking out to empower individuals, advance rights, and ensure that voices of autism are heard [38]. Self-advocates promote the idea that autistic students require more than one-size fits all educational opportunities, and call for a wide and dynamic spectrum of individualized supports [30].  It must also be noted that risk factors for mental health disorders and suicide in autism are different than those in the general population [7], with factors such as camouflaging (using coping strategies to mask autistic traits, particularly in social situation) revealing significant and potentially detrimental effects on mental health [3, 24, 36].

Since the 1980’s it has been taken for granted that the core deficit of Autism is in communication and social interactions, and includes the presentation of restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities [11]. Importantly, in recent years there has been a shift in that focus, and an increased understanding of the role of sensory processing and integration in Autism [11, 41]. The need for dynamic supports may be complicated by individual differences that include heightened sensory differences, anxiety, and other social and communication needs of autistic children, which inherently increase the challenges faced in the education system.

The Challenge

Within the busy, high stress, ecology of the school environment little time is made for the individual needs of the child and development becomes hurried as children strive to meet generalized goals. The system within which these students (as young as 3 years old) are placed is rarely tailored to meet the needs of the child and the uniqueness of developmental progress is ignored in order to achieve a form of scholarly crowd control. Even well-documented knowledge of child development is ignored, with play, movement, and sensory exploration taking a back seat in early educational settings. Negative outcomes of this shift are not only examined in research, but are frequently discussed in popular science. Motor, sensory and social-emotional delays, as well as mental health challenges are becoming common place in the general population.

Referring back to our proposed model, it is of no surprise then that children who need longer to build solid foundation levels to support construction of stable towers demonstrate higher propensity for individual developmental differences and mental health challenges. Rates of suicide in autistic youth are reported to be as high as 14% [40, 46]. Camouflaging and using cognitive strategies to compensate for autistic behaviors, are reported to cause extreme exhaustion, confusion about self-identity, and mental health issues [3, 24, 36], and may also lead to missed or misdiagnosis, and therefore lack of supports for autistic children in the school system.

Autistic self-advocates point out that compliance-based interventions, or therapies promoting training or obedience, are shown to correlate with the use of compensatory strategies [30]. While autistic traits may decrease as an outcome of these interventions, an increase in susceptibility to manipulation or abuse is documented in the literature [3]. A growing body of evidence supports proactive developmental considerations for youth suicide prevention [52], yet mainstream recommendations include heightened vigilance in noticing the signs of suicidal thoughts ‘in the moment’, and a focus on ‘training’ children in social emotional skills [34]. These universal recommendations do not begin to address the evidence indicating that risk factors for suicide in autism are different than those in the general population [7]. There is much to learn about suicide and autism, but based on current evidence we should conclude that it is not enough to “train” autistic children to fit into a linear model of development or learning, which brings us back to Jenga.

Jenga means to “build” in Swahili

In the Jenga model of child development a functional developmental trajectory is illustrated by the unhurried, deliberate and supported construction of this remarkable tower. The individual differences in the bricks are taken into consideration and any errors in location are corrected, as many times as necessary. Once the tower is completed more bricks are provided as a result of supportive, safe and attuned relationships [18, 29] with immediate family and others in the community so that the child can continue to develop and achieve greater heights without compromising stability at their foundation.

Building blocks represent the attainment of skills or proficiencies, there is a block labeled ‘Regulation’ [15, 21] , a block labeled ‘Engagement’ and another for ‘Reciprocal Communication’[21]. Indeed the first six Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities are all present [22]  before going on to insert higher-levels of thinking and academic skills. There are blocks for motor and language development, self-care, functional preacademics, leisure, social skills and so on. When building blocks are all laid down with great care the resulting tower is a solid structure that withstands a knock to the surface on which it has been built by swaying and then returning to its’ upright position.

The proposal is that robust, individualized development produces dynamic, resilient, even flexible structures – structures that can withstand weather systems and even, to a degree, shifting ground. Correspondingly when a culture and environment rushes development and does not accommodate for individual differences in the raw building materials, does not allow for corrections and repetitions, and does not provide supportive relationships adaptation is mandated for survival. An adaptation utilized as a compensation for difficulty with regulation and modulation may be at the expense of attention and ‘on task’ behavior [1, 42]. The structure continues to grow upwards but at the cost of resilience [33].

A construction that was made with materials that were not ready, or that has holes in its’ very foundation (perhaps the base pieces of self-regulation and sensory modulation have been recruited and re-used in an attempt to achieve ‘quiet hands’ day after day) will fall if environment stressors increase. Some Jenga towers fall in part and can be reconstructed, other towers fall catastrophically and the pieces may never be put back together.

When we impose universally applied standards that are – in totality unattainable – we cultivate conditions for adaptations. These adaptations can be likened to a rushed and careless construction process where deadlines and ‘height’ of achievement are prioritized over all other developmental measures and needs.

Conclusion and Closing Questions

Of course the analogy of a Jenga game is limited and at serious risk of simplifying the complex interplay of variables in child development, particularly for the diverse strengths and support needs of autistic children. Raising a child is not like building an Ikea bookshelf after all [33] and neither is it as simple as playing Jenga. The illustration however serves the purpose of emphasizing several key points: development is unique and individual; development should not be rushed; children can recruit underdeveloped proficiencies in order to adapt to a demanding school environment but this will only be successful in the short term and will likely result in maladaptation or complete collapse.

Closing Questions – Survival of the Most Adaptable

How do we rate an adaptation as a functional success or dysfunctional / atypical / maladaptive? What is the end goal of schooling in this setting? 

How can we elicit real change, in terms of systems causality, to support our stressed out students [13]?

What can be done to slow down the process for our most vulnerable; as well as the resilient children who may reach the highest heights, but at what cost?



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Information About the Authors

Virginia Spielmann, PhD, Executive Director, USA STAR Institute for SPD, USA, e-mail:

Lisa Porter, Doctor of Occupational Therapy, USA Sensory KIDS, USA, e-mail:



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