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Process vs. Content: Teaching “How” vs. “What”

process vs. contentProcess versus content. It is not the language often spoken of in the world of ASD, but I think it is a highly relevant issue to address. It’s the idea of ‘how’ to do something, more than ‘what specifically to do.’

I know that many individuals need direct instructions on the specifics, of what to do, so don’t get me wrong and misinterpret what I am saying here. It’s always going to be about the unique needs of the individual. But, for too long, I had families come to me with concerns that their child was not spontaneous and only used rote phrases, even when their language suggested they were capable of more.

Let’s put the idea of “process versus content” to use in an example of greeting someone. This is an area that many children with ASD have difficulty with and may need assistance in learning.  The process is teaching a child how to greet another person while the content is telling them exactly what to say; “Hi.”

It’s not the word “hi,” that is critical, and I think therapists often get too caught up in this content. Although the word “hi” is probably the most common and easiest thing to teach when greeting another person, it’s not the word itself we want to teach. It’s the process of acknowledging or responding to another person in our immediately space.   This can be done with a word, a smile, eye contact, high five, or wave of the hand to name some common forms of greeting.

There’s not just one way to greet someone. There are cues from the other person and the context that determine whether you’re going to say “hi,” “hello” or “yo dude.” Recognizing that you may be the one to initiate the “hi” or you may be the one to respond to someone else’s “hi.” Knowing that the “hi” without the connection to the person you are speaking to is useless.

I’ve had client’s learn to say “hi” but they’re missing the relevant component that the purpose is in the interaction with the other person. It’s not just something that is verbalized to get it over with. I can think of many clients who say ‘hi’ as they walk right past me, with no way to know that they are even talking to me!  I’m not saying they have to ‘like it’ or ‘care about’ connecting with the other person if they don’t want to. I do try and respect my client’s unique ways of engaging and their desires, but, if they are learning how to greet someone as a means of trying to make friends, fit in with their peer group, not be ostracized or any number of reasons for learning this skill, then they do have to ‘fake it.’

I’ll address more on ‘faking it’ in the next blog.

Process vs. Content: Teaching “How” vs. “What”

Diane Yapko, MA

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APA Reference
Yapko, D. (2010). Process vs. Content: Teaching “How” vs. “What”. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Oct 2010
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