What I Wish I Knew as a Student with Asperger’s About Homework and Education

     Now that school is back in session, frustrations are rising in Aspie students and the people who care for them.  Many Aspie parents struggle with motivating an Aspie child who sees no purpose in doing school work on topics they do not care about.  This is tough, especially if the parent cannot see the purpose either.  After all, may parents are settled into a life that does not require the use of a wide array of the topics they covered in school, which becomes more obvious when a parent sits down to help their kid do homework but can’t remember how.
     As an Aspie that struggled through many late, long nights of homework, I feel a need to reach out to Aspie parents with things I wished I knew when I was in school.
 
 
1) Education in America was originally designed to prepare people for the workforce.
     All the way back to Colonial times, we can see a trend in education in America – Socialization.  For example, in 17th century New England, children were expected to learn reading, writing and arithmetic from the family at home.  Schools were established to practice these skills, understand the structure of society and to aid children in socialization.  For children that were to go on to more cerebral jobs such as politics or banking, they would go on to Latin schools or elite private high schools.  After the Revolutionary War, America understood the value of literacy as it was the use of written periodicals that helped America learn of the Boston Tea Party even before the news reached England.  By the late 1800‘s. most states and free public schools making America one of the most literate countries in the world.  Over time, schools evolved to provide a more well rounded education including lessons on culture and language.  Pre-Industrial America saw education as a way of becoming and maintaining as a world power.  More education equaled more wealth, setting us apart from the class warfare that had existed in England before America’s independence.  
     In the 1890’s through the 1930s, American tried to take on a new perspective.  John Dewey led America to the ideas of Progressive Education.  Dewey wanted schools to teach a wide array of topics to help children explore their potential.  He did not want schools to just provide a necessary set of skills for the workplace, but to create learned members of society who could produce social change and reform for the greater good.  However, school administrators were reluctant to the change forcing Dewey’s ideas to be isolated to only a few elite schools.  As the Industrial Era rose, schools began to shape their programs to set children on tracks based on their potential that is measured early on in the child’s school career.  Children suited for cerebral work were placed on a college bound track and children suited for the workforce as laborers were placed on a less academic track.
2) Education serves a different purpose today.
     Today, most American’s remain split on what schools should provide.  However, in a society that is much more technologically and internationally connected than those previous, education must be valued, even on topics we don’t think we will ever use.  Today, we often hear of news from across the globe minutes after it happens.  In one hour of television, we can take in a myriad of opinions and statements without any written proof that such information is even true.  The internet, now available to American’s of all economic levels, can spread information to millions before it is ever verified as true.  I remember, just a few years ago, an email circulated about margarine.  The email swore in avid detail that margarine was horrible for the human body.  What reason did they use to support this?  The email stated that margarine was only one molecule away from being plastic.  This email spread like wildfire, panicking families across the nation.  Most American’s bought into this fact as valid and enough to justify an opposition to margarine.  
     Now, I’m not here to argue whether or not margarine is good for you, but I can argue that margarine being one molecule away from plastic is not a valid reason.  Why?  Because of high school chemistry.  One molecule may not seem like a big difference, but in the chemical world, it is a huge difference.  For example, H2O is a compound better known as water.  It has two hydrogen molecules and one Oxygen molecule.  If I add just one more oxygen molecule, I get H2O2, a compound better known as hydrogen peroxide.  Would it make any sense to stop drinking water because it is one molecule away from being hydrogen peroxide?Even though I may not use chemistry in my daily work as a musician, learning chemistry in high school helped me make a more informed decision about my diet.
     In the “what about me” America of today, education today may not be framed by the school to meet everyone’s individual needs.  However, the more we learn on various topics, the better equipped we are to make sound, well founded decisions in many areas of our lives.
 
 
3) Lack of education historically has led to mass hysteria, slavery, and even the holocaust. 
     I can remember countless stories in history class, and even at home from my parents, where poor and even savage decisions were excused with “we just didn’t know any better.”  Women were burned at the stake for “witch craft” because the general population didn’t understand science.  Slavery was supported by misinterpreted passages from the bible and lack of scientific knowledge.  Hitler supported the holocaust stating that Jews were inferior to Arians and holding Arians back from reaching their potential.  All of this was accepted because information that could have disproved these misnomers were withheld from the people.  Need more examples of entire societies being misled by their lack on knowledge on a topic?   Try the McCarthy trials or the Jonestown suicide.  What about delicate topics like autism being cause by mercury or stem cell research?  Do those in favor or opposed to such topics really understand the science involved or do they just quote what they hear on television or from friends?
 
 
4) Homework is an exercise.
     Homework is an exercise for the brain and for the work ethic.  Let’s face it, most kids come home from school and yearn to spend their time on computer games or posting on Facebook.  We don’t even need to single kids out on this one.  How many of you adults are reading this at a time when you should be doing something else that needs to be done?  As a matter of fact, you may have gotten a hold of this article via a share on Facebook.  The point is that the ability to focus on topic we don’t like, or to maintain working when not being directly observed by an authority figure, are great assets.  We tend to look at homework as a negative aspect of childhood that takes away from play, but why?  If we change our perspective to see homework as a piece of growing up that is just as essential to childhood as play, then perhaps our kids would be more motivated to work efficiently.
     Aspie’s need to be shown that homework is a exercise in education, education is a necessary component for expanding the nations comprehension of truth and the acceptance of people who are born different or oppressed.  Integers and the periodic table could lead our future society to open minds and to understanding the truth about autism.
 
 
5) Laziness or lack of motivation is not autism, it’s an easy coping mechanism.
     I will admit that I was one of those Aspie’s that HATED homework.  I didn’t have someone give me the first 4 points I just made, so therefore I was seeing the world through my own tunnel.  I came up with a long list of reasons why I couldn’t do things.  In the world of autism, activities are either super easy, or ridiculously difficult.  We do not see the middle ground.  As we encounter activities that are too hard, we often use our Asperger’s as a way of not doing the work.  After all, if we exhaust mom and dad, then we don’t have to do it.  We Aspie’s are also magicians when it comes to constructing reasons why we shouldn’t have to do it, which, most of the time, sounds pretty good to parents.
     The bottom line?  DO NOT GIVE IN.  My grandmother used to tell me “I can’t means I won’t.”  We Aspie’s get so used to hearing about all the things we can’t do, that we often lose our self-esteem.  We need guidance through tasks we find difficult and we need to hear “can’t means won’t.”  Are there things we can’t do?  Yes, but this does not mean we should throw what we won’t do onto the pile of what we can’t do.
 
 
6) How do I tell the difference between can’t and won’t?
     As an Aspie, I often took my cues from observations of people close to me.  I so desperately wanted to blend into the crowd so kids would stop being cruel to me.  If my mom hated modern art, then I was to hate it too, after all that must be “normal.”  Therefore, if my mom were to hate homework or public schools, then my difficulties must be the schools fault and not because I don’t want to do the work.
     Mimicking is another coping strategy for Aspie kids who are unable to understand social cues and trends.  As a parent, you might not be able to see can’t in a sea of “won’ts” because our mimicking disguises it.  Yet, what if the parent were to change his or her perspective on homework?  What if parents approached homework as happily and positively as we approach a favorite treat?  As a parent, display a positive attitude towards homework and explain its purpose to the Aspie child as I did above.  See a purpose in each assignment, and then observe your Aspie.  Do some of the cleverly disguised “can’ts” disappear?  After a few months of the positive homework approach, the things your Aspie really can’t do should start to be distinguishable from what they won’t do.
 
 
7) Learn what autism really is.
     The most common educational impact I hear about from parents in their Aspie is “executive functioning skills.”  Did you know that executive function is a theory and that its exact role is hypothesized?  Did you know there are several models and that psychologists do not agree on one in particular?  Did you know that these cognitive functions are theorized to change during the various stages of human development?
     As a parent faced with an overwhelming amount of re-interpreted information on autism, it is easy for us to accept what seems like a reasonable cause for an action in an Aspie child that otherwise cannot be explained.  Before you accept such causes, be sure to gain satisfactory in-depth explanations from your psychologist.  Ask questions, and lots of them, until you have a clear understanding of the proposed problem.  Take time to learn the terminology associated with autism and perhaps even take a basic psychology course at a community college or online.  After all, your child will have autism forever, so it is best to learn what you are dealing with in as much detail as possible.  Many parents tell me they can’t understand the psychology or neurology behind autism.  Is it they can’t or they won’t?  After all, who wants to spend hours researching something they will never use in their personal life, right?
 
 
 
8) Don’t get the wrong idea.
 
     I am not pushing parents to force Aspie kids to do things they are just not capable of doing.  On the contrary, what I am asking parents to do is to carefully assess what their kids can’t do because they are probably more capable than you think.  Dr. Temple Grandin was never supposed to speak and is now a professor because her mom carefully assessed and fought for Dr. Grandin’s right to try.  Be the parent that helps us Aspie’s see our potential and how autism fuels us, not hinders us.  Then when we are faced with the things we truly cannot do, we will have the resources to work around them and the education to build our futures.

When I Was in School – Conversation with mom

I spend a great deal of time speaking about autism in public and helping parents develop life and homework strategies for their Aspie children.  This work is hard, but I feel it is very rewarding to help children avoid the stress and turmoil I had while in school.  Many times, parents will say things like “I can’t imagine you had this problem” or “you are so organized” or the most common, “but it seems your autism is so mild, unlike my son/daughter.”  
 
I know parents do not mean to offend me when they say these things, but such phrases are upsetting to me.  Every time a parent uses these phrases, I am immediately demoted and my hard work goes unrecognized.  The truth is I worked very hard to develop and incorporate strategies that help me function.  In addition to my past efforts, the ongoing work to maintain these strategies encompasses so much of my mental energy that I must plan times to retreat in order to avoid meltdowns.
 
To illustrate my point, and add validity to my plea, I decided to write a two part piece on my troubles in school and how I adapted.  For this first part, I interviewed my mother about how I was when I was young, talking about my struggles in school, my differences and how if affected my life.  In the second part, I will talk about how some of these problems persist and what I do every day to cope with them.
The Interview
For the first time since I went public with my diagnosis, my mother will talk about my struggles in school and what I was like as a child.
Laura:  Thanks, mom, for doing this. You have said in the past that you raised three children before me, my siblings were 17, 15 and 8 when I was born, but that I was different.  What do you mean by that?
Mom:  It’s is hard to outline because it really was just a feeling.  You saw things from a different angle than the rest of us.  You were very dogmatic about your views, even at a young age, and you over-analyzed everything.  With the other kids, if they got in trouble I only had to say with a firm voice, “don’t do that.”  If I did that to you, you would get upset and tell me to stop screaming, even though I wasn’t screaming.  I had to go around the issue to get you to understand what you did wrong.
 
You could do difficult things, but not easy things.  For example, you could do higher math, but you couldn’t multiply.  You struggled to learn to tie your shoes, learn to read, and learn to ride a bicycle.  However, you had an advanced vocabulary and an exceptional use of words, even as a toddler.  One oddity is you could dance at age 4, you could play the violin well at age 9 but you couldn’t tie your shoe until you were 12.
 
Here is an example of how advanced you were; you came to me and said, “I tink I am going to put on my coke and glugs because it’s berry, berry cold outside.”  You couldn’t be any older than two, but you always talked in complete sentences, even though you sometimes stuttered.  It wasn’t stuttering like in the King’s Speech.  It was stuttering entire phrases like you couldn’t get the words out fast enough.  This was still very advanced speaking for a child.
On the other hand, you didn’t like change, at all.  You didn’t like certain clothes because you didn’t like the texture of the fabric or the color, especially if it was yellow.  You said yellow gave you a headache.  Once, when you were an infant, I put out flowers while you were napping.  When you awoke, I brought you into the room with the flowers and your entire body stiffened up and your eyes locked on to the flowers.  Most infants don’t notice these things and even once kids do, they don’t stiffen up or freeze like you did.
I can’t really explain this any better, you were just different.
Laura: I have been told by my teachers that I showed exceptional talent in dance and music.  What did you see?
Mom:  Anything in the arts field you caught onto very rapidly.  If you heard a song once, you could play it.  In dance, you watched a class you weren’t even in and you caught on to the steps.  So, the teacher, Ken Passman, came to me and asked if you could dance in the show.  You did really well, every step was right, but because you watched it from the doorway, you did everything backwards.  You didn’t know to change perspective, but you knew the steps.  Even with instruments, you could just figure it out on your own, like with the piano and the guitar.  Even with the violin, you learned very quickly, played in tune and never squeaked.  Never.
Laura:  When I was in school, I struggled a great deal.  What areas did you feel were my weakest?
Mom:  You had trouble understanding written directions. Every night we would sit down to do homework in the kitchen.  You would try to work and then get frustrated and then I would have to explain the instructions to you.  Once you understood the instructions, you would do it.  It may have had something to do with your reading.  You had trouble reading and understanding what what it meant, but you could memorize your spelling words flawlessly.   You could memorize anything.  At age 6 you memorized all the trivial pursuit cards.
 
Other problems….I never understood this really, but you would come to answers that were correct, but you couldn’t explain how you knew it.  It is sort of like you playing the piano.  You don’t just play chords, you play complex classical tunes with the proper fingering, even with no instruction.  How do you do that?  There were certain things you were not taught, but knew and knew in great detail.  Sometimes you would speak in detail about off the cuff things that shocked us all.
 
With school, you never understood the concept of school.  You didn’t understand why you had to go.  You said you knew all those things so you didn’t need to go.  You especially hated the first two weeks of school when they reviewed last years material, and you liked to take every Wednesday off.  Yet, you loved to learn.  I think it was the approach schools use that didn’t appeal to you.  You liked learning at your own pace and you don’t filter out anything.  All the things the teacher would say and all the text in the books were all equally important.  You couldn’t understand why they wrote a paragraph if you only needed to know a part of that paragraph.  It was like you felt you had to memorize verbatim everything at school.
Prioritizing was an issue too.  For example, lets say you have a list of things to do.  One might be to make a cup of tea and a piece of toast.  You put the bread in the toaster, which means you can check that off the list.  Next you make the tea, but as you are making the tea, your toast starts to burn.  Instead attending to the burning toast, you would ignore it and would finish the tea.  You wouldn’t know which needed your attention first.  You had trouble deciding which things are more important, not in a selfish way, but you are just unable to prioritize incoming events.  You still do that.
Laura: What about emotions.  Did they affect the way I performed?
Mom:  You would prepare and prepare and prepare for a concert.  You were meticulous and conscious about what you had to do, but then we would get to the concert and discover you forgot to bring your music, or your violin.  You seemed to get overwhelmed with the excitement, which hindered your ability to stay organized.
Emotions would make you freeze.  No one could look at you and know if you were enjoying yourself, or were upset.  I would know you were upset because you would play your violin or rearrange your bedroom, which I found strange because you don’t like change.  
When it came to school, you were always frustrated.  ALWAYS.  If we had known then that it was Asperger’s, I probably would have put you in a different school where they had people who could deal with autism.  I would have had ammunition to get help for you, and it would have relieved my mind a lot.  I couldn’t understand why these things happened to you when you seemed so capable, but a diagnosis would have given a real reason making solutions available.  You were so intelligent, I couldn’t see why you struggled through school.  Knowing autism tells me why.