Some of us are old enough to remember the Pogo cartoon in which a character announced that he didn’t want “ups and downs”–he wanted “ups and upper ups.” That’s certainly what parents want…kids who keep growing and developing. When the general trend is upward, and about the typical speed of progression, the “downs” don’t bother parents as much. But when a child develops more slowly…then the downs are much harder to live with.
That’s true whether it’s a four year old who doesn’t talk, or a seven year old who isn’t toilet-trained, or an adult (in age) who still acts like a child (in years.) Even with a steady (but not typical) gain over the years, the downs are bothersome.
Last week, M-, who had been doing very well this summer, had a down that not only upset him, but the faculty, and of course us, his parents. It’s once more instructive in terms of what autistic students may or may not understand about the expectations college has for students in more areas than academics.
M- is typically (not always) as good or better than the average male college student about personal hygiene issues: showers daily, brushes teeth, wears clean clothes daily, etc. He’s not so good about recognizing when something’s worn out (but I wear old clothes at home because they’re comfortable.) M- keeps his apartment clean and tidy. M- is diligent about showing up for class on time, with all the materials he’s supposed to have: that falls into the “rule-following” side of his nature. He does his homework and all other class assignments. But–that’s not enough.
Gaps in social skills and language skills show up not only in his language based-classes, but in the real-life situations that result from those gaps. He can misunderstand verbal instructions and explanations, as well as the nuances of conversation. He is unsure when it is OK to ask questions, and if he tries to ask when he shouldn’t, and is told so, he’s then easily convinced that it’s not OK at all. He is unsure when certain kinds of question/comment are OK (for instance, when it’s OK to mention “feelings” as opposed to an emotionally neutral topic. A communications success (he got his message across, was heard, and a desirable outcome resulted) may lead to using the same message, at the same intensity, in situations where that is not necessary or ideal.
Some of these things we had worked on with M- for years–they appear to be semi-permanent gaps where little progress has been made for a long time. Others are the result of our not understanding what he didn’t understand when we tried to teach…and his not knowing that he didn’t get what we meant.
In the current situation, the college wants to be helpful, but they seem to have a skewed idea of what help he needs…although they told us they’d had quite a few students on the spectrum, I am guessing they’ve had students with Asperger’s (who typically have social skills gaps but not gaps in language comprehension or expression) and for students with autism they’re relying on (probably outdated) descriptions.
M- has done well (A and B grades) in classes where the objectives and standards are clearly set out, ideally in writing, where there’s quick and frequent feedback on right v. wrong performance and where practicing the skills develops what is needed for the next level. Math, in other words. He has struggled in classes where the standards are not clearly set out, where feedback is lacking or can be misunderstood, and where practice in precursor skills (vocabulary, grammar) do not lead readily to the next level (more sophisticated reading comprehension and writing.)
This is compounded, when he tries to express his confusion and ask for help, with his difficulty in verbal expression. Most recently, in a situation where his essay, written in class, was deemed unacceptable by his teacher, he subsequently expressed his disappointment and sadness over this in a way that scared the teacher and counselors. What they did not know about him (the past history and his difficulty in choosing appropriate levels of intensity in many social situations) led to their deciding he needed less academic pressure. Our parental reaction (knowing all that history and stuff) was that he needed better tools for handling academic pressure and more explicit instruction on how to express negative feelings without starting a panic.
Another up seems to be succeeding last week’s down, and on the whole the trend has been upward since he moved to the city…he has coped with many of the challenges of living alone and going to classes very well. Since he follows rules well, our response last week was to provide him with a set of guidelines for what to do in similar “down” situations (specifics on communication, self-care, etc.) He still may not pass the writing class this summer, and will have to re-take it in the fall, but his overall advances outweigh that.
I wish our son (and every kid) could have just ups and upper ups when it comes to growing up…but the reality is that all of us have downs as well (I sure did) and part of reaching upper ups later is learning to get over the downs when they come.