Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Autistic Student- Won't vs. Can't

It seems pretty common to hear parents of ASD children talk about a time when someone told them that their child can't or won't be able to do this, or learn that.  I come across stories like that all the time. As wrong as I think that is, that has been rarely my experience with my kids, or even myself. As a matter of fact, it's been the opposite.

I don't know how many IEP meetings that have been called by me to discuss services for Bubby. No one has ever said "He can't do it." It's always been "He can if he tried."
They have never said he was too autistic, or too slow, or too anything besides "lazy" "whiny" and my favorite "manipulative" to be successful in the classroom.  I never heard a teacher refer to his autism as holding him back. I have heard a few express that they didn't think he had autism prior to an official diagnosis at age 5. I am certain the same ones still feel he doesn't, but keep it to themselves. It seemed that his expression of autism was not the idea they had in mind, or maybe they had no idea in mind as to what autistic meant. Every year I encountered the same attitude with staff, and his new teacher. No matter his protests and tears.  No matter his every academic testing proving he needed extra help, and no matter the fact that he failed almost every class they maintained that if he applied himself, if he tried, if he would let go of his "can't do it" attitude" then he could succeed. As much as they blamed him they blamed me even more. In their minds, I was creating a monster.  A spoiled child that is never going to learn anything, because I cater to him. I don't make him, so why would he? I give him the idea he can't do it, according to them. Their words, always indirect, but obvious.  I was the problem.

Then, when he could take it no more with demanding teachers, and class work that was way beyond his ability to complete in the way they required in the round peg classroom. He began melting down, and lashing out verbally. These are usually called 'behaviors'.  I hate that word when used in this context. Actually, I am unsure if I like that word used in any context, but nonetheless I prefer the term 'responses'.

That is when I put my foot down, and insisted on a behavior plan that met Bubby's needs. It was a struggle. It was ugly at a meeting or two, but I am not one to give up. I don't care if every person at that table hates me to their core when I am finished, as long as my child gets what he needs to be successful, not just in the classroom, but as a person then it's all good in the end.  It took a lot of letter writing, going along the chain of command, and emails, upon emails. I made it clear that I was not giving up. I was countered with "That is not something we do here in the general ed environment. He will need to go to the special school over here." more than once. I made it clear it was unacceptable to segregate my child due to their inability to break free of their very confining idea as to what an education means.

I am happy to report that he is doing very well with his new behavior plan. His new group of teachers for 6th grade has been very understanding of his needs. Their attitude of understanding, and acceptance has been key to his success this year. 

Some of the things that helped was a solid behavior plan that outlined solutions that would lessen Bubby's anxiety.  It recognized his slower processing speed, and gave him the help he needed to feel confident in completing his assignments.  Gone are the days where staff assumes he is engaging in willful behaviors to get out of work. They shortened assignments for him that were repetitive in nature. They gave him the option to have his para scribe for him at any given time he asks for it to lessen the anxiety of getting his words on paper.  He also never, and I mean never has to take work home to complete it. They made a space in his day to do his work that he doesn't get done in class, and that alone has brought his anxiety down phenomenally. He still has to do his work. It's still there, and it's all still his responsibility, but he never has to worry about it having to go home, since that was once one of his biggest anxiety triggers it helped tremendously to remove it.  The scribing is also key for a lot of autistic students who have a hard time with written work, especially the ones who are not strong in spelling.  Like many kids on the spectrum Bubby really struggles with getting his words out during a writing assignment.  This often looks to teachers, and staff as laziness, or just obstinance, especially since some days are easier than others.  Due to weak central coherence, and other issues related to executive functioning a person on the spectrum may struggle immensely with writing assignments.  Shortening them, and allowing for a scribe, or speech to text device is really useful tool in solving the problem.

During speech class he is also taught about advocacy.  They literally learn about autism, and Asperger Syndrome. He learns about what that can mean for him, and how it might affect him.  He learns how to ask for help when he needs it in  away that others might understand. 

There is no color card system.  There is no punishment, or reward.  He just gets his needs met, and in return is a willing, alert, happy 12 year old boy who is ready to learn. I believe every child is this way.  There is this erroneous belief that if we don't make kids learn stuff they won't. That they all will try to get out of 'work' if given the opportunity.  I don't think that is true.  I think kids are born with a natural curiosity that propels them to want to know about how the world works. If it's being presented in a way that they understand, can comprehend, and find useful they will soak it up like sponges. Their minds are set up to learn.  It's the messages they receive while trying to learn that tend to stop progress. Find their way, and the will is there.

There is one final thought that I want to end with.  There is this common-held belief that much like we need to teach autistic children how to be compliant (so dangerous in so many different ways!!!) we need to teach them to get along without so much assistance, otherwise it is a sort of learned helplessness they end up with.  No.  Just not so.  I think it is called 'fading' by most therapists.  It does have it's place.  I will give you that, but there are times that an autistic person will need a certain accommodation forever.  It is not because they are lazy.  It is not because someone did not teach them a skill they need.  It is not because someone told them they couldn't do without it.  It is not a learned helplessness.  It is not because they are rigid, black and white thinkers. It is not because of anything other than the fact that they need that assistance, and when I hear of therapists wanting to be sure to 'fade' the very things that made these kids successful because they don't want to create a situation of need I want to scream about the irony of it all. Success is not contingent on how much one can do independently. There is no need to make a person suffer needlessly in order to show them how to get along without assistance.  Some kids won't ever be able to get along without assistance, and that is okay. It's not worth the anxiety stress, and life altering meltdowns that WILL eventually occur if pressed to far for too long in order to prove that this person can learn to do this or that without help.  There is no shame in assistance, or doing things differently.

I have written quite a bit on the topics discussed in this post.. To read more click on the tags at the bottom of the post.  The hyperlink will take you to all the posts about that subject.


  1. a lot of it struck a cord with me especially the last paragraph as I also have a disability myself, so thank you for writing this.

  2. Nodding "YES!" through your whole piece. Such a similar experience with my own son -- and my own (diagnosed ASD as an adult) self. Thanks for sharing.


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