Wednesday, February 8, 2012

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Guest Post: Teaching Our Kids To Fail

Today's post brought to you by Liz from SpectrumU, who writes from the perspective of a mother of a child on the spectrum about to graduate high school, getting ready for college. She contacted me after I posted the open call for guests, and... WOW!  Show the bloggy love, people!


Eleven years ago, spring was consumed with worry about where our oldest (whom I call Cactus on blogs) would go to kindergarten. We went to school fairs and open houses; I talked to friends and co-workers. I visited one private school without telling Cactus, and the minute I walked into the classroom I knew it was the wrong place – children lined up in neat rows, dressed identically, working diligently on reports that all looked the same with perfect penmanship (reports? these were seven-year-olds!) and raising their hands (rarely) if they needed help. The room was silent.

It wasn’t that Cactus couldn’t have collected the information for a report. He had recently moved from an interest in paleontology (he skipped right over dinosaurs to memorize the details of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras) to meteorology. At one open house he’d asked a bewildered kindergarten teacher who was telling us about her curriculum plan involving reading readiness, “So, when are we going to get to talk about cold fronts?” But the conformity, the neat handwriting, the spotless white shirts tucked into pressed pants with sharp leather belts? This was not the school for our “out of the box” boy.

Cactus is “2e” – twice exceptional. He is intellectually gifted in ways that take his parents’ breath away. We never did find that ideal kindergarten placement; he ended up skipping after a week into a first/second grade classroom with a teacher who relished the challenge. The fact that his passion for weather soon morphed into memorizing (and reciting – often) the periodic table didn’t faze her a bit. Thank goodness. She even moved into a second/third grade class two years later so Cactus could have her for three consecutive years.
While exceptionally bright, Cactus is also on the autism spectrum, with a distinct splash of Asperger’s Syndrome. He didn’t start to talk until he was almost two, and half of his first 50 “words” were letters of the alphabet. We didn’t think much of his differences in those first years, with preschool and elementary teachers who nurtured his eccentricities. In fact, we didn’t really acknowledge there was anything amiss until his very neurotypical brother came along and we learned what “normal” looked like. Over the next few years, we saw a lot of that second “e.” Handwriting that never did move beyond a second-grade scrawl. Learning to ride a bike (finally) at 11. Refusing to look teachers in the eye. Never going to a sleepover. Losing countless planners without any assignments written in them. Enduring bullying that school officials didn’t – or wouldn’t – see. Panic attacks. Depression.

Like most parents of children with special needs, our calendars have been covered with details of therapy appointments and IEP meetings; our house filled with toys designed to help develop lagging skills; many of my days consumed with online searches and attempts to connect with others facing the same challenges. It’s not very interesting stuff to those who are walking the same road; we all want our children to succeed and will do almost anything to get there. For us, it’s worked - people usually see Cactus as a more-or-less normal, if geeky, teenager.

Now we are again looking at schools –this year, colleges. Fairs and open houses and visits and lots of time online gathering suggestions – the rhythm is familiar. This time, however, I am accompanied by a tall young man who strides along in a long black wool coat and a bowler hat, could care less about the win/loss record of the school’s football team, and fills out those information cards in still-fairly-illegible block letters. Some schools have full-fledged support programs for students “on the spectrum,” others almost no safety net at all – and in any case, Cactus will have to take the initiative to advocate for himself and get what he needs. A few schools have the option of a single room even as a freshman – or would Cactus be better served by having to negotiate life with a roommate? Even dining halls present worries for this mom – I’m pretty sure Cactus will never touch the beautiful salad bars and will instead go for the all-you-can-eat-deep-fried-smorgasbords with Mountain Dew chasers. Can you die of malnutrition in college? And don’t get me started on the drinking, drugs, and casual sex that pervade many campuses. Cactus isn’t the only one dealing with panic attacks anymore.

We’ve had to radically shift our parenting strategy in preparation. Up until now, we’ve advocated for him, looked for coming obstacles and cleared them, talked to teachers before the term starts – in short, made sure he succeeded. This year, our motto is “let him fail.” Let him fail in little, (mostly) repairable ways, where we can debrief with him and he can figure out how to address the damage. We have let him forget to set an alarm, miss class, and land in detention. Let him learn the hard way that staying up all night playing SimCity makes the next day intensely painful. Let him put off telling a teacher about his accommodation for writing exams on a laptop and have to plead for the use of one at the last minute. Let him get a low grade in the first term of senior year, jeopardizing at least one college admission. Let him spend all his money buying books on a trip downtown and have to skip lunch.

We’ve even put him “in the line of fire” by letting him go by himself on a summer overseas service trip, negotiating plane changes and staying by himself in a hotel en route. He had a few misadventures – he met up with a drunk who wanted to steal his hat, and he hitchhiked (ack!) from the hotel to a restaurant- but he came home healthy and immensely pleased with himself and his abilities. The depression has largely disappeared as he’s realized that much of what he’s hated about high school (notebook checks, gym class, mandatory pep rallies) he won’t have to deal with in college, and he’ll finally get to study what he truly loves in an in-depth way. He looked for, and found, plenty of fellow “nerds” at the colleges he chose to apply to, and can’t wait to have a real social tribe.

Still, we’re not sure he’s ready for college. He’s recently been accepted for a study abroad program as a
“gap year” before he starts college. We’re waiting until the admissions decisions come back this spring to make a final plan. We want so much for him to succeed in college – as does he. The question we’re still asking ourselves is, has he failed enough yet?


I'm Liz, and I blog at SpectrumU, a site I started earlier this year for parents seeking college options for their children on the autism spectrum (so as not to let all that good information I gathered go to waste). I live in Pennsylvania with an amazing husband plus Cactus, his brother Dash, a beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback, and a cat who mostly just sleeps on our bed and sheds. In addition to the blog, I tweet (@asdatcollege), and SpectrumU can also be found on Facebook.

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