Last week I got an email from one of Howie’s teachers. She explained that they had been working on a math assessment test about money and coins. The directions were to count the money and show your work. The teacher said that Howie had refused to show his work. His explanation was that he didn’t have to “because I have autism.”
She wrote that they had worked through the refusal by reminding him that this was for his third grade teachers and while she knew he could do it in his head, he needed to show his new teachers that he understood the work.
Now Howie has never been a big fan of reviewing concepts. “I already know how to do this!” is a frequent refrain when doing assessments or review work. But this was a new wrinkle. He had never refused to do work because of autism before.
I wrote back and said I was kind of stunned by all of this since we’ve never said anything like that to him or around him before. We’ve always talked about autism – and specifically his autism – in a positive light. Talking about the gifts it brings him. Lately we had been discussing how there are times when different brains have a harder time with some activities, and that’s why sometimes he needed to leave the room to take a test, or use his headphones or have a sensory break. But we’ve never said he couldn’t do…anything.
I expressed my surprise at his statement and said I would talk with him about it.
Later that afternoon, Howie and I were sitting across from each other on the floor of our living room. His iPad was on his lap and he was creating his newest world on his Blocksworld app.
“Hey bud'” I said. ” I heard that you had some trouble working on your math assessment today?”
“Yeah. But the fruit snacks helped me get through it.”
“What was hard?”
“I had to write it all out but I knew the answer.”
“Your teacher said you told her that you couldn’t do the test because you had autism?”
” I said I didn’t have to do the work because I had autism,” he said. He didn’t look up at all.
“Well, autism isn’t an excuse you know,” I said. ” You can do hard things. But you still need to do the work.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” he said. “I said I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to show my work. I could see it and do it in my head.”
I sat there and just looked at him. His eyes never left the iPad, fingers moving and swiping and tapping as he built a cityscape for his Blocksworld cars to drive through.
Not an excuse.
Not a negative. A positive.
Not can’t do. Don’t have to to understand.
Part of his gift. He could see it in his head. So why do the extra work?
He wasn’t trying to get out of doing the test itself. Just the showing his work. And not because he didn’t want to.
Because “I didn’t have to.”
He was actually advocating for himself.
“I understand now,” I said. “But you know there will be times when you have to show your work, even when you can do it in your head. It’s important for other people to see what you see.”
“I know,” he said. ” And the fruit snacks were really good.”
In our world, autism isn’t and won’t be an excuse. We’re never going to teach him he can’t do something because of how his brain is wired.
But it can be a reason why things are hard. Or, in this case, easy.
Maybe it’s semantics.
This is why we felt it was important that Howie knows and understands his diagnosis. So he could say, “I see this differently because my brain is wired differently.”
A few weeks ago, M. Kelter of Invisible Strings posted this on his Facebook page:
Without the words to say “because of my autism”, how might this interaction have gone? Alternative scenarios might have involved a long, drawn out stand off, viewed as noncompliance, leaving everyone exhausted, frustrated and miserable.
Leaving my kid feeling like a bad kid. A failure. Different without explanation as to how or why. Removed for long periods of time from his general education classroom as things escalated, keeping him away from his peers.
He knows he leaves to take tests in a quiet space so he doesn’t get distracted. We are working on helping him understand that his aide is there as a “coach” and “interpreter” when he needs help.
But he also needs to know that we will listen to what he is really saying and doing and go beyond the specific words that he is using in order to make sure that we understand their meaning. Because here he was, in his way, appropriately advocating for himself.
It’s our job to make sure we hear him when he does.
“Although you see the world different than me
Sometimes I can touch upon the wonders that you see
All the new colors and pictures you’ve designed
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.
Child of mine, child of mine
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.” – Child of Mine by Carole King