My two teens with autism have a knack for completely blowing my mind without really even trying. We certainly have a lot of “normal” days when I’m just me and they’re just them, but at least every couple of weeks or so something happens that causes a window to open, and that window allows me to get a quick glimpse of how their minds work. Most of the time I’m impressed by what I see.
The intellectual events of my morning today are a great example. My daughter, a high school sophomore, needs me to drive her to school every day. She has an early class that many students choose not to add to their schedules, and her school district does not provide busing that early in the morning. The problem, so to speak, is that she is consistently late for this class, like every day, and this is caused by both her desire to get every last minute of sleep that she possibly can, and morning rush hour traffic.
I’ve been fighting with my own frustration about this since the school year began in mid-August. I didn’t want her to take this class, precisely because I knew I would be required to get her there, which would mean spending the first hours of my weekdays pestering her to get ready, move faster, eat breakfast, etc., so that I could get her there in time for the start of her class. (Side note: Because she is less interested in close friendships and traditional social relationships than her peers, finding a “friend” who could give her a ride proved impossible.) So every weekday, for the past six weeks, I have been begging and coercing her to get out the door on time, and then lecturing her on the importance of being on time for class during the drive.
This past weekend the school released the “six week progress report,” encouraging parents to be aware of their children’s academic efforts. Of course, such markers as this really aren’t necessary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that all parents have access to a “parent portal” on the school’s website, where they can view their child’s grades for every assignment in every class on every day of the school year. I could write a whole other post on my thoughts about this, but I’ll save that for another time.
I went through and checked my kids’ grades at this point, even though I had a pretty good idea of where they were at, because as a parent with this kind of access, it seems to be expected that I do so. As I did this, I examined the grading pattern the instructor uses for my daughter’s first period geography class, the one she is always late for. In this teacher’s grading system, assignments are turned in regularly for grading and are graded in the typical fashion, while “class participation” is graded differently. The teacher allows for a certain number of participation points for each student, and then subtracts points from the number for specific behavioral infractions, including tardiness. Currently, my daughter has a C in this class, but her average grades for turned in assignments are A’s and B+’s. Her participation grade is bringing her down, and the points deducted are all a result of being late for class.
My girl has struggled with her grades since she started middle school four years ago, largely because of missing homework assignments, problems with participating in group work in class, and similar issues. It’s been mind boggling for me because in the process I’ve discovered that she has completed most of the missing homework assignments, but misplaced them or forgot to turn them in. In group work done during class, she participates as much as is required, and nothing more. And every single semester she has lost points in at least one class because of not doing something as simple as getting my signature on a class syllabus and turning it in. As a result of these little infractions, her grades simply do not reflect her understanding of the information she’s learning. Her current grade in first period geography is a case in point. But today, a new idea hit me – So what?
Because of our children’s intellectual and social differences, along with our religious faith and our own social philosophies, we have made a consistent effort to focus on big picture issues with our children. Having children with autism who are sometimes less capable or less interested in adapting to standard social constructs has caused us, as parents, to think more deeply about the mental, emotional, and cultural implications of these constructs. Whether it’s because they’re autistic or because of their experience as our children, my kids tend to look at social behaviors and question why something is expected of them before they accept it as normal and appropriate. And so, we, as parents, find ourselves examining our own life experiences to figure out why we do what we do, even if what we do is the same as what everyone else does.
Although I’ve been known to use the phrase “because I said so” to simplify the arguments in our home, I don’t really want my kids to blindly conform to a certain behavior or mannerism simply because it’s the general custom, and our family life reflects that. Our teens, in fact, have expressed appreciation for our uniqueness as a family and our value of their individual differences as well. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want them to learn and utilize culturally accepted behaviors, but we do want them to examine whether or not those behaviors conform to their own values and beliefs about God, about themselves, and about others.
When I considered my daughter’s geography grade this morning, my first reaction was low-grade anger. She is scamming the system. The goal she set for herself for this semester was to keep her grades at a C or higher. She’s capable of better than that academically, and when I noticed that she wasn’t aiming for an A or a B and was allowing a seemingly silly issue like being late for class to bring down what would otherwise have been an A-, I was disappointed and worried that her attitude toward school was somehow inappropriate. But then, by discussing my reactions with my husband, I forced myself to back out a few steps from the issue at hand. What is the purpose of school? Does this traditional grading system provide a good measure of my daughter’s understanding of what she’s learning? Will the information she’s learning be important in her adult life?
Asking myself questions like this helps me understand why my children choose to do things the way they do. We’ve taught them that the purpose of both school and our parenting efforts is to teach them how to work and behave within society so that they can be independent, happy, and lead a life that they find fulfilling. My daughter’s choice to sacrifice a few points each day from her geography grade in favor of an extra thirty minutes of sleep is legitimate and somewhat intentional on her part. The consequences of consistently getting less sleep than she needs are, in terms of her happiness, behavioral abilities, and comfort, more problematic than the consequences of getting a C instead of an A in geography. And she came to this conclusion without having to overthink it like I did.
So why did it take me so much thought, effort, and emotional energy to come to the same conclusion? The answer is, again, cultural expectations. I, like so many other children of the 1970s and 1980s who are now parents, was taught that I am responsible to shape and manage my own behavior and choices based almost exclusively on the opinions of those around me. If someone seemed angry or upset with me, I needed to change my behavior so that they would like me better, even without confirming whether or not they were truly angry or upset, or whether they were angry or upset with me or for some other reason. My default perspective, the viewpoint that I naturally accept when I don’t take the time to consider other perspectives, is to believe that, if it looks to me like someone is unhappy or angry, and there is any chance at all that I may have caused those feelings in that person, I need to make whatever changes are necessary to change their feelings about me. If someone, anyone at all, was angry or frustrated or disappointed in me, it was entirely my responsibility to change their mind. In short, if someone in my presence was unhappy, I had to behave in such a way as to fix it. Any negative feeling on someone else’s part did, in fact, constitute an emergency on my part.
Our ability as individuals to communicate our thoughts and feelings more easily and to a much broader audience as the result of new technology has allowed everyday people living everyday lives to speak out, and has given us a voice to support or challenge societal norms and expectations as we confront them. This morning I realized that my daughter’s consistent late arrivals in geography class did not, or should not, make her a bad or irresponsible person in the eyes of others, and that even if they did, her choice to be late reflects her own choice based on her personal value. She chooses to be late, and chooses to allow her grade to be lower, because she values getting enough sleep at night. Whether her geography teacher, or even her parents, think poorly of her because of that choice, is much less important than her need for a consistent amount of sleep. As a chronically tired person, I support that decision completely, and frankly, I’m proud of her for it. So, by extension, I will choose (as much as I can anyway) to ignore my own concerns about the impressions she may be presenting to other people of both herself and myself, as her mom. I may not be able to entirely remove this worry from my mind because of my own childhood conditioning to work hard to make everyone happy, but it’s worth working on.
What I’m not saying here is that we are amazing parents who naturally taught our kids to stand up for themselves in this way or to choose to honor their personal needs and values above the impressions that others may have about them. On the contrary, it is our two autistic children who have taught us this. How many of our guideposts, ranges of “normal” and “abnormal” behavior, or cultural practices, or body types, or decision-making factors, are built rather arbitrarily from simply determining what the “average” person does or thinks or weighs, and then assuming that we all need to orient ourselves to the average? Is using a demonstrated average ability or position as a guidepost for health or normality really a good way to measure our appropriateness or our value? Why do we so naturally assume that comparing ourselves to others, in any way, is valuable?
I suspect that, because my children have atypical minds and atypical thinking, they have taught me, and could teach others, that our tendency to focus in on a comparatively small range of behavior and consider it normal, and to use that range to determine ways to enforce that normal as the morally correct position, does not always serve humankind very well. It only works sometimes, and we only use it to control ourselves and others. A few generations ago, being Jewish, or black, or female, was considered less than ideal, and that didn’t turn out so well for anyone. While taking away all the measuring sticks could lead to anarchy pretty quickly, on an individual level, each person must consider the appropriateness of the ruler before the determining the appropriateness of its measurement. My autistic kids have taught me this, because they question such things quite naturally, and have an uncanny ability to see straight through societal structures. They ask “why?” while the rest of us jump straight to “how?”. So maybe, if we give people like my kids a voice in our culture, and stop marginalizing them because someone at some point decided that there are margins, all of us could have a lot more peace.
Photos by Jurian Huggins, Josh Felise, Jeremy Bishop, Ridham Nagralawala, Nathan Dumlao, Elen Avivali, and Kaleb Tapp, via Unsplash.