Aspeis need to know what their assignment actually is

Lately, I have neglected posting on the topic of Aspergers.  Still, judging by the relative traffic among my posts, there is a need for more information there:  both Aspies and educators are still looking for help.

Last December, I received the following comment:

I have an Aspie student, and when asked to produce 2 sentences about a topic in class, will just sit and think the entire period producing nothing… (I do believe that he is thinking about the topic). The topic has been given to student prior to class. Is this an unreasonable task? This is an 7th grade gifted autistic student.

I understand the perfectionism issue and that they may be unsure that it is good enough to put on paper, but in an educational setting I would like some suggestions to assist the regular Language Arts teacher. This is a graded assignment to be done in class.

Thanks in advance for any ideas you may have.

Deb Herr
Special Education Teacher

While I gave a quick reply at that time, this is a very important point which deserves a lot of attention.  So, I had attempted to write up a proper response.

It wasn’t right – so I edited t.

Then I fixed it up some.

Then t needed shortening down a bit.  So, I cut a bunch of stuff out.

Too much of the key ‘stuff’ was gone.  I started a re-write.  From scratch…

…and so on, and so on.

It is now October.  I have still not published the post – it is not ‘right’ yet!!!!

NO, I am NOT joking!

So, now, I will publish the draft I have, without re-reading it, with all the flaws, errors, sentence fragments and all – or I will NEVER publish this…

Here it goes:

Both my sons are in the gifted program.  One has gone through grade 7 several years ago, one is going to get there in not too distant a future – so, I am familiar with the level of development of a gifted Aspie of that age group.

Just to be sure, I asked my older son if he remembered being in that situation himself.  He did…and was in perfect agreement with me as to what thought-processes this student would be going through: trying to figure out what the assignment means!

Being in the gifted program means the student is smart.  By the time they get to grade 7, smart Aspies understand perfectly well that when a teacher asks for ‘any two sentences on a topic’, the absolutely last thing this means is any two sentences on a topic’!

Experience would have taught them that…by now.  And not in a nice way.

But, it would not have taught them what it is that the teacher/assignment does mean – or how to guess it….

So, I think it most likely that the student spent the time trying to figure out what the assignment actually was!  And, with so little information provided to the student, I really don’t see how anyone could figure it out!

Therefore, my answer is that yes, it is unreasonable an Aspie or an Autie gifted student, in grade 7, to complete an assignment of ‘writing 2 sentences on a given topic‘.

Reasons:

  • The assignment is non-specific.
  • The parameters are not defined.
  • The goals of the assignment are not known.
  • The expectations are unclear (or, in this case, clearly misrepresented).

BUT!!!

There IS a solution!

Aspies – and high-functioning Auties – are very good at meeting very specific goals.  I know that teachers are not used to approaching teaching this way, but, they would get WAY better results from this class of students if they were absolutely clear with them what the point of the assignment is, what the goal is, and what the evaluation criteria will be.

This worked for me – and my sons, as well as a few other kids I worked with:

First, we establish that in order to produce marks, teachers have to produce metrics:  marks which measure the student’s skill-set development in several areas.  This may seem like a game, but, because teachers have to work within such a large system, metrics were required.  And, these metrics are used to evaluate the student.

To an Aspie/Autie student, this can be an important revelation.  It is not an intuitive leap, to conclude this, because we usually believe what we are told – and from the earliest age, we are told that the point of school is to learn.  But, of course, it isn’t!  The point of school is to PROVE what we have learned… There is no place in school for ‘learning’ without proving (through earning marks) that/what one has learned.

Explaining that the point of doing assignments is to ‘earn points/marks’ can be liberating for an Aspie student.  After all, ‘getting on the high-score board’ is possible, even if one has not yet ‘defeated the boss’!

Once this groundwork has been laid, it is important to explain both the teacher’s goals for this assignment (what the teacher will be measuring for the needed metrics) and the student’s goals (what bits of what will earn points/marks).   This bit can be hard on teachers, because they have to explain both the explicit goals and the implied ones – most teachers do not go through this step explicitly themselves.

Yes – most assignments at the grade 7 level come with a ‘marking rubric’.  At least, in my area they do.  But these are so filled with vague notions and ‘weasel-words’ that they are worse than useless!  “The student demonstrated some understanding…. The student demonstrated good understanding…”  What the hell does THAT mean?

What is the difference between ‘little’ and ‘some’ and ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ in this context – and HOW is it measured?

Obviously, I can tell that ‘excellent’ will get a higher grade than ‘poor’ – but how do I know what demonstrates ‘excellent’ and what demonstrates ‘poor’ – or any of the other non-specific terms used – in this particular instance, to the satisfaction of this particular teacher?

If the teacher cannot stand there and provide a specific, accurate answer on how the grading will be done – how can the student be expected to guess what expectations to perform to?

This is so much easier for maths and sciences.  When a teacher assigns a problem, the student knows not just WHAT ‘the right answer is’ – she/he knows what form the answer is to take.

This is woefully not true of ‘soft’ subjects.  Not only do different teachers consider completely different ‘things’ to be ‘the right’ answer (try writing up interpretation of renaissance poetry for a ‘born-again’ teacher), the format itself is undefined….  Yet you are judged how your performance measures up to something the teacher cannot quantitatively define:  expectations!

It seems criminal that ‘educators’ are blind to this…

Aspergers and accurate words

School!  It can be a testing place at the best of times!

For people who need to use ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’ words to describe things as those of us with Aspergers do, it can be baffling.  After all, one becomes used to the vocabulary and expectations at home – but at school, the rules are different.  And people just do not communicate clearly.  In the words of the immortal Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Let me give you an example.

Schools are filled with many kind and caring people who truly have the best intentions towards our kids.  They are dedicated.  At times, they will even enter ‘uncomfortable’ situations, if they think the ultimate result will help one of ‘their’ kids.  I admire that.

One year, at the beginning of winter – just as it was time to start wearing hats and mits etc. – I got a phone call from one of my kids’ teachers.  Even though I am pretty thick at picking up on such clues, I could tell she was very uncomfortable.  She spoke in a little soft voice and picked her words very carefully.

The school, as it turns out, gets some free ‘stuff’ from the milk people, through the milk program.  Yes.  And it there are some families, which – at some times, and through no fault of their own – needed a little help, they could give these things as ‘prizes’ to their kids.  Since it is a ‘prize’, there is no stigma…

I was really beginning to wonder what this was about.  We were not in any financial difficulties – at least, I thought I would notice if we were.  So I made a non-commital sound, to show I was listening…

The teacher, kindly and gently, continued.  The promotional items they had included hats.  Since the weather was getting kind of cool, it was important that kids should wear hats.  And, today, during recess, my son had told her that he does not own a hat, and that he does not think we’re planning to buy him one.  So, if it would not cause offense, they could give him a hat from the milk programme…

Whatever reaction she was expecting, laughter was not it.  But, I just could not help myself!  I burst our laughing.  You see, my son was absolutely correct!!!  Yet, I owed the teacher an explanation…

The previous weekend, we had indeed gone shopping for a new winter hat.  My son became intrigued by these ‘hat and neckwarmer in one’ contraptions.  It looked just like a winter hat that was attached to the ‘neck’ part of a turtleneck.  It had a nice round opening for the whole face, but covered more skin than a ‘hat’ would.  That is what he chose to get instead of a regular hat.

And what did he wear the previous winter (to be used as a spare)?  A tuque!  If many people think that ‘tuque’ and ‘hat’ are the same, they should be corrected:  if they were the same, they would not have different names!!!

So, with puppy-dog eyes, solemnly and truthfully, my son told his teacher that he does not onw a hat!  And when she asked if we were just slow at getting ready for the winter, he truthfully said that we were not planning to get him one…instead of simply saying he forgot his new headwarmer.

The teacher was amused and greatly relieved! I suspect the story was used as a source of amusement at the teacher’s lounge. 

But this is a very real example of how people with Aspergers do not understand what they are being asked, unless the accurate word is used.  The terms used must be specific, precise and accurate, because Aspies do not ‘make leaps of faith’ or read things into stuff.  If we don’t know, we don’t know – we are not likely to jump to unsupportable conclusions.  The teacher would likely have received a different answer had she asked him if he owned something to wear on his head to keep it warm.

Another example of ‘crossed communications’ occurred when my other son was very, very young – certainly under 2 years old.  He absolutely loved watching ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, and absorbed much of his early vocabulary from that show.

One time, my mom was over, and was in the livingroom with my son.  When I came into the room, she was frustrated:  “I told him to stop picking his nose, but he just stares back at me as if I just fell off the moon!  What is wrong with him?!?!?”

I told her he just did not understand what she meant.  He already had a nose, so how could he pick another one?

Turnning to him, I said:  “Stop touching your mucuous membranes.”

He took his finger out of his nose, looked at me and said:  “Ah, spread germs!”  And went to wash his hands…

These may be funny incidents, but they do illustrate the difficulties Aspies have trying to understand people who use language sloppily.  Just imagine how impenetrable the meaning of many test questions is to them!!!  No wonder they often score very poorly on school tests – many questions do not really ask what they think they ask…

(This is ALWAYS the hardest part of writing a post:  how to end it!  I could go on talking about this endlessly…)

Aspies can, and do, learn to search the speech patterns of others for ‘similar concepts’ – this way, many Aspies learn to ‘decipher’ common speech.  And when we do, we are often so delighted, we drive others mad by playing with it!  Yet, this is not an easy skill to acquire, and it would not be realistic to expect young kids to ‘pick it up’.  This will lead to frustration – not just of the child, but also of educators, parents and others who interact with Aspie kids.

And, Aspie kids usually experience very high levels of frustration, even if they do not communicate this (or display the ‘typical’ signs of frustration, until it builds up into uncontrollable anger).  Making all these people aware of the need for accurate, precise and non-ambiguous use of language (and what that actually is – in the mind of an Aspie) would go a long way towards making life easier for everyone involved. 

If we could only teach the rest of the world to communicate accurately!