Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Giving out grades for autism

Today's schools have joined the growing business of screening children for autism. And they've cleverly integrated their autism assessments into classroom activities and assignments.  The increasing time students spend working in groups, for example, allows teachers more and more opportunities to assess a child's ability to relate to his or her peers. The increasing focus on realistic, social fiction and on social inferences in reading comprehension questions gives teachers more and more clues about a child's social reasoning skills. The increasing emphasis on sharing personal experiences and emotional reactions in writing assignments affords teachers ever greater insights into a child's ability to express him or herself emotionally. And the ever growing numbers of multi-step, multi-week, multi-disciplinary projects and heightened expectations of young children to take things home and hand things in without being explicitly reminded to do so, and to take detailed notes in class, helps teachers detect a variety of signs of executive dysfunction and attention deficit.

Occasionally, though, one hears of an assignment that truly stands out in its ability to zero in on one or more of the core deficits of autism.  For example, there's perspective taking. In her most recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, psychologist Susan Engel suggests having children “Write a description of yourself from your mother’s point of view" in order to "gauge the child’s ability to understand the perspectives of others." 

Then there's unusual and/or restricted interests. At my son's school, the timeline of the first five years of your life (a 6th grade English assignment), provides a window into what the child considers newsworthy. Do the milestones he or she chooses involve "important" events like the birth of a sibling, or "insignificant" events like the breakage and repair of ceiling fan switches?

Then there's difficulty reading body language and facial expressions, assessed, for example, by this social studies worksheet.

Then there's reduced eye contact and facial expressivity, assessed in the grading rubric for project presentations at the grade school of a mainstreamed autistic child I know. This rubric included measures of how often the child makes eye contact with his or her audience and how "genuine" his or her enthusiasm appears to be.

The more teachers' assessments specifically detect autism, the more feedback parents get about how far out on the autistic spectrum their children are.  Ideally, here's how school grades would translate into autistic tendencies:

A - highly social, empathetic, organized, and interested in normal things: not at all autistic
B - a tad aloof, or a tad narrow or eccentric in interests and focus
C - Asperger's Syndrome
D - Moderate or High Functioning Autism
F - Severely autistic

Assuming current trends continue, it'll no longer be necessary to go out and get a diagnosis from a medical institution.  Before you know it, a quick look at your child's report card will tell you all you need to know.


Happy Elf Mom said...

I should rather my children get an A for autism than be told that they are "emotionally disturbed" because of their autistic behaviours. We were also told that Elf was manipulative because he was unable to handle people suddenly touching him and a LITERAL every 15 minute change in schedule.

I hope things get better when he goes to middle school and/or there is more awareness of what autism IS. Promise the kid does not wake up plotting getting all upset over having the wrong pencil, yk??

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Riddle me this: Why can't schools just stick to academics, instead of meddling around in children's social development like a bunch of irritating busybodies? This attitude just feeds misconceptions about homeschooling (i.e., homeschooled children are emotionally and socially shortchanged because their educational environment lacks opportunities for "socialization" and "interpersonal development").

Happy Elf Mom said...

Niels, I now homeschool my children and allll the stereotypes about homeschooled children being social misfits are true in my house. Because my homeschoolers are all autistic. Funny how that works.

Maybe the strange "unsocialized" people are the ones whose parents pull them because they see things aren't working out in the schools in the first place...

Katharine Beals said...

Happy Elf Mom, I think there's a lot of truth to that!

I also think it's no coincidence that many of us parents who are most critical about what goes on in today's schools have socially eccentric children.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

I happen to be homeschooling my kids as well, but social eccentricity is not a sine qua non of homeschooling. If anyone raises the "social development" objection to homeschooling, I simply respond that 1) socialization in school is highly artificial, since in virtually no other facet of society are cohorts composed exclusively (or nearly exclusively) of those who happen to share a birth year; and 2) homeschooled kids actually have opportunities for socializing that are more well-rounded, since they aren't stuck in a classroom all day with their cohorts.

Heck, for better or for worse, I am a product of public schooling, and I never fit the social mold, having been pegged as a "loner" as early as second grade. I surely would have resented all the touchy-feely antics that gets passed off as part and parcel of "education" these days.