Monday, April 13, 2015

But is he really ready for college?

In my previous post (below), I wrote about all the efforts that got J where he is now. But I left out one key thing. None of the social skills training, none of the GrammarTraining, and none of the educational strategies and opportunities would have gotten him anywhere without external incentives and external consequences. Even now, J would be happy to spend the entire day doing ceiling fan stuff. When he got his first college acceptance letter (by email), he didn’t tell me about it for four days—not until I thought of asking him whether he’d heard anything. Excited though he was to talk about it, in the grand scheme of things it simply wasn’t that important to him.

The same goes for doing well in school: he cares somewhat, but not that much. And the main reason he cares are all the external incentives we’ve attached-most of which boil down to ceiling fans.

In elementary and middle school, his dependence on parent-administered incentives for scholastic success created constant tension between us and J’s teachers. We could only incentivize assignments we knew about; we could only reward him for remembering to turn in his assignments if teachers let us know whether he had managed to do so; we could only reward him for good grades on assignments and tests if teachers communicated these to us shortly after the fact. But parent-teacher communication and online gradebook tools were not (to put it mildly) the school’s strong suit, and so we were constantly finding out, too late for timely incentives, that things were going badly.

“He needs to learn to be more organized,” said the school, repeatedly.

“He needs external incentives to be more organized,” said the mom, repeatedly. “We can’t provide these unless we know about problems as they arise. And you can’t punish a kid whose lack of organization is part of his disability by giving him low grades.”

If I hadn’t kept repeating this, J’s grades would have been low enough that he wouldn’t have gotten into the math and science magnet he now attends. The alternatives—the one remaining dysfunctional neighborhood high school, or a vocational tech school that has since been shut down—wouldn’t have led anywhere good.

Even at his current school, J has his egregious moments of minimal effort, maximal disorganization, or failure to notice and follow important directions, and teachers remind us of how important effort, organization, and following directions are in college and the workplace. Some of them say that it’s reasonable for the consequences for these shortcomings to match what the consequences will be in college or the workplace. It’s high time, surely, for J to stop depending on external motivations for effort, etc.: after all, to function in the real world, independently of hovering parents, he should be prepared for built-in, real-world consequences.

But had his high school grades fully reflected all his moments of minimal effort and maximal disorganization and failure to notice and follow directions, he wouldn’t have gotten into college.

Perhaps, then, J isn’t ready for college. But what is the alternative? If he’s not mature enough for college, he’s certainly not mature enough for the work place. He could theoretically stay in high school until he’s 21, but he’s taken all there is in the way of math and computer science classes, and we don’t want those skills, his most promising ones, to stagnate. Does it really make sense for him to ride out the next few years of his life in a holding pattern until he (eventually, hopefully) crosses some threshold of emotional maturity, when what he needs is a structured setting in which to further develop his most promising skills?

So, yes, he is ready for college. He is ready, in particular, for the best college he got into: one with an autism support program and minimal distribution requirements. One that, equally importantly, is within walking distance of home--where he will continue to live, and where, yes, we will be monitoring him very closely and continuing to give him all the external incentives it takes for him to continue to succeed.

As for the real world, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.


Anonymous said...

Could J dual-enroll? meaning, enroll in college and also enroll in the 18-21 portion of his high school, with the only service provided by the HS being a coach to help him improve his organizational and motivational skills. The coach could be a student at the college who would attend J's classes to see what needs to be done, and remind him to do it.

ChemProf said...

One of my advisees right now is an autistic student, who does struggle with these kinds of organizational issues. But I'm not sure she struggles all that much more than many of my others, so with parental support (and a reduced course load so she is on a five year plan) she is managing. The more support he can get at the school, the better, but he'll probably need your help to really access everything that is available to him.

Anonymous said...

You clearly recognize that there is a difference between "ready to go away to live at college" and "ready to do college work". I think that many kids, and not just ones with disabilities, would be better off living with a supportive family.