For the cheap seats (in case this is your first visit to this blog)… 🙂 I’m an Aspie/autie; that is to say that I “have” Asperger’s/autism.
I was enrolled in “regular” public school, after two successful and enjoyable years of Montessori school.
My first year of kindergarten (that’s right – “first year” – there were two) kicked off my scholastic “crash and burn”.
My parents knew something was “up”. Not wrong–just different. They knew that I wasn’t like the other kids. Back then, there was no adequate term used to describe the Asperger’s neurotype. Only “severe” cases were investigated, and the condition was diagnosed as “Infantile Autism”, a closely-related sibling of childhood schizophrenia, and that was that.
That left me and others like me in limbo. Nobody thought twice. Nobody had a reason to; the terminology just wasn’t there .
But that doesn’t mean that I (or any of the rest of us) was any less Aspie/autistic then. It just means I arguably had a tougher time. This is because I skated by, unrecognized. Everyone missed my true “diagnosis”, because it didn’t exist.
I still had my same neurological “firmware”. I had my same sensitivity. I had my same distractibility, which significantly interfered with our desire to learn.
I can’t speak for everyone, not even everyone in my age group. I can–and do, however, speak from experience.
My experience was hell. Suddenly, I was thrust into a room with a couple dozen other kids, with whom I couldn’t relate and had nothing in common. There was an invisible, but palpable, divide between the other kids and myself. We were at different developmental levels. We learned at different speeds. We possessed different skills and abilities.
Expected To Conform: (You want me to do what??)
What aggravated me the most was that I was expected to conform to the rest. I didn’t even know how. I didn’t know how those people “ticked”. I didn’t know “the rules”–i.e., what I was “supposed” to do. And it didn’t help that what they wanted me to do seemed silly to me, a waste of time. When I couldn’t tolerate that (due to sheer boredom), it was I who was punished. It was I who was scolded. It was I who was counseled.
The school administrators didn’t just want a team player in me; they also wanted a leader. (Say what??) I had no interest in being their leader. I wasn’t there to lead; I was there to learn. That’s all I wanted (and that desire should have been mutual, shared with me by the school administration and teachers). I just wished they would leave me alone. I wished that someone would clue in to my needs and work with me one-to-one like my mother had. She had done a great job; why did I have to go to school? What was this “school thing”, anyway? The grown-ups at school didn’t “get it”; they couldn’t hold a candle to my mom.
Innocent Misinterpretation and Stress-Related Behavior Issues:
Confusion, distraction, and frustration swirled around me like storm clouds. Teachers didn’t seem to have the time to listen. All they did was reprimand me for not tracing circles along dotted lines on worksheet after worksheet. Didn’t they know that I already knew how to do this? Couldn’t they see that I was bored off my ass and had long been ready to move on to something else already? (Ugh.)
I would have done much better in an advanced program, a gifted and talented program, or even to be moved ahead to the next grade level or two.
Eventually, it became a theme of, “you want to reprimand me, even though I didn’t do anything wrong? Fine, have it your way; I’ll GIVE you something to reprimand me for.” (Cue a few (ultimately short-lived) behavioral problems, like spitting, lying, and stealing, all of which lasted about a week and were eradicated after a single incident and Talk With Dad.)
They reprimanded me for a lot of other things, too, all of them minor infractions. The interesting part is that I was not oppositional or defiant. I may have thought that an activity was boring or unnecessary, but I tried my best to please. I desperately sought approval (or at least, to stop getting disciplined) and for the first four to five years, I never got it. For a while, I almost felt like my teacher (in any given school year) began to look for ways to pick at me–any little (unintentional) deviation was fair game.
The truth (and the sad part) was that my disciplinary issues were not voluntary; I didn’t willfully do anything wrong. Rather, I remember being confused. I remember either misunderstanding–or failing altogether to understand–written and verbal directions. They figured that since I was smart and I could read well, any failure to follow directions must be a conscious and volitional decision on my part. And therefore, according to their line of “logic”, I must be disciplined.
Negative reinforcement is a powerful motivator; the human consciousness seeks to avoid pain, even more than it seeks to find pleasure. But negative reinforcement doesn’t work when the child isn’t misbehaving or otherwise voluntarily doing anything wrong. It only creates frustration, shame, confusion, and neurosis.
Now… that frustration, shame, confusion, and neurosis have cumulative effects, and given enough time, a child may indeed begin to lash out or become voluntarily oppositional or defiant. And thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy has been completed; the school teachers and administration can now nod and smirk to my parents: “see? We knew better (than you). We told you this would happen.” And they might go on to say, “it’s been there all along; it just took a while to come out. She needs psychological intervention.”
And when you apply these labels and attitudes to innocent children who just want to learn in a calm environment and have otherwise done nothing wrong, it plays with our heads. It writes on the page of who we are, and that writing might as well be etched in stone. Because IF it is to be somehow erased, it takes YEARS of weathering away, of buffing it out, usually through extensive (and expensive) counseling or other hard work.
Distractions, Pointless Distractions:
Being stuck in a roomful of “regular” (neurotypical, of “average” development) kids ranging from my own age to up to a year younger was incredibly detrimental. They were distracting at best, and devastatingly hurtful at worst. In my experience, teachers from kindergarten through Grade 9 or 10 had to stop their lecture every so often and reprimand them for goofing off, talking to the student next to them, talking out of turn, etc. And it didn’t help that, in high school, certain informally-designated “class clowns” would periodically interject their comments.
These kinds of disruptions break the teacher’s informational monologue, and both the teachers and my (and who knows who else’s) trains of thought. The educational process is no longer smooth and coherent. It has been interrupted–usually multiple times.
Boredom (Can’t We Move Beyond This?)
I also found the “mainstream” curriculum to be extremely underwhelming. When you have a 4.5-year-old who is ready for basic multiplication math and whose reading skills are even more “advanced” than that, you don’t put them with a bunch of kids just learning single-digit addition and how to read words like “cat”. And you certainly don’t nominate that 4.5-year-old introvert to be a “leader”, or (especially) penalize them for not fulfilling that (irrelevant, inappropriate, and unjust) role.
You don’t saddle them with worksheets that contain nothing but an endless sea of dotted circles that you’re supposed to trace. You don’t make a kid who can already read and write very well sit and write the letters of the alphabet in Zaner-Bloser handwriting (link to their site–yes, they actually do have a website–and it makes me want to gag).
You don’t waste time with addition and subtraction when they’re ready–and excited–to get their hands on multiplication tables.
You don’t give a Grade 4 kid who’s reading mom’s adult nonfiction books (and understanding them on a mostly-adult level) a list of spelling words that include “weekend” or “homework” (words like “lawnmower” wouldn’t be included on the spelling lists until Grade 5, even though I’d been reading them in kindergarten).
This essentially kills a kid’s scholastic career.
The result of five to six years of this incompetent indoctrination is the near-complete loss of enthusiasm for school, education, and the learning process. This is NOT due to laziness or “coasting”; it’s due to agonizing boredom. It was NOT my fault. Yet, I got labeled as the classic “underachiever” for years. I was scolded for not completing my (pointless) homework. I was criticized for procrastinating. I was disciplined for not following (arbitrary) rules. I was singled out for not naturally being “like everyone else”.
Bullying (Is Not Conducive To Learning)
This scolding and singling out transferred to the kids, too. The other kids learned by example that it was acceptable to pick on me, and they knew by observation that I wasn’t going to fight back. A-ha!–open season on this one!
I was tormented in the classroom. I was tormented on the playground. I remember my heart pounding in the morning as my bus pulled onto the school’s property. I remember my heart pounding some more as I walked through the main front doors. I remember the smells of sanitation chemicals from the night before assaulting my nose and becoming permanently associated with the terror I was feeling as I approached the classroom. I would sit down at my desk and shrink down, hoping not to be noticed. Hoping not to give them any ammunition to use against me.
Outside-The-Box Thinking (Is Frowned Upon)
It didn’t help that I was awkward, or that I did things a little differently.
Mainstream school does not reward uniqueness or diversity. They can preach those buzzwords all they want: it’s pure bullshit. Nobody’s actually interested in real diversity. If they were, they’d be less politically-biased and more open and objective. If they were, they wouldn’t haze a student for voicing a logical and rational opinion. If they were, they’d have different segmented tracks for different needs and abilities. So, I’m calling them on their bullshit.
What they’re after is mediocrity, indoctrination, and nothing more. They want to turn you into a little “yes-man/woman” that will take orders from a superior, whether in some private corporate hierarchy or some public governmental bureaucracy. (Both suck.) They want to churn out minions (no, not the funny, cute, cool kind of Minions) who will nod and say “yes sir/ma’am” and forget to think for themselves. They don’t want you to think for yourself or to deviate from the norm. They’ve even begun to pathologize it, on an official/diagnostic level. “Treatment” for these “disorders” is advocated, and these include the mind-altering drugging of children.
Chemical indoctrination… Essentially, “you’d better conform (“behavior”) or we’re going to force the issue.”
Thank god my mom said “hell no” when the school admin and staff suggested medication. I don’t think they dared bring up that idea again. I will always be grateful that she withstood the bureaucratic machine that self-appoints authority and bullies parents with it. (See how that works? The other students bully the kid; the admin bullies the parents. It’s a one-two punch.)
Classroom Design (Ugh–a (very) “Saltwater Environment“)
I haven’t yet spoken much about the actual classrooms yet, and how they can be detrimental, too.
It starts in kindergarten, with too much crap on the walls, too many objects stored outside of cupboards and instead on countertops or the floor. But hey–at least my kindergarten classrooms were carpeted, which dampened the sound. Later on, not all floors were carpeted; some were linoleum (ugh), which reflected EVERY sound. And kids are not quiet creatures. Talking, laughing, dragging their chairs or desks around…
Ahhh, yes–the desks themselves. I didn’t like any arrangement. I didn’t like the front-to-back rows, nor did I like side-to-side (horizontal) rows.
In elementary school, teachers insisted upon all of these new, trendy ways to arrange desks. The half-circle was disorienting, because not only was I (still) in too-close proximity to the other kids, but it was also a complete and drastic change from what I’d (begrudgingly) gotten used to.
And can we say….fluorescent lights?
And there were those cleaning chemical and new-carpet smells, or paint smells when they repainted the lockers over the summer.
I was eventually suspected to have Attention-Deficit Disorder. I beg to differ–the problem was not with me; mine was induced by my chaotic environment.
Yep, I pretty much eked out an existence in school, did what I had to do, and got the hell out of there.
Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda…
I might’ve done much better in an alternative program. I would’ve preferred working one-to-one with a teacher/tutor in a self-paced arrangement, but even a low student-to-teacher ratio, where the other students are bright and calm, would’ve been fine.
I definitely would have done better in a program where my own interests, desires, and curiosity could have had some influence over the direction of learning. Sure, I recognize and accept that there are requirements involving every subject area. I get that. I’m not trying to skirt around it. In fact, my own curiosity and self-direction probably would’ve taken me way past the minimum requirements.
I definitely would have done better in a facility with stricter discipline, where popularity was measured more by how nice someone is, rather than how extroverted and disruptive they can be.
I definitely would have done better had I been more stimulated in some ways (intellectually), and less stimulated in other ways (such as noise or other students’ behavior).
I realize that it’s pointless to ruminate. What’s done is done. What’s in the past is in the past. What happened, happened. Nothing can be done to erase my past; there is no “do over” button. My own parents did the best they could with what was available to them at the time. Even the laws regarding homeschooling were different then. There’s no use in trying to pick apart the past because it’s over with…
…at least for me.
But it’s not over with for today’s kids. They still have unwritten pages of scholastic experience in front of them, writing that is not yet etched in stone. Decisions that can still be made by astute and insightful parents, that can alter their children’s future for the better, so that they don’t have to write posts like this when they become adults themselves.
Back then, everything was limited. Our grasp of neurology, development, and the learning process was in its infancy. Our understanding of Asperger’s and the rest of the autism spectrum was practically nonexistent. There was so much that we didn’t know, that we weren’t aware of. That’s not to say that we have it all nailed down in concrete today, but we’re much further along now. Awareness is budding, albeit slowly. Acceptance is further behind, but I’m grateful that we’ve made at least as much progress as we have. There may indeed (someday) be a world in which children of any/all learning styles, on or off the spectrum, can reach their “full potential”; for me that’s not just a buzzword; it could, one day, become meaningful reality.
And that’s what I hope to have encouraged with this post. Maybe someone reading this will say, “let’s do something different/explore other options for our child.”
(Image Credit: yuumei)