"Years ago, I was called in to consult for a high school student in the spring. Jason was in 10th grade. Upon my arrival, his case manager shared an exhaustive list of “concerns” for Jason. Those lists often feel like complaints to me, a rap sheet of educational crimes the student continues to commit: he doesn’t arrive to classes on time; he doesn’t bring the proper books; he is unprepared; he doesn’t attend to the lessons; he doesn’t complete his homework; etc.
“Okay,” I often reply sympathetically, “Let me see him in class, and I will get back to you.” In Jason’s case, after observing him, I arranged to meet with him. Jason was an intelligent 15-year-old male on the autism spectrum. I was sure he held the answers as to why he was performing the way he was. The staff likely never thought to ask him.
Jason was indeed not participating in class. I observed him retrieve three pieces of blank paper upon entering the classroom, sharpen pencils, and begin to focus on drawing precise and elaborate designs. When it was time for the school-wide population to stand, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Jason continued drawing. That was also on the rap sheet: not participating in the Pledge.
Later, when I shared with Jason my observation that he did not stand when the students stood to recite the Pledge, he initially did not respond. After multiple minutes of silence, which was critical for Jason to understand I was serious about hearing his voice, not my own, he finally shared, “I don’t like the president.”
“Excuse me?” I questioned for further clarity.
“The president of the United States – I don’t like him. I don’t think it’s right that he has so much money as president, and farmers [Jason lived in a state of largely agriculture] have so little.”
“And that is why you don’t stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance?”
Okay, one mystery solved I thought. I gently offered that the tradition of reciting the Pledge is not in honor of the current president, but the nation in which we live. More importantly I shared, it was practice for the times to come in life when we may not fully agree with a situation but need to participate anyway. He listened.
I was assured that there was a vault of answers and talent inside Jason. The choice was eminent to me: we elicit his thoughts and participation now, or we potentially loose an incredible contributor to society. Fifteen was late, but fortunately he was “high-functioning,” and he had not yet shut the door on participating in the world; though he had metaphorically closed it and put a “Do not Disturb” sign on it.
Next, I pursued the issue of his books. Because Jason did not bring the appropriate books to his classes, even if he were interested in learning the content presented, it would be difficult for him to follow and participate. I posed the question and waited. “I heard that you did not bring your books to classes. Why is that?” Again, there was a long pause.
“How long are you going to be here?” he broke the silence.
“As long as it takes,” I responded. “My job is to fix what isn’t working, and I need your help to do that.”
A few minutes later, he relented.
“I tried eight times.”
“You tried what eight times?”
“The lock... on my locker.”
“When did you try it eight times?”
“On the first day of school.” Remember, it was now spring.
“And I couldn’t do it.” The lockers had combination locks. Jason was not able to manipulate the lock precisely to open it, and he did not initiate help.
“So, what did you do?” I asked curiously.
“I took my books home.”
With further questioning, Jason shared that he does brings books to school every day, though he doesn’t align the books with the subjects on his schedule that day. In addition to the challenges of a combination locker and his varied perceptions of traditions as a person with autism, Jason’s school had adopted block scheduling, which presented extreme difficulty to his overall organization. I was AMAZED at his tolerance and patience and willingness to keep showing up to a seemingly maze of information and expectations.
I immediately offered a solution. “Would a padlock and key work?”
Jason held up a lanyard with his house keys, and said, “I could put it on here,” which I understood to be a clear “Yes.” I assigned Jason the task to purchase a padlock with two keys, one for him and one for the main office and he easily agreed. Then I went to the principal’s office and explained the situation. He also easily agreed to the proposed plan.
The issue of timing is critical. On his first day of school, Jason resolved himself to not being able to accurately participate in education. Nearly eight months later, the root of the problem was identified. Eight months of learning and opportunity were lost. Sometimes, solutions are quite simple. However, we need to be seeking them. As educators, we must be in the lead; we must be seeking solutions for our students.
During subsequent discussions with Jason, he told me about his drawings and his interest in a career in video game design. The lines he was drawing, instead of attending to classes, were his practice. He was focused on a much larger goal, far beyond what his educators could see.
How many more of our students hold similar dreams and visions? Perhaps not as refined or focused, but each does have a talent, a specialty to offer. Our task as educators is to determine the short-term solution, which allows them to participate and develop the necessary skills to be able to form a foundation for being in the world."
~ Chapter 14, Bridging the Gap Between Learning and Living