Failing Everything at School


Failing all subjects

Jim is in grade 9. While he seems bright and verbally skilled, he’s failing all subjects. He rarely hands in assignments. He constantly loses things. He denies that he’s disorganized and refuses all suggestions and assistance. He insists on doing things the same way, even when what he’s doing obviously is not working. Half the time he’s furious with the adults in his life and resenting that they’re always trying to make him do things.


Just how blunt are you when you talk to him? If you’re subtle or indirect, he might not take in your meaning. And how much talking do people do to him? In general, when a student is messing up, we as educators talk to him. And the less the kid responds or seems to get it, the more we talk to clarify and make our point. This does not work well at all with kids with autism because of their auditory processing weakness. In fact, the more we talk, the less sinks in and the more agitated/frozen/dug-in they usually become.

The best description of this I know of is in Donna William’s book, Somebody, Somewhere.  It’s a fascinating read, almost like reading a novel. Donna wrote when she was in in her 30’s, she has autism, a B.Ed. degree and is extremely articulate in describing things from her point of view.

When a kid seems bright enough and speaks well, we often forget about the auditory processing problem and use oral language as the way to communicate. While it is one way, it’s not the most effective especially in emotionally charged situations when the student’s ability to understand what he hears will go way, way down. Read Donna William’s descriptions. You’ll enjoy it.

The one thing I’d do with Jim is use visuals. Tons of visuals. Always. He’ll get information from something he can see so much easier than if he’s expected to learn by listening.

Author and presenter Linda Hodgins has created a workshop on using visuals for behaviour problems. Click on the title to take a look. It’s available in DVD or VCR format and called Visual Strategies Workshop.

Linda also has two excellent, easy-to-use books: Solving Behavior Problems in Autism and Visual Strategies for Improving Communication.

Another video you might find helpful is Visual Supports in the Classroom for Students with Autism and Related Pervasive Developmental Disorders.

I’ve found this reference useful:  Higher Functioning Adolescents and Young Adults With Autism: A Teacher’s Guide.

A helpful book is Autism in Adolescents and Adults.  You might not need to read it all right away, just browse at first. It’s a simple book where one page describes a problem or behavior and the next gives a suggestion (mainly visual suggestions).

A fair proportion of all kids with autism suffer from depression in the teen years. In adolescents depression most frequently comes out as anger rather than acting morose. That might be part of what you’re seeing.

And, it can look a lot like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or co-exist with OCD. People with autism tend to be rigid in their thinking and behavior. Because of their neurological differences, it can be hard for them to gather information from their environment, process, store and retrieve it when they need those facts. This makes it difficult for them to derive meaning from what’s going on, relate it to past experiences and come up with good strategies. When it’s hard to make sense of your world, you cling to what you think you know – hence the rigidity.

Another reason for depression in such kids is that around this age they notice just how different they are from their peers. And for kids with average intelligence, it’s frustrating to think inside that you’re smart but not to be able to get things that the kids around you seem to grasp with ease.

For teens with autism, medication is not at all unusual and can have a positive effect. It might help his mom and the doctor if the school provided checklists of the behaviour that you’re seeing in Jim. If his physician believes that medications may be helpful, there’s a very good chance that he may not get the meds right first try. He’ll need behavioral feedback to assess the dose, timing and if that’s the correct medication as there are a number of possibilities that could help

When you have a spare five minutes with Jim, go to the Do2Learn website and try these short games on emotions and facial expressions with him. I’m betting that he will be unable to correctly identify the facial expressions on these people. If so, that’ll give you a clue about one of the reasons his behaviour escalates.

We derive a lot of information from the facial expressions and body language of others. For the most part, no on teaches us these things – we just pick them up automatically. Not so with most people with autism, PDD and Asperger’s. Rather they need to be taught how to read non-verbal language. There’s a step-by-step short program designed by Dr. Tony Attwood specifically for autism/Asperger’s called, Exploring Feelings: Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Manage Anger  . (I’m assuming that anger is a problem, or that he does not stop to consider his choices before responding).

Another helpful program is Michelle Garcia Winner’s Thinking About You, Thinking About Me.

Despite the fact that your student has autism, Asperger’s of PDD, he’s still a teenager. At his age adolescents are finding their own way, wanting to be independent and make their own decisions. Rebelling to some degree against authority is normal. So in summary, how can you help?

  • Use visuals rather than relying on verbal information
  • Allow him choices within the parameters you set out
  • Enhance his skills at picking up on nonverbal cues
  • Social skills training in managing feelings
  • Teach and model appropriate ways to handle frustration, protest and anger
  • Find ways to get him to “buy in” to what you want him to do by showing him what the long-term result will be
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