Failing Everything at School

Question:

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.

Suggestions:

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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Autism and Homework

My child has problems completing school work

Question:

My 12 year old son is mainstreamed at middle school (which he started this year). However, he is having significant problems in completing and turning in his work. We have separate folders for each class with two pockets (one side for completed assignments to be turned in and one side for works in progress), but this system is not working – he just throws everything in the front of the binder. He does not want a check list on his binder as he doesn’t want to be different from the other kids. As with most Aspies = he already gets picked on for being “different.” Any suggestions for getting him better organized? Thanks!

Suggestions:

Things change in middle school, don’t they?

The organizational strategies (separate folders, checklists) you created make perfect sense and in theory should work.  But…

A couple things might be coming into play here:

  • Not wanting to be different
  • Not wanting to be told what to do
  • Not seeing the need to use organizational strategies
  • Not feeling that the methods suggested suit him
  • Complications due to “Theory of Mind”

Let’s look at why you’re worried about organizing him in the first place. This isn’t something we do as intensively for all 12 year olds.  Part of how we recognize a child has Asperger’s is because despite obvious cognitive ability, he is not picking up skills that other children intuitively learn and demonstrate without being explicitly taught.

Sometimes in our eagerness to help we offer props and useful ways of doing things without giving sufficient background information. Does your son know why you want him to organize his work in this way? Has the reasoning behind it been explained to him?  Or better yet, demonstrated to him?  Can he tell you why you’re making these suggestions?

It’s possible that he has not noticed how other students organize themselves.  A class demonstration of such strategies might help and your son is likely not the only student in the room who is having similar difficulties.  Perhaps once he sees that he is not the only person using the two pockets, he would be more cooperative.  In some Middle Years classrooms, every student is required to have an agenda book, taught systematically how to use the book and its use is compulsory.

Your son may have to see concrete examples of what happens when he does and doesn’t use such organizational methods. For two weeks, he organizes himself in whatever manner he chooses. His teacher will keep concise written records of the amount of work handed in, when it’s on time or late and his marks.  Then for the next two weeks he must agree to cooperate with an organizational system suggested by you or his teacher.  If he can see that using a system improves his marks and gets the adults off his back, he may be more willing to continue with the strategies.

Sometimes students don’t care about marks. If this is the case, you may get him to buy in to your system by showing that it’s the path of least resistance. You and the teachers will leave him alone once he’s completing the work and handing it in.

If he does not want a checklist on his binder, would he agree to an inconspicuous one taped to the inside of his binder? Taped to the back of his ruler? Laminated and stored inside his pencil case?

Is there a teacher or teacher associate with whom he feels comfortable? Could he meet with this person first thing in the morning to go over what he needs to hand it, what materials he must gather for his first classes, what his day’s schedule looks like, and before leaving school in the afternoon to review what he has for homework, which materials he needs to take home, etc.

Does he like gadgets?  Rather than a written checklist, would he prefer to receive the same information in electronic form? If he uses a computer, many software programs come with calendars where you can list your deadlines, plan out your work and have the program beep at you to remind you when to begin that scheduled bout of work, as well as when to allow yourself a break.

Smart phones have wonderful features for organizing our lives. The basic Calendar or Reminder functions  can work remarkably well if used regularly. For some kids, using a smart phone for organization is cooler than an agenda book or day timer.

Do rewards work for your son?  If his teacher communicates to you that he’s turned all his work in on time that day or week, would he appreciate receiving the reward he’s earned that weekend?  Or earning a privilege at school?

Is he able to explain to you why he did not hand in his work?  Does he actually do the work then not hand it in? This is where “Theory of Mind” or (Universal Mind as Temple Grandin calls it) may come into play. Perhaps in his mind, if he’s done the work, he has complied.  He was assigned homework and he did it.

Most people with autism spectrum disorders assume that whatever is in their minds is shared by others. If your son completed his work, he might think that everyone else would know that he did.  Showing it to someone can then seem like a redundant step. It may take many repetitions and clear explanations before he understands that doing the work is but the first step – next he needs to hand it in for his teacher to see.

Even if he has Asperger’s, he’s still an adolescent and most adolescents want to blend in with the crowd and value independence.

If both he and his teacher have access to computers, could he do his work on computer then email his assignment to his teacher? Before email was common, my son would work on our home computer then use the computer’s fax program to send his work to his teacher as he finished it, eliminating the need to print it off, stick the pages in a binder, place the binder in a book bag, take it to school, dig through the bag and binder for the work, then hand it in.  Think of all the places where this process could break down, especially if you are distracted, anxious, easily overwhelmed and loaded down with the demands of the next day.

Many students with Asperger’s and autism have weak fine motor coordination, making writing with a pencil difficult.  If your son has poor penmanship, his hand may actually tire more quickly than would be expected for his age. For him to write a paragraph may require as much effort as it would for someone else to write a page. Perhaps the volume of work discourages him and he could benefit from having the volume adapted.

Pencil grips help some students; you may need to experiment with several types before finding one comfortable for him.  Writing on a horizontal surface is tiring for some people.  He may do better with a slant board, writing on an inclined surface. Or lying on his stomach on the floor while doing his homework. An Occupational Therapist may be able to offer some suggestions if fine motor difficulties are hindering your son’s production of work.

Again, this is where computers can be a help.  If doing general school work at a computer is not convenient, a laptop computer is more portable, although expensive. A less costly alternative is a dedicated word processor or “smart keyboard” such as a Neo or Dana.

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