In the early 90s, a guidance counselor in my school suggested welding as a possible career choice. I’m guessing he didn’t have a lot of respect for welders, unfortunately. I certainly wouldn’t have helped that field any – and if I was welding, there would be more Arkansas pipeline spills in the world. We don’t need that.
Here’s what I think happened: I think the guidance counselor probably was overworked, busy, and required to help 750 students or so find their true calling in life. That’s just not going to work, period. But with autistic people, it can be even more challenging than it is for many other students.
So this guy, who doesn’t know me personally (the school had about 3,500 students with only a handful of guidance counselors), pulls up my transcripts and other records. In the other records, he sees that I was at one time in special education for reading, had numerous absence problems, and was planning on making up some classes in summer school that year. He probably saw teacher notes – you know, things like, “your child has more potential than he uses” on his report card. Then he saw my transcripts – I was solidly at the top of the bottom 25% of my class! My grades in math were poor (D’s), I failed several humanities classes, but did great in introduction to auto mechanics.
So, seeing someone with behavioral problems, trouble reading, laziness (isn’t “your child has more potential than he uses” the long way of saying “lazy?”), failing or nearly failing things like math and English, and who seems to only be doing good in one class, what does he do? He picks something totally out of left field and suggests it (likely, in his eyes, welding and car repair are basically the same thing).
There’s just one problem. He didn’t have all the records, and the ones he had misled him (and plenty of others in my life).
It missed my passion. I had a passion for computers and programming. I still do. In fact, I used to brag that at age 25, I was doing my dream job – the one I wanted when I was 5 or 6 years old. How many people get to do that? (turns out that I found out that job wasn’t quite as great as I thought, so, although it wasn’t bad, I moved on to other related fields) I would never have found my path if I listened to this counselor or ignored my passion.
Passion is important for autistic people. Our skills look uneven to people who equate normal neurotypical strengths and weaknesses with “even skill development.” We’re not neurotypical, so our strengths and weaknesses differ. This isn’t bad, it’s just plain different. And one of my weaknesses was dealing with the structure of a school day and homework. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, it’s that it would burn me out.
But that’s not all of it. That special education for reading? I had a great vocabulary. I could read several grades above my grade level in elementary school. But I couldn’t express myself nearly as well. So, rather than realizing the difficulty was expression, it was believed to be reading. And later writing. Ironically, I didn’t discover until after I finished school that I love writing and am at least fair at it – I truly believed it was one of my biggest weaknesses. I hated reading and writing – today they are both huge joys in my life. Yet, I remember sitting there in elementary school repeating flash card words back to someone, thinking, even then, “Why do they keep asking me to tell them what this card says? This is dumb.” It was.
He could see that I did bad in math. Of course I was getting a “D” in advanced math, but nevermind that! I was getting a “D” because I lost books, pencils, paper, assignments, etc, and because of something else I’ll mention later. But I did great on the tests. Someone looking into this would have realized, “Wow, this kid knows the math but is nearly flunking. What is going on here? We should figure this out. How can he be nearly flunking, but get A’s on all his tests?” Perhaps grading my ability to learn math rather than my executive function without support would have been a good start.
Then, in English, I just hated that class. Same with social studies and history. Ironically, I love all of them today. But I really did hate them in school. I saw no connection to what I wanted to do in life. And that is important to an autistic student! Combine that with the same executive function problems I had in math…well, there’s no way I was going to pass those classes.
But there was an even bigger problem in school: I was suicidal, extremely depressed, and routinely afraid for my life at the hands of others. I was insulted, shoved, pissed on, hit, burned, taunted, molested, and generally bullied in pretty much every way possible. Go figure that I did bad in that environment. When I told a teacher, I was told to “man up” or whatever else would get me out of their hair. I don’t recall any of my complaints of bullying being taken seriously. Some even got me things like a group circle discussion between me and my bullies where the bullies explained what was wrong with my social skills and how I needed to change to not be bullied – uh, ya, that’s social skills training. Apparently the person who is taunting another is fine, but the victim should stop it. So I stopped making complaints to adults.
Combine the bullying with intense loneliness. I had nobody much of the time. Nobody.
So I did bad in school. Well, except for auto mechanics. You see, auto mechanics didn’t require any homework. So I did good if for no reason other than not needing to lug around books and remember to do assignments. But combine that with it being a relatively easy class, and of course I got an A. If you could change oil, you probably passed this introductory class. If you could also not destroy anything in the process, that got you a B. If you knew oil was black, not red, that got you an A I watched a couple of my fellow students drain the transmission and, then, when noticing it was the wrong color, tell each other, “Oh, that’s the RED oil. It’s really good stuff”; I watched another drive a car off of the auto lift. So I was going to do pretty good here. I didn’t destroy anything.
I’m still okay in auto maintenance. But just okay. You don’t want me fixing your car.
But that still doesn’t get us back to welding. I’m still not sure where that came from, but the idea of me welding is absurd. I’ve seen my wife (a master welder) do her stuff – it requires a fine motor control, eye for detail, and patience that I just don’t have. That’s fine. Welding is a great career. But so is my field.
Here’s my advice to people giving others advice. I’ll keep it simple, like people like to do with special education:
When the kid says, “I love X”, it might be helpful to look at that field first. Duh.
If you’ve seen this kid get bullied, that kid has a problem. Even if it was mild. Even if it was only once. The bullies aren’t seen 99% of the time. So if you see it, it’s bad. Really, really bad. And that kid ain’t going to be able to accomplish shit until the problem is fixed. And he might end up dead if you don’t do something.
Oh, he’s doing great on tests, but poor on homework? Maybe something is going on. Maybe it’s worth investigating. Maybe it’s bullying. Maybe the kid is working to support his family when he’s not at school. Maybe he’s being abused at home. Maybe he’s autistic and has difficulty with executive function. Maybe it’s more than one of these.
But don’t just pick a random career and ignore this!
I’d also add the following:
- Focus on strengths – What is the kid good at? But not just, “Where does he get good grades” since grades measure a whole lot more than the subject at hand.
- Be creative, school isn’t life – Just because a student doesn’t demonstrate an aptitude for something in school doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an aptitude for it in a slight different environment. Think about solutions to the school problems and how the student can find solutions to actual career issues.
- Career isn’t life either – While I’ve been talking about careers, a traditional career-that-gives-paycheck isn’t the only way to have meaning in life or to improve the world.
- Get the whole picture – Find out if the kid has hobbies or interests that he pursues outside of school. Might these be important?
- It’s okay if he’s different – Some of the greatest people in our world (not just financially successful or successful in a career) are different. Greatness requires difference.
So, what else is there? I’m sure I’m not the only one with thoughts or experiences.