Why Don’t Kids Report Bullying?

HRC posted a piece on why kids don’t report bullying to school employees.  The article’s a good read, based on fact, but it brought back why didn’t report bullying.

It was simple: reporting the bullying didn’t help.

I was kicked, hit, sexually assaulted, burned, choked, manipulated, humiliated, insulted, excluded, scapegoated, and teased for 13 years of public school.  13 years.

The other kids figured out quickly two things. First, they figured out that I was different. I didn’t act like the other kids. I don’t remember all the names, but I know in my early elementary years, “retard” was a favorite. And in my high school years, “faggot” was a favorite. But it didn’t particularly remember what the name or label was, or whether they were accurate or not. An unathletic, tiny, weak, autistic kid is an easy target. I was an easy target.

I never will be able to express what the humiliation felt like every day of my school career. I just wanted to disappear. I just wanted to be ignored. Anything would have been better than the humiliation.

Even in early grades, I learned I was the problem. I heard that not just from other kids, but from the school itself. I was the problem. I was the kid that didn’t know when to be quiet in class. I was the kid that would get distracted and look out the window. I was the kid that would leave class for no apparent reason (not being able to cope wasn’t a good reason, after all).

I spent two weeks in isolation in elementary school for telling the truth to a principle – that I didn’t vandalize a bathroom. The kid who “witnessed” this destruction (who later I realized probably did it) was thanked for his truthfulness. I was put in a small room with no humans for two weeks. It took me 20 years to simply be able to pee in a public bathroom after that. I wasn’t believed. That was typical.

In Junior High, a teacher watched a 9th grader who was much bigger than the 7th grader I was (well, they were all bigger than me in Junior High – I started Junior High in the .1 percentile of weight) literally lifting and throwing me to take my place in the lunch line. The response? We were both given detention. For fighting. (as an aside, I finally did grow in the 9th grade – and am average height today – something that boggled the heck out of my poor parents trying to keep clothes on me my 9th grade year!)

I remember other times where was the problem when I was bullied. I remember the PE teacher I ran to, fearing the kids chasing me would kill me. I was told to be a man. Again, I was the problem. I remember being sent to a behavior program during the sumer because I was causing too much trouble in class (yes, they sent a bunch of bullies to the same program; you can guess how that worked out for me, although the worst injury I received their was inflicted by a staff member – and, no, I didn’t bother to tell an adult). I remember day in and day out of abuse.

When I reported it? I was the problem. If only I behaved differently. At one point, I was actually told to laugh differently if I didn’t want to be bullied. Even the rare expression of joy was a problem to be corrected.

Most often, the response was to tell me how I could have kept the kids from bullying me. I could have stood up for myself. I could have walked away. I could have told an adult (uh…that’s what I did when I got told this…). I could have…well, it doesn’t really matter. Only rarely were the bullies dealt with – and when they were, they got no more than a token punishment. And who was the bully? Damn near every other kid. And some teachers. I was always in trouble. When the bully got in trouble, it was a “good kid” that did one minor mistake. I get two weeks in the hole for telling the truth about not throwing toilet paper around a bathroom. They get a detention for giving me a black eye.

You learn quickly not to report it when you live through this day after day. I’d guess I reported maybe one of a thousand incidents. Yes, thousand. There must have been tens of thousands of incidents during my school career. Sure, most were minor – minor insults, light pinches, subtle humiliations. But even minor, when you have thousands of these events happening every year to you, it wears you down pretty quickly.

I’d like to say that I was uniquely bullied in school. I do suspect the degree of bullying I received was well beyond the comprehension of most adults (including my parents). I know my parents were shocked when, as an adult, I told them I didn’t vandalize the bathroom in school. They were sure I did it. They believe me now, but it took 20 years to be believed by anyone.

I did tell adults. They just did nothing about it.

And I told in ways other than voice.

I missed over two months of school every year from about 4th grade through 11th grade (in 12th grade, I finally found an adult that would rescue me by allowing me to skip classes when I wanted – unsurprisingly that’s the only year I had a decent GPA).

I failed about half my classes in 8th grade through 11th grade (I not only passed everything in 12th grade, but got a 4.0 GPA; the difference? Being able to escape my classmates).  What kind of kid can earn a 4.0 GPA in 12th grade but fails most of his required classes in 11th grade? It’s simple: an abused kid, where there was at least a partial solution in 12th grade.

Any PE teacher could have watched how the kids picked people for their team. It would have been darn clear that something was going on there. And, no, it’s not that I wasn’t a skilled athlete.

Anyone could have been a hero. Way too few were.

The signs were there. It should have been easy to see. Even when I didn’t speak about the abuse. Even when I had lost hope in the adults.

To the teachers and administrators, I have one simple, simple message: look out for that wierd, small, annoying kid. Nobody else is. Maybe, just maybe, his behavior problems aren’t a desire to torture you. Maybe they are a result of never-ending abuse. Help and you’ll be amazed. The few adults that did listen, that somehow spotted me, that somehow saw something beautiful in me despite the labels and behaviors, they are my heroes. They saved my life. You have no idea how important you might be to a kid. That 12th grade teacher (who didn’t actually teach me!) willing to write me passes to get out of class…she saved my life.

I probably should have told those few adults who actually helped me, who respected me. But by then I was too beat down, and too far from being able to heal. But they still provided me some respite from the abuse. And even that is a blessing.

And when an abused kid – whether abused by adults or other kids – actually tells you about abuse, act on it. You might not hear the word “abuse” used. You’ll probably hear that someone did something to the kid, and it probably sounds like the kid’s blowing it out of proportion and not dealing with things. But maybe, just maybe, you should investigate it and find out if this might just be one of thousands of incidents, and maybe, just maybe, the kid is hoping he can trust. Show your courage and your heart. Show you can be trusted. Do something. It takes a lot to build trust in someone that’s been abused. But show you can be trusted. Show you will listen. And believe. And do.

To that kid: I know it’s damn near impossible to believe me, but you can keep going. Just make it through to another day. I believe you. You don’t deserve this crap. The happiest day of my life was when I left home and traveled 300 miles to college. I had plenty of problems there too, and definitely lacked support (primarily because I had no trust in the ability of others to help me) – heck, I didn’t eat for a week simply because I had no way to ask where the cafeteria was. Not eating for a week was better than being in my hometown. And I did eventually find out where to eat. And I made friends. Yes, friends. People who actually liked me, protected me, spent time with me. What a relief it was to actually have a human to spend time with.

I do know how hard it is. Maybe I had it harder than you, maybe you have it harder than I did. I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Torture is torture, and is never okay. I’m hoping you keep going, that you somehow find strength that no human should need to find. But you’ve done it so far. Please, go on another day. There is hope. In your heart, you believe it too. You had to or you wouldn’t have gotten this far. Listen to that, and don’t let your brain tell you otherwise. Even when you can’t see a way out, things can change.

How to Cope @ University

A Guardian article about autistics going to university reminded me how much we miss when we call autism a “social” disability – something that affects primarily our ability to interact.

Is autism primarily a social disability? NO! Autism is a bit more complex than that. No, a lot more complex.

I had problems in university. Some of them were social. For instance, my first week of school, I didn’t eat anything because I was too overwhelmed to ask where the cafeteria was – eventually my hunger got the best of me and I stalked a group of students at around dinner time. But going a week without food isn’t a good thing. And, yes, if I interacted socially like most people, I probably would have asked someone for directions.

Some classes focused on group work. I did pretty poor in those. I still hate group work, and avoid it at all cost. Fortunately, most of my teachers accepted this and let me do individual work. But I did pretty poor when they didn’t.

But, there is a lot more to autism than social stuff. I probably would have graduated from my first attempt at university if I had some non-social help. I didn’t need help with the subject matter, but I did need help organizing things and figuring out how to schedule my time. The university may be able to help students with that now, I don’t know. But it’s deeper than that.

In fact, the social part of university was the part I enjoyed the most – I had more friends during that time of my life than during any other time of my life! I could find people interested in what I was interested in. I loved that part of it – I had little trouble making friends (after the first week).

I needed help with daily life. Getting up in the morning, getting dressed, doing laundry, eating, organizing my room, paying my bills, etc. Of course most universities expect you to do that yourself. Maybe that’s fine, but if it is, then this help needs to be available elsewhere.

One of the biggest things that caused me problems was the avalanche effect. I could cope with a few flakes of snow. Or even a snowball or two. But, if you get enough snow at once, it’s deadly. If I got behind a little in my daily living areas, homework, self-care, etc, it would tend to push other things behind. Pretty soon, everything was behind. After a bit of this, everything was behind so much that there was no hope of catching up. I needed a chance to rest and recover sometimes. I rarely got it.

As an example, let’s say I had a hard day for any number of reasons. I end up going to bed exhausted, but after 8 hours or so of sleep, I might not be fully recovered. So it’s impossible for me to get up and get breakfast, and maybe I even can’t make it to that first class. Of course there is homework in that class, and while I have plenty of friends, I don’t have any in that class to find out what homework was assigned. Instructors aren’t very helpful when you say, “I slept through your class…again…” so you’re on your own. So now, I have something that is stressing me out (my homework), I probably have late or no marks for the homework I was supposed to hand in, and I still haven’t eaten any food or got to any class. The stress might keep me from my next class too, which compounds the problem. Then I find I don’t have any clean underwear to wear, since I forgot to do laundry yesterday when I was stressed out. So I have to go do that – and that’s two more hours out of my day. So I end up collapsing in front of the TV or computer game or internet. And now it just looks like I’m a lazy ass, so I’m not going to get any sympathy (or, more helpfully, HELP!) now!

Another part of the problem is that most 18 year olds don’t know what help they need, and most universities don’t know either. Sure, they have ideas, but they generally lack the flexibility and imagination – and perhaps even money, people, and ability – to notice things like, “Oh, it’s probably important that we find a way to make sure Joel can get food when he’s overloaded and can’t do the dining hall. He’ll have more success in school with that.” Or realizing that there is alternatives to group work that meet students where they are instead of where their peers are. Or eliminating some of the barriers students have to getting a degree inherent in the program.

For my program, I needed a foreign language. After I took Spanish I for the third time (and failed it), I gave up on that. And I gave up on the group-work senior project class, not because of lack of ability to do the work but because of the incredibly strange way the professor wanted us to work together. Then there was certain progressions that were expected, but maybe I missed or had trouble with one part of it one semester – and the next semester, the same course wasn’t offered, but I also couldn’t progress with the rest of my class.

If we can’t even get the flexibility we need with the aspects of the program that are 100% under the control of the university – course progressions, general education requirements, and course structure – there’s little hope for us when it comes to daily living and coping with overload.

It doesn’t help when you yourself don’t know what you need to succeed yet.

Here’s what we need (and I’m sure there are others);

  • Daily Living Support – we need to meet our own needs for food, shelter, self-care, home organization, financial, and administrative stuff. There should be a way for students who could excel in their field to still excel in their field, even if they have problems with these areas
  • Structured Flexibility – I needed deadlines to get work done by. But at the same time, I needed exceptions and flexible schedules. And I needed a lot more than most students.
  • Creativity – how can I demonstrate my growth? How can I learn my field? There’s not just one way!
  • Crash Time and Space – I need a place to escape, rest, and relax. If I don’t get this, then everything else crumbles around me. A noisy residence hall is not an escape – it’s tremendous work.
  • Academic Support – this was the least important thing for me. These are the accommodations universities know how to accommodate the best (which is still often pretty awful). This is things like note takers, testing environmental accommodations, tutors, etc. I don’t know much about this because it’s not something I needed.

I’m sure there’s others, and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

I Would Make an Awful Welder

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:

Listen!

When the kid says, “I love X”, it might be helpful to look at that field first. Duh.

Look!

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.

Think!

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!

There’s More

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.

Have you considered welding?

I was a horrible student in school.  Most of my schooling involved me barely passing the required courses.  I had a tremendous range of grades and a rather strange mix of classes.  For instance, I had to retake freshman English and world history (and some others).  Yet I was in advanced placement math.

My teachers had no idea what to do with a student like me.  Or, rather, most of them didn’t.  So I ended up failing courses that should have been easy – English for instance.  I love reading, and have learned to love writing.  I’m fairly good at both.  Yet, I flunked basic English not because of lack of reading or writing ability, but simple lack of executive functioning combined with a way schools have of taking something that kids have natural talent at and turning it into a boring, dull subject.

That’s the first problem I had with school.  It didn’t help that I was getting the shit beat out of me, I was incredibly lonely, and was suicidal during most of my schooling.  But, ultimately, even if those things weren’t happening, I didn’t do good with school.  My college career, bookmarked by 4.0 GPAs during my first and last semesters  was pretty lackluster.  And college was a very happy and enjoyable time for me, so I can’t blame that on the abuse and depression.

I was plenty capable of doing well in school academically.  As I mentioned, I did great at the beginning and end of my college career – even with difficult classes like engineering physics.  And I did good my last year of high school, but we’ll get to why later.  But, in general I couldn’t do it.

The first reason I didn’t do well was simply executive function.  My ability to maintain a schedule and keep up with homework is variable.  Sometimes it’s relatively easy (at least as easy as it is for anyone).  Sometimes it’s very, very difficult – even impossible.  I just can’t finish, sometimes can’t even start.  That’s the autistic inertia you’ll see autistics, but not professionals, talk about.

Sometimes, through sheer willpower, I could overcome that – at least for a time.  But, inevitably, there’s a crash coming soon afterward.  From my experience, I can keep it up for about a year, if there’s tremendous motivation.  But no more than that.  That’s why I did good my senior year of high school (4.0 there, but not other years, as I graduated “in the top of the bottom quarter of my class”).  But I had some significant motivation.  I had two things that year – a mentor, which I’ll get to in a bit, and my parents’ help.

My parents helped (actually my mom) by making a deal with me.  “I’ll write you a note to get out of school anytime you want, for any reason, if you bring home A’s on your report card.”  For a kid who faced abuse at school, few things can motivate as much as getting away from ones’ abusers.  Now I don’t suggest that we abuse autistic kids so that we can give some motivation in the form of getting away from abusers.  But for me, this was exactly what I needed.  I needed a break.  And it wasn’t just from abuse – it was from the stress of the routine, that I simply couldn’t maintain.  I could do my burst of energy and activity, then take a day or two off from school.  That helped.

My mentor was also a huge help – for two reasons.  She was the computer instructor in the school, at a time when my school was one of the first schools in the world getting hooked up to the internet.  Because hooking schools to the internet, particularly in a rural area, was pretty unusual, nobody had rules about how to do it yet.  So I got to run wires through the school, set up servers, and, in general, just learn how the internet worked.  This teacher saw that this was something I was interested in, had aptitude for, and she could build upon.  So she turned me loose and took a huge risk with me.  She also told me that she would arrange for me to get out of any class I was doing well in if I wanted to work on the internet instead – once again, a great motivator!

What’s amazing about this instructor was that I never had her as an instructor – she saw me in a computer lab, saw that I had some interest in computers, and did what someone who loves teaching does – she taught me.  Not with formal lesson plans, which wouldn’t have worked well with me, but by letting me do something I valued.  It had a great side-effect of turning into my career (I’m employed today “making the internet work”), and has let me earn a good living for myself.  At my company, I’m the least formally educated person in my peer group.  That opportunity was available to me because of the experience  I gained, starting with running ethernet cables in high school.

Yet, while this was happening, I was getting career advice.  They felt all high school students should make plans for their future.  Fair enough, but horrible implementation.  Ever since I was 5, I wanted to program computers.  Once I was 10 or so, I knew I wanted to do computer security.  When I was 25, I was programming computer security systems – I was the only person I knew who was doing exactly what he dreamed of doing as a small child.  How many people end up in their dream job?  I’d consider that success.

So, I remember my career counseling.  I remember filling out worksheets to find out what I was “good” at, or what I had “aptitude” for – and finding out I should be a file clerk or mechanic.  I remember then talking to the actual staff, and telling them what I wanted to do.  The most memorable experience was one where I was told, “Computer programming?  That requires college.  I don’t think that’s the best choice.  Have you considered something like welding?”

Now, I have great respect for someone who can weld well.  I married a highly skilled welder!  I look at what my wife can do with a few pieces of scrap metal and am always amazed.  But I can’t do that.  Part of it is that I’ve never had training in welding – but part of it is that it isn’t what I have aptitude for.  I’d probably be able to become an okay welder, with enough education, practice, and time.  But I’m a good programmer, and much more helpful to society as someone who can practice his craft at that level than merely at the okay level.  Ironically, his comment about college also was wrong.  I finished college last year, about 16 years after I started it.  I never had a college degree when I was hired at a job.

That’s my problem with schools and career counselors.  Most look at the typical path from A to B.  I’m not typical.  I’ll never be typical.  I can’t do school and succeed the way my peers can.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t have things to offer the world, even if I might have to take a bit more twisty of a path to get from A to B.  Fortunately, some people saw my ability, and I had good mentors who helped me not with the technical stuff (although they did that by letting me loose on it!), but being able to engage me in my weaker areas while I was focused on my strengths.  I’ll write about that sometime, but this is long enough.

But in the meantime, I don’t want any career advice.  At least not from the system that thought it would be better to be an okay welder than a good programmer.  (for what it’s worth, I shudder when I think of the loss to society because others who would be great welders who are now just okay programmers – it’s a loss either way around)

The Need to be Pointy, Not Round!

“Employers often seek people with a well-rounded education and a broad skill set, rather than those who have training in one field.”  They may.  But that doesn’t help me, or most other autistic people.

Well-rounded means equally good at a bunch things, when referenced to the norm of NT (neurotypical) abilities.  Autistics are many things, but we are not NT.

We have things that are difficult or impossible to learn, but which are well within the grasp of most NTs (for me, recognizing someone’s face comes to mind).  Yet other tasks are almost instinctual to us, such as those used in the hidden figure test.

If you took the average NT, you might draw her abilities as follows, both before and after she receives her well-rounded education:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability (blue) and one at 200% representing educated ability (red)

That’s the goal of a well-rounded education – not just to focus on one area of life, but to focus on all of life.  Of course students don’t start with perfectly average (even for NTs) abilities in every area – they have strengths and weaknesses even relative to other NTs.  But stick with me and let me discuss the “average” NT.  I’ll address natural variation later.

Of course Autistics are bad at some things compared to NTs and good at some things.  Once again, two autistics are going to be different from each other, and may have different strengths and weaknesses.  So I just drew an example of the natural ability of a hypothetical autistic.  Note that this graph doesn’t actually represent true abilities or anything such, just a hypothetical individual compared to the NT norm:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability of an NT (blue) and a red line representing autistic natural ability in red that starts below the blue for face recognition and social skills, but rises above the red line for hidden figures and classification.

So, this person in the hypothetical well-rounded education program where they teach face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification would find themselves needing to do little or any hidden figure and classification homework to keep up with his peers – but would end up doing a lot of work on face recognition and social skills, compared to his NT peers.  In some cases, no amount of work would be enough.  Sure, I could run a mile faster if I trained weekly.  But I’ll never be able to beat an Olympic gold medalist!  We have different natural abilities.

Of course that’s not the only way to look at this – there’s another way.  We can look at the “average” NT skills versus the hypothetical autistic’s skills.  Let’s say our hypothetical autistic was seen as “normal” and the average NT was the exception:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability of a hypothetical autistic (red) and a blue line representing typical NT natural ability in red, compared to autistic ability, that starts above the blue for face recognition and social skills, but falls below the red line for hidden figures and classification.

Now, if the well-rounded education was based around our hypothetical autistic’s abilities, the NT would do little to improve their social skills and face recognition, areas of relative strength.  But they would spend a lot of time worrying and practicing on hidden figure and classification subjects.

Would that make sense?  The proponents of liberal arts education would say it doesn’t.

In today’s dynamic workplace, a liberal arts education is more desirable than ever before. Employers want individuals who can think logically and creatively, solve problems and adapt to change. Employers often seek people with a well-rounded education and a broad skill set, rather than those who have training in one field. (University of Idaho)

So, obviously, they would want the NT to improve their social skills above neurotypical norms.  They also would want someone who improves other areas.

It makes no sense to ignore social skills in the NT, just because they are already better than the hypothetical autistics’ social skills.  Likewise, however, it makes no sense to focus excessively on face recognition and social skills for the autistic who can also get better at classification and hidden figures.

Of course in the real world “face recognition”, “classification”, and “hidden figures” aren’t directly studied by most, plus there are plenty of NTs that are bad and good at specific things, and plenty of autistics who don’t fit the stereotype perfectly.  But for those individuals, does it make sense to ignore the strengths and only focus on weaknesses?  Of course not!

The autistic person, if they improve all areas of their ability, would have a lot of peaks and valleys compared to the well-rounded neurotypical ideal.  They might be really good at some technical area, compared to most NTs, but really lousy, again compared to most NTs, at some so-called “soft-skill.”  Is that bad?  Not necessarily.

For me, my strengths keep me employed.  I understand some key technologies used on the internet, and can utilize them to do what some people see as useful work.  I can do this in a way that my employer feels I make him more money than I cost him – I have a market value, for whatever that’s worth (in my eyes, not much – financial value of an individual is very different than their worth to human kind, as some of the most financially valuable people are among the most worthless or even costly to society in non-financial senses and vise-versa).  Of course not everyone’s strengths tie to employment, and not every autistic will have strengths in given areas compared to neurotypicals.  But even for autistics without these things, it’s still worth improving their ability to do the things they do best, not just the things they do worst.

If my teachers said, “You’re technical skills are already well above those of most computer science graduates, and you’re a high school student,” I would never have learned the skills I need for employment.  And, likewise, if I spent my time learning to recognize faces rather than becoming more technically skilled, I’d just end up with decent technical skills and still-lousy face recognition skills.  That would not have helped me – even if I was twice as good at recognizing faces as I am now, I’d still be horrible at it!  I’m never going to get a job or even personal enjoyment out of exercising great facial recognition skill.

Will every autistic be great in some technical field?  Of course not.  But not every NT is good socially, either (think about an asshole you know who is NT – assholism is not a good social skill!).  And there are plenty of unemployed NTs.  So, yes, some of us won’t ever be in a situation where we earn money.  Some of us might struggle at seemingly everything (although as the hidden figure tests showed, there may be hidden skills that have gone unrecognized in some people).  So I don’t mean or want to imply that this is the normal autistic experience.  I don’t think any of us have a “normal” experience!  But at the same time, even the person with the stereotypical autistic experience would benefit by growing in his strengths, not just his weaknesses.

Should I improve my ability to recognize my friends?  Sure, to the extent possible and realistic.  But I’m not going to worry too much about it – I don’t think I’m ever going to be great at that.  So I’ll still spend my time learning the technologies that I enjoy using and which is valuable to my employer.  Even if I’m much more pointy than round.