Eccentric children -- including those on the autism spectrum -- often have unique academic abilities. But today's teaching philosophies are making hard for them to shine.
Children have long been graded not just for academics, but also for elements of "character" -- particularly behavior and emotional maturity. However, in the last few decades, socially eccentric children have seen their awkwardness or aloofness factored into their grades in math, language arts, and social studies. Ironically, this trend has coincided with a rise in diagnoses of autistic spectrum disorders.
For children on the autism spectrum, new social studies curricula pose a particular challenge. Once restricted to readings, worksheets, and essays on history, government, and politics, the subject increasingly requires students to reflect on their connections within their local communities. They are asked to present projects to their classmates (even in primary school), spend much of class time working in groups, and evaluate scenarios such as this one, from a worksheet for 3rd graders:
Fulfilling this assignment means reading the characters' faces, deducing the social dynamics, and assuming multiple perspectives -- tasks that amount to an informal screening test for the core social deficit of autistic spectrum disorders. Fail this assignment, and chances are you're somewhere on the spectrum.
Language arts classes, meanwhile, tend to favor books by authors like Judy Blume and Jerry Spinelli: realistic fiction starring recognizable school-aged peers in social settings. To the socially adept, these books are highly accessible. But the socially oblivious may find themselves unable to answer the reading comprehension questions, many of which require social inferences similar to those in the social studies sheet.
In writing assignments as well, today's language arts classes favor realistic fiction (often explicitly disallowing fantasy) along with personal accounts of everyday life. For the autistic child, written expression may already be difficult; assignments that presuppose an ability to articulate personal feelings or create psychologically realistic characters, dialogue, and social interactions, can be a tremendously bewildering and frustrating.
Some of these writing challenges extend to today's math classes. To earn full credit on math problems, students often must verbally explain the thought processes behind their mathematical solutions. But one common characteristic among people on the autism spectrum is a nonverbal approach to mathematics, Many autistic children have mathematical skills that far exceed their verbal skills. But even when their verbal skills are on par with their math skills, they tend to solve problems nonverbally, performing much of the work rapidly and automatically in their heads. When they're asked to explain their answers, they not only may struggle to put their thoughts into words. They may have actually bypassed the thought processes that could be verbalized by their peers.
For the same reason, autistic children struggle with the kind of group work required at many schools, particularly those with smaller classrooms, better-behaved students, and better reputations. As in other subjects, math teachers assess students, in part, on their ability to cooperate with their peers. But working in math groups is challenging for autistic children, not only because of their deficient social skills, but because they can often do the math tasks entirely on their own -- and faster than their group mates can. When they're expected to help their peers, or at least to wait for them to finish, they may become impatient and irritable or bored and tuned out. Either way, they will lose points for cooperation.
Meanwhile, the kind of challenging solo work in which mildly autistic students have excelled is becoming less and less common. Across the curriculum, the traditional essay or problem set has been upstaged by group projects and multimedia presentations. Consider, for example, how many points in this popular science evaluation rubric come from skills in oral presentation:
One might argue that the new emphasis on sociability is precisely what autistic spectrum students require. Don't they, more than anyone else, need to develop their communication and collaborative skills? And in our increasingly social 21st century, aren't these skills more important than ever before -- both for life in general, and for jobs in particular?
The problem is that the kinds of jobs that autistic students aspire to -- for example, computer programming, engineering, writing, and the visual arts -- tend not to involve the sorts of group dynamics that occur in K-12 classrooms. And the social skills training that they do, indeed, very much require are best left to trained professionals. Well-run social skills groups for children on the autism spectrum are out there -- just not in most K-12 schools.
By traditional academic standards, children with the mild form of autism currently known as Asperger's syndrome are often exceptionally gifted. They tend to have unusual numerical and spatial reasoning skills that lead to superior achievement in math and science. Many also have large vocabularies, encyclopedic knowledge, and strong analytical abilities, making them exceptional writers of social studies essays. Some have imaginations that lead to unusual creativity in fantasy or science fiction writing.
A generation ago, before current trends in K-12 education took hold, many Asperger's children would have sailed through school without being downgraded for their social deficiencies. Nowadays, even in subjects where they used to excel, their grades are declining. And so are their prospects for appropriately challenging and rewarding education -- and careers -- in the future.
Thanks to the official Asperger's diagnosis, some parents of these students have managed to secure accommodations that exempted them from many of these new requirements. But in May, when the 5th edition of America's official manual of the psychiatric disorders comes out, the syndrome won't be there. Instead of receiving an Asperger's diagnosis, those with milder symptoms will simply be classified as having an autism spectrum disorder. Some studies have suggested that under the new system, the milder cases may go unidentified -- a result that could further impede those students' ability to thrive in today's classrooms.
Either way, brightening the prospects of our official or unofficial "Aspies" isn't difficult. It means restoring traditional, academic pathways through school, and allowing them, wherever possible, to work independently. And it means leaving the social skills training -- along with the autistic spectrum screening tests -- to the professionals.