Since the dawn of time, kids have been asking why they need to learn things. When I was in school I asked these questions, and now my own kids ask them too.
“Why do I need to know how to diagram a sentence?”
“When am I ever going to have to write a book report again?”
“Tell me! Tell me when I’m going to have to use algebra! Why do I need to know this?”
But as each year passes, these kinds of questions become more and more legitimate for my son, Jack.
What does he really need to know?
Just when I thought math couldn’t get any worse for this boy, we hit sixth grade. Sixth grade math is really just a whole lot of words, like greatest common factor and lowest common denominator and perimeter.
Jack hates words. Words are hard for him. They wash over him like a tidal wave in the Bermuda triangle. I mean, the other day he asked me what confuse meant, so you can see why I might worry about him grasping greatest common factor.
And then there’s homework. Ah, homework. For this autism mama, homework is literally the bane of my existence; the afternoon thorn in my side, my end-of-the-day kryptonite.
So yes, once again, he’s struggling to keep up. But the words aren’t even the hard part. The hard part is when I ask him every afternoon to start his homework and he answers me flatly, “No.”
Just that. He just says, “No.”
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve thought it, too. In fact, I’ve even said it out loud—to him.
“What do you mean, NO? You can’t tell me no! You need to do what I ask!”
We’ve taken away the computer. We’ve taken away television. We’ve taken away family movie time and asked the teachers to keep him in for recess. The only thing we have not threatened are the very essentials that keep the wheels on the Jack-bus: Oreos, music, and his anti-anxiety medication, and I’m not about to start messing with those, because in the words of enlightened tweens everywhere, I am not cray-cray.
(In case you don’t live with a tween, this means crazy.)
We’ve tried rewards. We’ve told him he could download a new song when he finishes his homework. He could bake a new cake or pick a show to watch before bed. And that works. For approximately a single day, and exactly twenty-four hours later, we’re back to, “I’m not for doing it.”
We’ve set timers.
We’ve given sensory breaks.
We’ve started as soon as he got off the bus, and when that didn’t work, we waited an hour so he could relax for a little bit.
We’ve modified; we’ve reduced the number of problems and spelling words and creatively woven his favorite recipes into word problems.
“I can’t it’s for me hard.”
I have used the tactics our counselor gave us, to soothe him and ease him into each problem.
“I know, Jack. Math does feel hard sometimes. But I know you can do it!”
His resolve is almost admirable. He is calm, unyielding, until I start to push him and push him and he gets more and more agitated and then I get more and more agitated and we dissolve into a hot mess.
Then I start to feel very frantic inside—I imagine this boy camped out in my basement playing video games for the rest of his life in sweatpants he hasn’t washed for days with a bunch of dirty dishes perched all around him. For some reason, I picture him sitting on a plaid couch.
One day he asked me tearfully, “Why did God. For make homework.”
This is not about the school. It is not about the right para or a different teacher or a new IPad. Jack is surrounded by gentle, loving, determined people who are as invested in his success as we are. The only one not invested, it seems, is Jack.
I remember when he was a toddler, my neighbor was telling me how her little boy just loved-loved-loved music time at the community center in town, and at the end of every class he ran over to collect his sticker. He pasted it to his shirt and wore it proudly until bath time.
I glanced over at then 3-year old Jack, who was turning a juice box over and over in his hand as though it was something that landed here by spaceship. My stomach sank. Stickers meant nothing to this small, plump boy. I had no idea how to inspire him; how to encourage and propel him toward the goals we had for him then–to talk, to use the potty, to clap his hands in time to the music.
Now that he’s eleven, not much has really changed. I still have no idea how to motivate him. He doesn’t care if he gets a good grade or a bad grade, or if he fails sixth grade altogether.
A few years ago, we had Jack tested by a psychologist so we could better understand the way he learns. I’m sure there’s a big fancy name for this type of assessment but I can’t remember it, and although Jack balked at the testing, we found out some valuable information.
We learned he hates repetition. Isn’t that just a hoot? The boy who reminded me nine times this morning alone that the bus comes at 8:01—yes, I counted—even though it’s the middle of October and he’s been taking the bus since before Labor Day hates repetition.
He also has limited working memory, or the ability to hold on to information in his mind long enough to use it.
And he is severely impaired when it comes to cognitive flexibility, so basically he does not care what other people think or feel or know or want.
If I had to take these three characteristics of Jack’s mind and bundle them into an assessment about homework, it means he thinks writing spelling words three times is the stupidest thing ever and he can’t keep the definition of greatest common denominator still in his brain long enough to work the problem out on paper and he hasn’t the slightest interest in pleasing me, his father, his teachers, his para, his case manager, the school principal, the bus driver, or the district superintendent.
Not to put too fine a point on it.
“No. For just no.”
In the late afternoons when we’ve been arguing for hours and the timer has run out and the work is still not done, it feel like I’m shadowboxing something I can’t quite reach out and touch. What, exactly, am I fighting?
I am fighting a child who has a neurological disorder to finish a fraction. I am pleading with an 11-year old whose emotional maturity is closer to that of a 6-year old to write a book report.
I am battling—always, always—battling autism.
He has wept.
I have wept.
Together, we have packed up the papers and books and put away the pencils with heavy hearts and a lot of anger.
The timer is running out.
Again and again I ask myself, what does he really need to know? What do I want for my mysterious, curious, surprise son?
As I raise my special-needs kiddo, my expectations have begun to slide a little over time. They started out very high—I want him to graduate and get married and have a career he loves! –and then over time, they changed. They adjusted to the boy he is, rather than the boy I thought he should be.
Off the top of my head, these are the things I want Jack to be able to do, whether he lives in my basement or in an apartment down the street or with his brother or in a mansion on the coast of California:
I want him to be able to write his own signature in cursive.
I want him to read one chapter book from beginning to end, just one.
I want him to know how to make a meal for himself, how to fold a load of laundry, and how to write out a check.
I want him to know how to get out of a building if there’s a fire, and how to run for help if he feels unsafe.
I want him to know he can do things that are for him hard, and in order to find the perimeter, you have to go the distance.
The next time he asks, I’ll tell him I think that’s why God made homework.