May 19, 2014 0 Share

Being Aware of Self-Awareness

Teenage boy looking at multiple reflections of himself.

First published October 24, 2011.

I just finished reading the phenomenal debut novel by Tom Rachman entitled The Imperfectionists. I found myself particularly drawn to the following quote by character Oliver Ott: “I mean, we all know I don’t understand this sort of thing. The rest of the family does. But I seem to be missing it somehow. Missing the chromosome for it. The cleverness gene. I’m faulty. So here’s my question, Schop: can I be blamed for my defects? I mean, are my faults my fault?”

While Oliver is never identified by any diagnosis, he clearly struggles with social anxiety. His only friend is his basset hound, Schopenhauer, and Oliver doesn’t understanding why he struggles as he does, nor can he convey his anxiety when the situation demands it. While experiencing his character development in the novel, I was reminded of the new IEP goal I requested for Cameron recently. I strongly believe that in order for Cameron to have any chance at independence, he needs to understand and verbalize the challenges he faces because of his disabilities. When you think about it, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to anyone’s success. It therefore surprised me that my request seemed to be perceived as a unique goal to include in an IEP. I also asked Cameron’s psychologist to help Cameron formulate a way to communicate his challenges. The psychologist was going to ask for input from colleagues on a good approach. Why is it such an extraordinary request that Cameron understand himself? Someone going to Weight Watchers gets bombarded with information on the causes of obesity and how it’s combated. An alcoholic joining Alcoholics Anonymous quickly learns character traits he has that contribute to alcoholism. So why aren’t people with learning disabilities automatically taught the same sort of self-awareness?

Perhaps, and don’t hate me for saying this, but perhaps in our efforts to be inclusive with this population, we have overlooked the need for the population to understand what makes them different. Perhaps we’ve tried so hard to make them just like everyone else; we’ve forgotten to bring their attention to their unavoidable differences. Or maybe we’re essentially saying, “You have autism, so there’s no way you can understand what it means to have autism.”

I hope that Cameron will learn to understand that his brain works differently than most people’s. And as he becomes aware of his differences, I want to assure him his faults are not his fault, as Oliver pondered. Let me be clear that I see self-awareness as a means of Cameron asking for support, but it is not a crutch. In other words, Cameron can’t let “I have autism” become an excuse for not learning nor for avoiding self-management. But, maybe if he reaches that IEP goal, Cameron will someday be able to say, “I’m sorry but I have language issues. Would you please speak more slowly?” At the very least, I hope Cameron will learn to ask for help and not be embarrassed by needing it.