Why Does it Matter?
First published on October 25, 2011.
In my career, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach in a variety of settings, both in the classroom and in the community. Most of our students involved in community-based cooperative learning appreciate the chance to have work as a part of their school day. They also tend to demonstrate varying degrees of understanding as to the long-term value of these real-life work experiences. But this level of understanding varies from student to student and does not necessarily have anything to do with the nature or severity of their disability. Some of those who are most resistant to the idea of learning the lessons we are trying to teach are the ones who—on paper, perhaps—have the greatest number of options in their post-secondary lives. Consideration of this paradox reminds me of one lesson in particular.
Last year, in one of my Career Education classes, a student put forth the question, “Why do we have to learn these things? Why does it matter?” We were having a discussion about the application of employability skills, such as following directions in the workplace even when those directions don’t make much sense. It was proving quite challenging for this particular group to wrap their collective brains around the, “Why?” And I got it. I got it on a level that they didn’t even realize. That question, and variations of it, haunted me in my PD (Pre-Diagnosis) days. So the lesson for the teacher becomes finding a way to answer the question in my own brain in a way that will enable me to provide the clarification my students are looking for. Those of us who think logically as a rule of thumb may find ourselves aggravated when a direction is given that must be followed no matter what and that direction does not make any sense. I think, maybe, the difference is that many, many Apsies need things to make sense. It is a basic need in the same way we need to be comfortable in the clothes we wear and the food we eat and the beds we sleep in. And we don’t like the answer, “Because that’s the rule.” Or, “Because that’s the way it is,” or even, “Because that’s how we do things here at ...” These answers don’t make sense much of the time, and we NEED things to make sense.
So what did I tell my student? Well, I began by telling him that he had posed a valid question. Nothing like stalling for time, right? Because I really had to think about my answer. Then I told him what I have learned to this point, which is that if “we” want to be able to get along in this world, there are going to be times where we do have to follow the rules, whether they make sense to us or not, just because.
I was no more satisfied with that answer than he was, and I have spent considerable time since that conversation working on formulating a better answer, an answer that makes sense to those of us who need things to make sense on an almost visceral level. To some of the others in the class, my hasty answer was sufficient. I know there must be a better answer, but the more I learn as I juggle my many hats—teacher, student, mother, Aspie—I find myself wondering … why? Why do we have to be the ones who always seem to have to adjust to the rules that don’t make sense? Is it possible that the answer is that we need to find a way to set about changing the rules? We see more and more each day how the principles of Universal Design are implemented with an eye towards total societal inclusion for individuals with disabilities. Changes that are made on levels big and small end up not only serving the needs of those who fought for them in the first place, but society as a whole. Everyone wins. So could the same not hold true for changes that would not come with a monetary cost? We as a society are asking today’s generation of young people with autism spectrum disorders to find their place in this world under the assumption that they are the ones who have to do all of the work to fit in. How easy would it be for “us” to consider the question posed by one student, “Why?” and consider the possibility that it might just be okay to let go of some rules that don’t actually make a whole lot of sense in the first place. If making and sustaining eye contact is uncomfortable or even painful for an individual in the workplace, should it be held against them? If certain articles of clothing pose similar challenges and a uniformity of dress code is expected, is there not perhaps a way for an acceptable substitution to be made that would be mutually agreeable? Does a hard-working, responsible, capable adult with Asperger’s who performs all job duties to specifications have to be able to engage in “chit-chat” to be considered a valued employee? I suspect that if we give careful consideration to questions such as these then the process of transition to adulthood, and survival once we get there, could be made a whole lot easier for a significant number of our children … and maybe for everyone else as well.