We received Jake’s report card last week. It’s wonderful, full of encouraging, positive comments, and he is meeting all of the learning outcomes for grade one. But one comment came up a few times. The teacher said that Jake has trouble paying attention when there are instructions given. That he is struggling with focus, and that if he tried harder he would be able to follow the set of steps he needs to do. This trouble is happening in math, language, and art. Yet his teacher describes him as knowing how to do his math and I have seen him work on his phonics and spelling. He certainly can do it. And art? He’s struggling in art. He comes home from school and spends hours drawing and colouring every day, but I can certainly believe that he’s struggling with the art projects in class.
I’ve sat working through this for a few days. But you see, I’m struggling with it. I certainly think he is capable of being distracted. I know he can lack focus and I have seen time and time again how difficult it can be to get Jake to pay attention. But I think there is more happening.
You see, I am not done learning about autism. I am not done trying to figure out ways to help Jake. And I have been learning about executive functioning disabilities. Executive functioning is the name for the ability to follow a series of steps to accomplish a task. It is something most everyone struggles with at times, as we are distracted or fall victim to procrastination. However, in autistic people, the problem is that despite their best efforts, even when they give it their best, they often struggle to follow a series of steps.
It’s as if someone asked you to get ready for bed. You might go to the washroom, brush your teeth, get into pajamas, and say goodnight… You might follow that with reading some books and saying your prayers, then going to sleep. However, if you were autistic, you might start by going to the bathroom. Once there you would forget why you are there and start to run a bath. Seriously. Or maybe you made it through the bathroom but then cannot remember what to do next. Or maybe you know you need to brush your teeth but the toothpaste is not in the same place as last night. So you start wondering if someone broke into your house to steal the toothpaste and now you are scared and paranoid and you forget all about what to do next. Seriously. It is a disability that is connected to a certain brain function that holds onto the larger goal – going to bed, and therefore follows through to get you there.
I know Jake has problems with executive function. We used to think it was a short-term memory issue, but as I am learning more, I think that there is more to this. There are ways to help, such as following the exact same routine every night, so that it becomes easy to remember, or making a visual list that he can refer to so that he can see what step comes next.
So I am going to meet with his teacher and try to explain this and ask for help. I am going to ask that she makes visual lists showing step by step what she wants him to do in art. I am going to ask that she give him a reference for his math that shows, visually, what she wants him to do in order. And I am going to ask that she or his EA help him figure out the instructions and steps in spelling and phonics. It is the first time I am asking for accommodations to be make for Jake in school. It is the first time I am going into a parent teacher interview with things I want the teacher to do differently.
I am nervous. I really love his teacher and I really respect her. I am conflicted. I don’t want to ask for Jake to get an easy way out or to be given so much support that he isn’t actually doing the work himself. However, I cannot unlearn what I have learned. I believe that he legitimately struggles with this disability and that the accommodations I am going to ask for will help him to focus and thrive. I honestly would not be surprised if he can do more math, more language than they are asking for. However, he needs help with the steps and staying on track.