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Autism, Homework & Beyond
Autism, homework & beyond
Michelle Garcia Winner
Our daily lives are made up of an endless stream of thoughts, decisions, actions and reactions to the people and environment in which we live. The internal and external actions fit together, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not, largely dependent upon a set of invisible yet highly important skills we call Executive Functioning (EF). These skills, which involve planning, organizing, sequencing, prioritizing, shifting attention, and time management can be well-developed in some people (think traffic controllers, wedding planners, business CEOs, etc.) and less developed in others. They are vital in all parts of life, from making coffee to running a profitable business. The skills develop naturally, without specific, formal training, and we all have them to some degree - or at least, we all assume we all have them.
Things are never quite as simple as they seem, and these EF skills are no exception. They require a multi-tiered hierarchy of decisions and actions, all coming together within the framework of time, knowledge and resources.
Imagine trying to navigate life when EF skills are impaired or nonexistent, as they are with individuals on the autism spectrum. For most of us, our imagination won't stretch that far. Therefore, we assume all these kids - especially those who are "bright" - have EF skills and we act and react to our spectrum children or students as if they did.
Nowhere does this EF skill deficit cause more turmoil than in the area of homework, producing monstrous levels of anxiety and dread in students, parents and teachers alike. The myriad of details that need to be accomplished in a student's class, school day or week can overwhelm even the healthiest student; it can shut down our ASD kids.
I am regularly asked: if tasks are so overwhelming to their EF systems, should we just avoid having students deal with them? The answer is an unequivocal emphatic "NO!" Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills, and even though they are "mandatory prerequisites" for succeeding at school, like social skills they are rarely directly taught. Few states include explicit teaching of EF skills in their "standards of education."
So where do we start? First, by understanding how complex organizational systems become by the time students reach middle school. We can only be good teachers if we appreciate the demands the skills we teach place on our students.
Second, by understanding organization as a skill set, which involves static and dynamic systems.
Static organizational systems and skills are structured: same thing, same time, same place, same way. Static organizational tasks are introduced in kindergarten, first and second grade. We break down tasks and ask students to explicitly complete very defined units of information, at a certain time and place. Write your name at the top of the page, read the instructions, complete the work, when done turn the paper over...