The “H” Word: Autism Spectrum Disorder and School Homework
Home computers are being called upon to perform many new functions, including the consumption of homework formerly eaten by the dog.
The pros and cons of assigning children homework have been debated for as long as schools have existed. Homework difficulties among ASD students however, often require more careful examination than may first meet the eye of a teacher or parent. In my clinical practice I have found that students diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome can display particularly extreme reactions when faced with homework assignments. To make matters worse, students with AS may bring substantially more work home than their classmates. This is frequently due to issues of disorganization and sensory stress experienced during the school day. Given the typical average to high intelligence of AS children, they can run the risk of being labeled defiant, stubborn or manipulative in their apparent resistance. After all, very few students actually want to do homework! The AS student’s daily struggle can easily become the parent’s nightmare; resulting in exhaustive evenings of tension and conflict. In the following, I will discuss some potential trouble spots that I have observed to be common culprits in the AS student’s struggle with homework
Homework: A Closer Look
First of all, a simple parent/teacher review of the issue may provide some straightforward ideas towards addressing the student’s difficulty. For example; has there been a sudden increase in homework expectations? Is there a new kind of assignment format that is proving to be novel and overwhelming? Has your child experienced homework difficulties in the past or is this something new? Sometimes, (thankfully) solutions can be found at our fingertips, requiring only a minor adjustment. It’s important to remember that changes in routines and expectations of any kind can seriously challenge the coping skills of the AS child, at least initially.
The “Very Idea” of Homework
“If you ask me what that word means (autism), I would tell you that for me it is about having trouble with connections.” Donna Williams
A characteristic feature of students with AS is that their learning style poses problems in decoding information in larger, more meaningful contexts. Seeing the “big social picture” is frequently a source of confusion. Their fundamental orientation toward detail is sometimes described as “centration” and can be the source of problems in perspective taking and social understanding. Neurotypical children basically assimilate and accumulate social understanding, year by year. In contrast, ASD students are at a particular disadvantage when confronted with such social conventions and norms. In general, they have significantly less meaningful and integrated social memories to draw from. As tasks such as homework emerge, it soon becomes clear how the hidden curriculum of social language permeates each and every school expectation.
Conventions such as homework are anchored in shared social meanings; experiences that are not easily understood by the literal, left hemispheric dominance of the AS student. Completing “school work” at home seems simply illogical and unfair to many AS children. Frustration and obstinacy can quickly enter the situation, resulting in work refusal and power struggles. In this way, Asperger Syndrome can directly impact homework completion from the basis of a purely rigid and concrete thinking style.
One of the key higher learning tasks for the AS student, is acquiring cooperative and flexible thinking habits. Introducing this social norm may require some academic modification for the AS student. Beginning at elementary level it is often necessary to modify or individualize assignments if the student is showing signs of being overwhelmed. The goal here is to integrate the child as much as possible into regular curricula activities while realizing that this initially may require some creative modification. Allowing the student to choose their own book for home reading assignment are an example of a reasonable accommodation for the AS child.
Rewards can also be effective. Employing a reward system for the completion of homework is often helpful. Rewards can include a favored treat or time for a special interest area. If your child chooses isolated activities (such as computer time) try to modify the reward to include some degree of real social exchange. Again, the goal is to approach mainstream expectations, albeit with some adjustments that integrate the particular interests of the young Asperger student.
Emotional Exhaustion and Sensory Overload
A second important issue facing the AS student is emotional exhaustion. For most children in the autistic spectrum, a school day represents a sensory bombardment dramatically beyond what most neurotypical students and adults experience. The sensory, attentional and emotional systems of the ASD students are challenged intensively throughout the day, often resulting in heightened activation of the sympathetic nervous system and sensory regulation centers. This can directly affect the student’s ability to learn and complete class work.
A contributing factor adding to this daily sensory stress can also be found in negative social experiences such as confusion, rejection and bullying. These experiences can become exaggerated in the mind of the AS student in the form of recurrent anxious thoughts and anticipations. The student arrives home tired and agitated and in no state for learning and more school work exertion. Thus, emotional exhaustion can be a very critical factor affecting your child’s motivation and readiness to complete homework.
Assessing the students typical school day is the key to identifying problems in the student’s sensory system. Firstly, explore your child’s classroom work habits: Are they bringing too much work home? (work that should have been completed at school). If so, the teacher/s may need to assess the child’s behavior in the classroom and identify the sources of stress and poor performance. Sometimes canceling an elective period and adding a study period each day can be helpful.
In the case of direct social problems such as peer relationships, contacting school personnel may be necessary. Is the student ostracized or being bullied? Do they appear depressed at school or at home? Do they seem anxious? Remember, AS children are not typically forthcoming and furthermore may not possess a complete or coherent understanding of their predicament, especially as it relates to social situations. Asking the school support staff to monitor your child’s activities between classes, lunchroom and playground, may provide useful clues. School support staff are usually always willing to help in this way.
A beneficial home ritual for elementary and middle school student can be to schedule a mandated relaxation time in the evening. I usually recommend that the parents purchase a “very special book”. Each evening the child listens to relaxing music and is allowed to look at or read the book for 20 minutes. The book is then placed in a “secret” place for the next day’s session.
Having a weekly homework list assigned each Friday allows parents and the student to reduce the stress of bringing work home daily. This can be a powerful modification that actually increases organization skills and dramatically lessens chaos.
Finally, physical exercise should be emphasized several times a week; ideally through swimming or running (both aerobic). Exercise is a vital influence on both brain development and mood and is particularly relevant given the AS student’s typical avoidance of school sports.
As a parent, you have likely tried many techniques to motivate or “push” your child into completing homework. Whereas encouragement and pressure may suffice for some children, we have seen that the situation of the AS student may require a more thoughtful approach. In some cases, reducing the amount of homework or removing homework altogether for a period of time may be necessary. This should certainly be considered in the presence of severe stress and agitation. In general, suggesting a modification (for example; a quiz with Dad or Mum verses a written assignment) is preferred over removing the homework obligation altogether. After all, we want the student to feel as integrated as possible with his regular peers. It has been my experience that creative solutions can usually be found.
Understanding and acceptance of your son or daughters processing style and diagnosing the potential of a disconnect with the learning situation is key. Avoid blaming yourself, the school or your child. Blaming will simply allow the problem to assume more power and distract from the solution. I have found that one of the most frustrating issues for the parents and teachers of AS children lies in their awareness of the child’s obvious underlying ability. However there are two fundamental dimensions to performance: Understanding and the ability to apply what is understood. These two areas do not necessarily work in unison. The purposeful application of ability involves different skills and higher brain integration. These organization and adaptive capabilities develop more slowly in children with Asperger Syndrome. This underscores the fact that students performance difficulties lie beyond the simple notion of motivation or attitude.