Good grades were so easy for my dad because he has Asperger’s. He doesn’t remember anyone telling him to do his homework. He says some person told him it was the rule so he just followed it.
He got into Harvard Law School.
He was a terrible lawyer. I heard stories about how judges hated hearing him in court. Clients hated him when he took them out to lunch. Partners tried to keep him off their cases.
Once I got an Asperger’s diagnosis, in my mid-30s, I felt sorry for my dad that no one identified him as someone who needed help with social skills. His parents always thought that he’d be fine in life because teachers loved him.
But teachers have no power in the adult world. Learning to please the type of person who becomes a teacher is largely useless. I saw this day in and day out with my dad every time he was shocked that people don’t play by the rules. He couldn’t see that rules have nuance because school doesn’t teach nuance.
But last week I saw something new. My dad was supposed to come visit at the end of the month. He always says he wants to visit me and my three brothers but he never visits. He says he’s too busy. But how could a 70 year old with a trust fund be too busy to see any of his kids?
Here’s the answer: executive function. When he canceled his most recent visit he wrote to me: “I wrote a very, very long brief. The judge said I have to cut it by 75% by next week. I hoped I could do it faster than looks possible. I’ll have to find another time to visit. I’m so sorry.”
Executive function is knowing how to prioritize information. And school doesn’t teach that. School teaches that teachers tell students what part of the information on a given topic is important.
In the real world we have competing values: personal life and professional work. And in the real world we have to decide which information is worth our time and which isn’t.
Not all information is equal. But the worse one’s executive function is, the harder it is to prioritize information in a hierarchical way.
These photos from the Ikea Cookbook are a great example. Most people intuitively know they don’t need to see everything laid out in order to make a cake. But someone with poor executive function might feel that they can’t make a cake until all the ingredients are as neatly organized as these pictures. The result: panic, or super slow progress, or no cooking at all.
Asperger’s is hereditary which means the parent is probably used to it if they made a kid with it: another reason parents fail to recognize the need for help.
If you don’t tell your child they have Asperger’s, they will not find out how ill equipped they are to cope with everyday life until they get fired from their second job. (The first time they get fired they’ll blame it on external factors.)
I am stunned at how many parents are told their child is on the spectrum and the parents think it’s wrong or they avoid the issue by taking the kids out of school.
First of all, its very hard to see kids on the spectrum – especially girls. And it’s a pain to give parents bad news. So if a teacher or specialist suggests your kid is on the spectrum then it’s totally obvious to the person who told you.
Second of all, giving a kid help with social skills and executive function would never hurt a kid. A child who is good at either of those, or both, will find life easier and more pleasant.
The parents who don’t get their kid help are taking care of their own needs instead of the kid’s needs. It’s hard for parents to add getting their kid therapy to the list of parenting responsibilities they already have. And it’s even harder for parents to admit their kid has a problem in the first place. But teaching your kids to ignore problems is one of the very worst lessons you can convey.
Just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action. Because the super-smart kid who follows all the rules school gives will end up being the grown up who can’t figure out how to visit his kids.