My email to our chemistry tutor. Annotated.

After sending Y off to college, I did seven months of minding my own business, mostly, and letting them succeed or fail on their own. It was not easy. At Halloween, for example, they asked me if could help with a costume.

We decided on a Magic 8 Ball because they wanted to just wear jeans and a black t-shirt.

I was so happy to be able to help them. I googled the 8 ball answers to find the one that’s most fun. I made the cards layered so there could be multiple answers. Did you know the Magic 8 Ball has an oddly shaped 8?

Y came by the next day to get their costume and he they were horrified by how much time I’d spent on it.

I told them it didn’t take that long.

You can imagine if that’s my version of being “hands off” it would be impossible for me to watch them fail chemistry and do nothing. So I emailed their favorite tutor from high school: Will.

Will is so good at tutoring science that he went through medical school but still runs his tutoring business. Five years ago he was $125/hr. Now he tells me he’s $325/hr. I’m not surprised. I want to study for the MCAT just to get to work with him.

I wrote:

Y is having trouble adjusting to managing their workload. They have accommodations so someone takes notes for them in class and they get recordings of the lectures, but I’m not sure that helps them. 

Translation: When I heard kids with Autism could get so much help in college I thought it would be easy street. It’s not.

I think this story says a lot about how they’re doing: last semester they got all A’s except for the class that was the “easy A” and was graded on attendance. They routinely had trouble finding the classroom. 

Quote: “Mom it’s a really hard building. There was one week I missed class because I followed a Fed Ex delivery guy and he couldn’t find the building either.”

Another story: Y got an alert that says they’re failing their chemistry class of 200 kids. So they made an appointment to see the professor. The professor said, “What are you doing here?” He was shocked to find out that Y is failing because Y asks such great questions in class. 

Subtext: Please remember how much you liked tutoring Y. Please make time to tutor them even though I’m asking at the last minute. I will die if we have to find a new tutor.

So Y tells me they are six chapters behind in chemistry they have done only a portion of the labs. Y’s professor said the course grade can be whatever they get on the final…

So I guess what I’m hoping is you can teach Y how to learn chemistry. They don’t have a viable, tactical plan for addressing the material. They think they SHOULD be able to open the book and learn the material, so they get frustrated with themself when that doesn’t work. I think they need a new method from you, and then they’ll feel like they can study with confidence. 

That last paragraph is what homeschooling is — identifying what a kid needs to learn, barriers to learning, and the path to efficiency. The paragraphs before the last paragraph are a mom’s meandering stories about a kid she can’t let go of.

8 replies
  1. Jj
    Jj says:

    The pronouns make this so so confusing to read. Couldn’t tell if you were talking about one or both. Does your son like school? Sounds like he’s a smart kid taking hard subjects. That’s no cakewalk. Why not try a study group. I think tutors can make or break and I’m
    Glad you have an awesome one though not sure who can afford that crazy fee! My concern is if you keep using tutors eventually you work in a field and I’m not sure there are tutors for one’s job. I didn’t understand the part about failing for asking good questions. Chem is difficult though. I had many friends who failed chem and physics with math and chose a different track. What does your son want to do. Does he like school? Does he sleep there? How is your younger son feeling?

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      The pronouns are really tough. Believe me. I have resisted but at this point I think they should get to pick the pronouns they want and I should be respectful. During the time I was not capitulating I saw some very convincing things:
      1. A friend of mine was not honoring their daughter’s pronouns and it looked completely absurd. Like, of course the mom should just do what the kid wants.
      2. My kids have a friend who uses they for everyone because it’s easier. She switches if you tell her your pronoun isn’t they.
      3. A few people I know who have trans kids or nonbinary kids use different pronouns pretty fluently. Because the parents practice.

      All this convinced me that it doesn’t matter that it’s awkward for me — in person and also on my blog. I told Y I wouldn’t change all the pronouns on the whole blog. But I will use their preferred pronouns going forward. So, now you see me learning to do it, in real time. It’s very awkward to be learning something so new.


  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Oof. College can be hard for autistic kids. Especially the first year. Especially when they come right from homeschooling. It seems like it should be easier for them to always be taking the classes they want, but it doesn’t pan out like that – there are a lot of required classes, and the classes you thought you want at the beginning of the year might not be the classes you want by the end of the year. All kids, but especially autistic kids, can have a heck of a time maintaining their performance after they lose their interest.

    I thought he was a history major. Why is he even studying chemistry?

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      If only it was history! I think I’d be so much more useful. They are majoring psychology and they have to take sciences. Though I honestly think waking up to get to class was probably more difficult for them than the course material.


  3. Minami
    Minami says:

    This is so funny to me. I relate so much to Y. In college I got As on all the classes that were hard for me, because they scared me so bad I worked my ass off on them. And I failed, or struggled by with Cs and Ds, the classes that were supposed to be the easiest for me (academic classes and drawing classes). And those professors ALSO cut me huge amounts of slack because they liked me so much when I was in class.

    Also: for the first month of college, I got lost every day on the way to the school building. One time I ended up at the World War II Memorial (like, half a mile or more away from the school).

    Y needs to take their own notes. If I’d relied on other people to take notes for me, even though I was and am autistic and ADHD as hell, I would have simply not read nor understood them if I did read them.

    And they need to take the notes by hand (i.e. writing them down in a notebook, with a pen/pencil) because the physical act of writing commits the information to memory better. I literally could not understand any class material unless I sat down with the texts and wrote my own notes parsing it all out.

    If you want I could show them how to do this sometime, like how to organize info by hand and such. I think Y is a lot like me, so I think it might help.

  4. el cuthrell
    el cuthrell says:

    I love this story and what you have revealed and reflected upon. Many, many neurodiverse students cannot keep up in college due to the lack of support in executive function skills, and only for that reason. My guess is that Y needs the support of an educational therapist & ADHD coach (this is what I do), in order to learn how to navigate and manage college courses, and college life.
    So many kids fail courses and fail out of college because they need this support and colleges do not provide it. Yes, there are academic support centers at some colleges, but the student with executive function challenges does not have the ability or innate organizational skills to find that building or get there at the appointed time, nor the confidence (if they ever do get there) to say, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know, and I don’t know what I am doing at this academic support center”. If anything, neurodiverse students get a once-a-week check-in with a support person, but the student has to bring everything to the table, which they are often unable to do. I support students one-on-one via Zoom, and I work through their LMS with them; we make agendas and a visual time-block schedule, and I hold them accountable each day for what they need to accomplish. From my experience, this works! Y may also need some tutoring support in chemistry, as you mentioned, but I bet even more powerful is the executive function support/coaching.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I think you’re right that Y needs more support. We tried an executive function coach who specializes in college kids — and it just didn’t work for him once a week. But when I had someone checking in with Y every day, it made a huge difference. I’m starting to think this is what kids need in college, because companies will provide it once the kids are in the workforce.



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