I recently posted about Nick’s school requiring him to study poetry and decipher figurative language. This requirement caused Nick a lot of stress and was leading to meltdowns. When he was finally able to explain to us what was going on, we promptly requested an IEP meeting to solve the problem.
Here’s what we started with.
Problem: A child whose disability prevents him from being able to understand abstraction is being required to show understanding of abstraction to meet graduation requirements.
School’s position: Any deviation from the curriculum would put Nick on a modified diploma track, eliminating many college and financial aid options in the future. They did not see a way to help him around the poetry requirement.
So we brainstormed in preparation for the meeting and went in armed with proposals and justifications.
Our position: It is not acceptable to require a disabled student to do something he can’t do. If he MUST take units on poetry, he must have accommodations and supports designed for his neurology. Just as a kid in a wheelchair gets a ramp to get him past stairs, Nick needs a ramp to get him past figurative language.
The solution: Provide ramps in the form of “Cliff Notes” about the language in the poetry unit assignments. Tell him that rivers symbolize connection, butterflies mean rebirth, etc. If the goal is to help him recognize these abstract meanings, the best way to help him do that is to let him memorize them. That is now his neurology works.
To head off protests that this means giving him the answers instead of making him figure it out, I pointed out that in other classes, the kids routinely get the answers handed to them. In history class, for example, the teachers provide the dates, events, and names during lectures, and it’s up to the kids to memorize them for tests.
When it comes to taking the poetry unit test, they won’t know ahead of time if the questions will be about the specific metaphors and other abstraction he has already learned. (He takes Language Arts via an online program called PLATO, with the guidance of a teacher who is present in the computer lab. Tests are automated and randomized.) But he can learn to recognize certain patterns, like words about sunshine and light meaning happiness, and make his best guess at what the language means. Also, though the test is graded automatically, the teacher can review his answers and give him credit for any that make sense from Nick’s perspective, as well as explain the ones he got wrong.
Karla is drawing up a matrix for Nick and the teacher to follow–a visual flow chart of sorts, so that they know what to do in every situation. For example, when you don’t know the answer on a test, you either a) guess based on what you know or b) guess randomly so you can move on to the next question. This helps keep the class as predictable as possible and eases his anxiety (keeps him from getting “stuck”) about not knowing the answers.
Last resort: He can fail the units on poetry and still pass the Language Arts class as a whole.
The requirement is not that he show the ability to understand abstraction. The requirement is that he do the unit assignments and take the tests. Now, he will be able to do that with minimal anxiety, as we provide him a ramp with respect for his neurology.
Bonus: Meanwhile, his IEP team asked if Nick would be willing to critique the PLATO program from an autistic point of view, so they can consider modifying it for future students. Talk about being on the forefront of really excellent change! We could have given up a long time ago, but because we stayed in the system and insisted they accept our point of view, and because the district decided to work with us instead of against us, we are changing minds and opening doors of possibility for other kids.
Score: Team Nick 1. School… also 1! I love a good win/win.
P.S. While Language Arts has been “on pause” while we figured all this out, Nick got straight A’s in all of his other classes in his first semester of freshman year. Two science classes (including one where he is the only freshman among juniors and seniors), math, and social studies. Straight A’s for the kid they weren’t sure would ever learn how to read. Booyah.