Opening the Box

ENGAGEAutism-Opening the Box

Imagine a ten-year-old learner with limited verbal capacity, physical challenges including tics and seizures, vision problems, and cognitive impairment.  Does this learner not deserve to discover that he can’t get a box open with his hands? That there may be a tool he can use? That using a plastic knife is not as effective as finding the scissors?  That the scissors may not be in the same place that he left them because another learner moved them? That he can look around the supply area for the scissors, find them, cut the tape off the box, and explore its contents?  Sure it would be very easy and much faster for the Instructor to swoop in and open the box for this Learner. If the contents of the box were the sole lesson to be learned, that would be the method to use. However, the search for an effective alternate to the first attempt, and the struggle of not having immediate success are critical to the development of self for each learner.  While this Learner was born with many challenges, it does not mean he is incapable of making discoveries and building a sense of himself as an independent entity in the world. Not to mention, he feels good about himself when he opens the box and gets to see what he worked so hard to unearth. His smile is a reminder that with genuine struggle there comes genuine pride of accomplishment. Nothing and no one else can do that for this Learner.

This sense of self is critical to the individual’s success in any group they participate in.  Without a sense of himself, this learner sits until told to stand, does not eat until fed, stares in to space when presented with materials, and doesn’t communicate his basic needs.  

Too often the focus on academics in schools is centered on having students regurgitate what they already know or sit clueless while information that is complicated or without foundation is presented with low or no expectations of understanding.  With the ten year old described above, if the Instructor focused on speaking in order to get the box open, knowing the color, shape, or number of items in the box, saying please or thank you to get the scissors, or any other of a list of skills that could be focused on, he would have lost this genuine opportunity to make a connection for himself.  This is not to say that colors, shapes, and numbers are not important to learn but too often the authentic moments are sacrificed in service of a list of skills that the learner doesn’t actually need to be a person functioning in the world. How often do you have a dinner party where you and your guests list all the colors on the table? Now think of how often you and those same guests have to figure out how to get the bottle of wine open when the wine opener breaks or the cork splits?  

The combination of specific practice with specific skills and the managed introduction of small challenges to the Learner is the foundation of Academic Coaching.