Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment, Part II

Addendum: in the end, the way around the English requirement was a waiving of the school’s rules against undergraduates taking online classes. The online version of the English classes bypassed some of the problems with group work. 

Indeed, it turns out that online classes in general eliminate many autism-specific, classroom-based barriers.

Without a well-timed global pandemic, graduation may have remained elusive.

Cross-posted at Out In Left Field:

Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment, Part II

I ended my previous post with the following cliffhanger: current trends in American education, extending now all the way into college, are making the required courses less and less hospitable to autistic kids—even at schools that have a relatively small number of distribution requirements and profess to be autism friendly.

Let’s now descend that cliff down to the English requirements for a computer science major at one such school. To a prospective student and his parent, checking out his program of study ahead of time to make sure it’s feasible, these requirements don’t look too bad. Three courses in Composition and Rhetoric: how bad can this be? While you can’t forget how poorly your child did on the Critical Reading section of the SATs, you remember how his Writing score was much closer to average. So Composition and Rhetoric will be challenging, but surely not prohibitive. Surely the courses will focus on writing rather than reading, and what reading there is will come from books on composition and rhetoric rather than the literary fiction that your child (along with many of his autistic peers) can’t make head or tail of. Right?


But you and your child don’t find this out until the courses get under way. First semester is, in fact, OK. As you’d hoped, the main reading assignments come from a composition book, and the only autism-unfriendly challenges are that students submit journals and conduct in-person interviews. Sure, it would be nice if your child’s mechanical writing skills actually showed improvement as a result of this class, but, what did you expect, really? What’s important is that your child passed the class with a not-too-terrible grade, and now he has one down, only two more to go.

With additional accommodations in place that you wished you’d known about earlier but hope now will make things easier (specifically a written transcript of all your child’s classes), you fully expect that the second round of Writing and Rhetoric will go at least as well as the first. But then it becomes clear that this particular class features social challenges that your child last had to deal with in middle school. Just as in certain middle school English classes, a big part of the grade, it turns out, is going to be based on “peer review”—reviewing his classmates’ work—and working in a group on a group project—both inside and outside of class. Indeed, the transcripts of the class turn out to be quite short because most of the class time involves students working in groups. And it quickly becomes clear that your child’s group mates are leaving him out because they’d rather not deal with him, and that his instructor is penalizing him for not succeeding in working with them. This class, in other words, is turning out not only to be autism-unfriendly, but diagnostic for autism: where moderately autistic means a non-passing grade. You encourage him to drop the class and seek out alternatives.

Specifically, you encourage him to email all the professors who are teaching the final round of Composition and Rhetoric to find out which ones are autism friendly. And what you find out is that all the final-round courses involve literature, whether short stories (e.g., Barn Burning and A Perfect Day for Banana Fish); poetry (e.g., Wordsworth); or plays. Included among the plays are Shakespeare’s Tempest, the relationship-intensive How I Learned to Drive, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the film version of which has figured in a famous autism study, underscoring how autistic viewers focus on all the wrong details. There’s no way in hell your child is going to pass Composition and Rhetoric III—even if he has a more sympathetic professor, even if he avoids those sections that require peer-review, group work, and multi-media adaptations of literature, and even if every relevant and available accommodation is enacted in a timely fashion and without any glitches.

Then you check out the entire English department listings, hoping to find something your son can request as a substitute course—expository writing? technical writing?—and discover nothing else but literature courses. However tight the job market continues to be for English PhDs, and however poor the expository writing skills or more and more college freshmen are proving to be, apparently no one is asking anyone to offer courses in the mechanics of expository writing.

Meanwhile, you face the very real possibility that your high functioning son may end up dropping out of a college that was initially quite enthusiastic about admitting him.

And you wonder to what extent the poor lifetime prognosis of kids like him is a function of autism itself vs. a byproduct of America’s special variety of neurotypical rigidity.

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