If someone had told me even a year ago that I would be okay with the idea of my son opting out of college, I would have called them a liar. I’ve always been a huge believer in getting the most education you can and continuing to learn throughout your lifetime. But, just like those people who say things like “My child will NEVER do X or Y!” I’m learning that plans, hopes, and wishes can change at the drop of a hat. And that sometimes maybe they should.
Jayden is 14 and a freshman in high school. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), which is a mild form of autism.
This is the part where a lot of people are patronizing me in their heads – they hear “autism” and go, “Oh honey, of COURSE he doesn’t have to go to college.” But that just shows me how little people know about AS.
There’s a saying that goes, “When you’ve met a kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism.” Meaning it doesn’t always present the same way for every child. What does AS mean for Jayden? It means he has a genius IQ but poor social skills. It means he is a visual learner and a little OCD and needs detailed step-by-step instructions to complete many tasks. It means he doesn’t “get” sarcasm or body language. Ever hear about engineers who are sooo smart but socially inept? Many of them probably have AS. (Think Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”) It does not mean he is intellectually disabled. Some autistic kids are, but mine is not.
Anyway, About School
One of the worst parts about parenting a child with AS is dealing with the school system. I’ve written about this before. Jayden told me once that he felt like everyone in the whole school spoke another language and he was the only one who never knew what was going on. He gets occupational therapy at school for difficulty with things like handwriting and buttoning his pants. (Yes, at 14.) He gets speech therapy to try to help him learn to have conversations instead of talking at people all the time. And he has struggled with school from about 3rd grade on.
AS is very misleading. In his early years of school, Jayden’s teachers marveled at his advanced vocabulary and how smart he was. One of his skills is memorizing large chunks of the things he hears – he can repeat a 20-minute TV show word for word after hearing it once, for example. And in the first few years of school where so much of the curriculum centered around memorization, he excelled. Unfortunately, though, memorizing something didn’t mean he had the first clue what it really meant.
As he has gotten older, school has become less about memorizing and more about critical thinking. Sure, you may know a million details about the World War II, Jayden, but what do you think Hitler’s actions tell us about life in that era? *crickets* All the teachers who used to tell me there was nothing “wrong” with him have finally been able to see his deficits. And it has made school a living hell for him. I’ve had that horrible helpless feeling of watching him fall behind, not because he can’t learn the material, but because it’s not presented in a way that makes sense to him.
But Bright Kids Should Go to College!
My son is smart. Extremely smart. But he doesn’t want to go to college. After years of struggling in a system that isn’t made for people like him, he’s just counting down the time until graduation. He despises sitting at a desk and doing anything that involves writing. He doesn’t want any kind of office job. And it drives the school staff insane.
For a long time I let it bother me as well. I felt like it was a waste of that gifted brain if he didn’t become a scientist or researcher or do something great with his life. And I really thought college would be different – he would be able to focus on the things he loves (science and math) and get away from the areas that are more difficult for him. For me, so much of what I learned in college wasn’t on the syllabus; it was more about learning how to conduct myself in professional situations and learning to look at things from perspectives other than my own. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?
Well, this one apparently. Because ten months ago I left my career to become a self-employed freelancer. I took my college education and two degrees and threw them out the window. I kicked the walls out of the box I’d made for myself and decided to look at where my skills lie instead of which pieces of paper had my name on them. And that focus on skills has allowed me to earn a living on a schedule that helps me to be a better and happier person. I don’t regret going to college at all, but it didn’t necessarily get me to where I am right now. How can I force my child into a box that may not be the right fit for him?
Considering the Alternatives
Unfortunately, kids who decide not to go to a 4-year or community college have very few options. Jayden could go work for minimum wage somewhere (and live with me until he’s 40), or he could go to vocational school and learn a trade. That’s basically it.
I’ve become a big fan of him learning a trade, other than the fact that people assume kids go to trade school because they’re too “dumb” to go to college. Let me just say that for all my education, I couldn’t rewire my house if my life depended on it. I can’t drive a forklift or mini excavator or read a blueprint. Yet all of those things are necessary in our society – someone has to know how. And out of all the people I know who can do those things, I can’t think of a single one of them who isn’t super smart.
I think if Jayden decided to be a contractor or plumber or electrician, he could basically name his price. He would have the freedom to work for himself and avoid the office politics and water cooler talk that would be an absolute nightmare for him. He could wear jeans instead of a suit. He could get out into the community instead of isolating himself in an office (or his messy room) all the time. And I think he would find value and fulfillment in what he did instead of being forced into a career that didn’t fit his personality or abilities.
So, College? Probably Not
Jayden is only 14 years old. A lot could change in the next few years, and I have no way to predict what he’ll eventually choose to do. He may go to college and love every minute of it for all I know. But I doubt it.
It’s still kind of hard for me to sit back and let him make that choice, to realize he’s not going to follow the path I had in mind when he was an infant. But I’ve made the decision not to push him into something he doesn’t want. The cool thing about being a parent is knowing I’ll be proud of my child whether he ends up with a college degree or a tool belt – I’ve learned that his dreams have nothing at all to do with mine, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.