Susan's Blog

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nat loves his work

On Friday at Nat’s graduation, the biggest theme I heard from the speakers was about his work ethic. Nat’s very first day at Papa Gino’s was highly structured and a long time in preparation. His teachers feared that he would be anxious and they set the bar low. But Nat proved his own desire to be productive, and he completed his job in record time. The rest is history. Anyone who’s been reading this blog knows how Nat loves his work–any job he’s ever been given. Nat now has a resume with at least six different job experiences, all positive, as well as documentation of his ability to work several hours in a row with very few breaks.

But when we first were asked at an IEP to start thinking of vocational training for Nat, we were so sad. It seemed to us that we had reached a crossroads, where we had to put Nat into a slot of “vocational kid” rather than “academic kid.” Work rather than college. Another door closing. Lesser rather than better. Disabled for life. Blah.

This was undoubtedly a difficult time for us, as this article I wrote illustrates. But now, 8 years later, I feel differently about the issue of voc ed. This shift took a while, of course, as does every new turn in the autism path. The terrain changes, the forks surprise us, we get tired and can hardly ever rest.  But eventually we could see that as usual the relief came to us from Nat. Nat loved working, much more than any of his school work, and work changed him. With his jobs, Nat grew into a confident young man, because his tasks were clear and complications were few. Just as Nat went in for sports rather than the arts or music or books, he turned out to be a working man. Leave the academics and the indoor life to my other two sons: Nat is a man of action, rather than contemplation.

Parents need to know that it is okay to see their autistic children as a type of person. It gives us comfort and even pleasure to view our disabled children with the same lens as our other kids. It provides a much-needed sense of normalcy to the family. Just like your kid who built towers as a toddler, and you said proudly, “he’s going to be an architect,” your autistic kid did things as a toddler, too. Maybe he was fascinated with fans whirring. It could be that later in life he will be interested in repetition and machinery. Maybe he will become a guy who assembles stuff. You can then connect his job later in life to his hobbies early in life.  Rather than seeing him as a kid who would walk in circles meaninglessly, maybe as a 21 year-old he becomes an active man who delivers coupons for a restaurant and covers great distances happily. Maybe the kid who obsessively lines up toys later in life puts things away, stocks shelves, returns library books to their proper places, folds laundry…

Parents also gotta stop being snobs. Working with ones hands is time-honored and respectable, just as exercise–simply running or biking or walking just for the sake of it, going nowhere on a treadmill–is simple and yet so important. Not every person goes to grad school or even college. But there is likely a job that every person can do. We have to look upon our children for who they are and what they like and not see it as a deficit, but as a mark of their personhood. We have to get out of our 21st century tunnels and see that there is earth beneath our feet that needs to become paths, farms, roads, or preserved park land. Things that we grab hold of, and these things must be made by someone. We need the guy who cleans without stopping, who assembles parts seamlessly, who delivers without complaint, who works without needlessly gossiping with colleagues, without fake sick days. Our guys are not social enough to lie or slack off.

Work ethic is not to be taken likely. Who is happier:  the guy assembling boxes at Papa Gino’s with blissful contentment, or the top executive who has ulcers and never sees his family?

Take a look at this study from the University of Wisconsin, which concludes that those autistic and intellectually disabled students who have jobs as teens are far more likely to work as adults. And then you decide if taking the vocational path is a loss or your child’s good fortune.


One of the reason’s mine’s coming home at the end of Gr 6, is that I’m not interested in some tasks like grocery lists or delivering mail. He loves school, he is learning, I do have a list of complaints, and he enjoys the other kids… my options afterwards are few to nil and he’ll be 12 not a child anymore.

My son is a fiddler. Took him about a minute to figure out how the greenhouse seeder worked this past spring. Drove his cousin batty too with him pushing him faster. But, we let him work… loading and unloading. Never watch him on the computer or the DSi or another toy… he figures it out.. his way.

Today he spent 2.5hrs on the combine with his Uncle.

He’s coming home to learn to work. I suspect unlike most kids by 18, he’ll actually be able to rebuild an engine. That is the goal and the family is onside.

I also expect that by the end of those 2.5hrs this afternoon, he’d figured out how to work the combine. One of these days it may become his job.

— added by farmwifetwo on Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Thanks for this post, Susan. I’m glad to hear about your change of heart regarding vocational education. As a fellow Northeasterner, I think it’s especially easy for us to see vocational education as a dead end job since we are surrounded by so many prestigious universities. But in Europe vocational tracks are respected, and many vocational specialties offer valuable opportunities for advancement and good salaries, such as electricians.

I’m glad to hear that your son is able to work, since work gives people confidence and a sense of independence. This is especially important now when many young people who are college educated can’t even find work. One of my childhood mentors, a teacher who has a severely autistic son now in his thirties, talks about how much she loves him but how difficult it is to keep him entertained and interested since his severe autism prevents him from working a job. Please keep us posted on Nat’s progress.

— added by JJ Tan on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 1:16 pm

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