Monday, April 13, 2009

Western New England College's Peer Mentoring Program for Aspies, Part II


Now, we'll hear from Krysten Langone, MA, Assistant Director of Western New England College (WNEC)'s Office of Student Disability Services. Ms. Langone plays a leading role in WNEC's Peer Mentoring Program for Students On the Autism Spectrum (please see the bottom half of that page). She speaks as an instructor.

Q: What do you think are the most important challenges that NT classmates of Aspie college students face in dealing with them? What about NTs associating with Aspies in a variety of settings after graduation?

A: From the perspective of a Freshman Composition instructor, I think that one of the main challenges I have witnessed that NT students face when interacting with Aspie students in a classroom setting, is misinterpreting an Aspie student’s actions and/or comments during class discussion and/or group work.

I think that it can be very easy for an NT student to misinterpret an Aspie student’s difficulty with initiating group contact as a lack of interest in participating as an active member of the group. When group interaction does occur, I think that other misinterpretations can occur, such as, taking an Aspie student’s comments as a carrying a tone of arrogance and/or superiority. I also think that NTs can be caught off guard by some of the comments that Aspie students can make during group interaction and during class discussion.

Many times, an Aspie student’s comments can be interpreted by NT students as being very off the cuff, off topic or unrelated to the content of the class. I also believe that NT students can feel as though an Aspie student’s comments can have a pessimistic tone at times.

I think that these misinterpretations create a sense of confusion for NT students in how to react or interact with Aspie students. Thus, preventing the NT students from trying to interact with the Aspie students unless absolutely necessary, and even then, they may do so reluctantly or with some hesitation. These misinterpretations and scenarios certainly spill over into any life arena.

Q: You are quite right when you say that Aspies should understand how NTs can misinterpret what they do and say. What are the most important and/or the most common ways in which NTs can misinterpret Aspies' statements and actions?

A: I have noticed many times in the classroom setting where NT’s roll their eyes or snicker when an Aspie student makes a remark during class discussion. This usually happens because the Aspie student is quite vocal in the classroom, but isn’t always following the train of thought behind the discussion, thus, causing their comment to seem quite off base. I can see that the NT students begin to view this Aspie student as “off the wall” or a “little wacky” due to the confusing content of the Aspie’s remarks.

Also, I have experienced an Aspie student try to make sense of what the class is talking about by putting it into a context that they can understand by relating it to something that makes sense for them, like comic books or fantasy video games. When this happens, I can see the NT’s immediately place this Aspie student into a stereotyped block of the “stoner gamer”, who they view as someone who has no real sense of what is going on in the world. Of course, this unfortunately leads to the Aspie student being viewed as someone who doesn’t need to be listened to or taken seriously.

On the flip side, I have experienced Aspie students being seen as “know it alls” or “brown noser’s,” due to their insightful comments and extreme attention to detail. There is a student in my course at the moment who is very bright and picks up on the subtle nuances of the literature we are discussing far more quickly and deeply than most of his classmates. He is always quick to answer questions in class that receive positive acknowledgement from me. His classmates will roll their eyes when they see his hand go up and hear me call on him.

This student has no trouble speaking up in class, but, has a very hard time working in groups. When I assign group work in class, he doesn’t move to go sit with the individuals that I have asked him to work with and these other students will not go to him.

I know that the NT students seem this Aspie student as viewing himself too good for them and not wanting to waste time working in a group when he can do a better job by himself. They see this as arrogance.

While, the Aspie student has admitted seeing no value in the group work because he could just as easily complete it himself, this is not why he isn’t going to work with the people that I have asked him to work with. He is completely unsure and uneasy about having to be a part of a small group that he has no prior knowledge of. He doesn’t know how to begin except for beginning the work on his own.

Also, he will often monopolize my time when we are in the writing lab one day a week to work on essays, because he wants to make sure he is getting every idea right and that every sentence he writes is correct.

The NT students recognize that I am working with him quite a bit and can sometimes view this student as trying to “suck up” to the teacher, rather than see it in a positive light that he is taking advantage of the opportunity for my immediate feedback, unlike most of the NT students who are checking their email or Facebook instead of working on their essays.

Q: What things do you believe are most important for Aspies to understand about the NT world, and what adjustments do you think it’s most important for them to make?

A: I think it very important that Aspies become aware of how NTs misinterpret them and why. This can be such a valuable thing for Aspies to know during college and even more so after college and upon entering the work force. I believe that once Aspies become aware of how some NTs view their actions or comments, and how this view effects how NTs interact or don’t interact with Aspies, that Aspies will be able to gain more confidence in social settings.

Q: Conversely, what things do you believe are most important for NTs to understand about Aspies, and what things could NTs do that would be most helpful for building good relationships with Aspies?

A: This is directly related to my answer above. NTs have got to be able to be comfortable with taking the initiative in getting to know and interact with Aspies in academic, social and professional settings. They also must understand that some of their everyday social initiative techniques are not always going to be met with the same response from Aspies that they may receive from NTs. NTs must learn to be patient with themselves and understand that the frustration they may feel when trying to interact with Aspies shouldn’t prevent them from continually trying.

Q: You have a very good point when you say that NTs should keep trying to reach out to Aspies. What specific challenges should NTs prepare themselves for in the process? What characteristics of Aspies should they keep in mind?

A: I guess something that I didn’t quite think about before is that an NT is going to have no idea that a person they know from class, work or any other setting, has Aspergers, unless this person is aware them self or wants to divulge that information.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that we as a people need to become more educated and accepting of all individuals, whether they may or may not fall on the spectrum. Just because one doesn’t receive the response from an individual that they were expecting means that qualifies the individual to give up or write that person off.

We all just need to be more patient, kind and open minded. We need to not assume that because a person seems to be avoiding social interaction that they are anti-social or conceited or anything else. We have to stop jumping to conclusions, slow down and accept people for who they are, not what we expect them to be.

[All emphases added]

Aspies and NTs alike need to listen carefully to Ms. Langone, as she describes the classroom dynamics that can ensue if mutual misunderstandings are allowed to persist.

Among other things, Aspies need to dispel notions that:

  • We think we're superior to the other people around them,

  • We don't like other people in general,

  • We only think about a narrow range of things, like video games or model airplanes,

  • We are pessimistic,

  • We don't listen to others (a possible interpretation for our missing the undertones of conversations) and

  • We just want to suck up to the teacher or the higher-ups (an ironic impression, given how bluntly we Aspies can express ourselves, including to those in authority, but an importamt impression nonetheless).

At the same time, NTs should avoid jumping to conclusions. If someone avoids group activities or keeps asking the teacher lots of questions, for example, there are reasons for this other than snobbishness or brown-nosing, respectively.

In fact, that's true for NTs as well as Aspies. Even if everyone on the autism spectrum was cured tomorrow, people would misunderstand each other often enough to keep sitcoms a going concern.

So, many of the ways in which we can accommodate Aspies now, such as looking for alternative ways to interpret unusual behavior, speaking more directly and honestly and making our own motives and desires more transparent, are also good ways to accommodate each other.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

This is pretty hilarious to read because it is so honest about the classroom atmosphere at WNEC. I have AS and went to WNEC recently. Let's just say that the "support" there was pretty terrible. The attitude of the person (KT) that Ms. Langone replaced was almost hostile. They allow student worker to have access to the files of students who are registered there, which I think is very wrong. I gave up ever trying to deal with SAS and just worked with instructors.

If you have AS (or if you're anyone who is outside the Engineering School and actually cares about school), prepare to face ridicule in class. There is the high school attitude that answering the instructor's questions is akin to bragging. AS students are probably far more mature than the average WNEC students in many ways in the classroom. Yet we're ostracized outside the classroom. Students who study, especially in the first year, are looked down upon by the drunken masses. If you want a place where it's okay to be smart, WNEC (i.e. Jock U.) is probably not it.

Glad to see that WNEC finally has an assistant director at SAS who gets it.

Anonymous said...

I should also mention why WNEC has so many "peer mentoring" programs. They are broke and can't hire many paraprofessionals. I was promised a specific kind of tutor by SAS (before admission) and then the school turned around and said that they couldn't afford it (after I had paid tuition). This had been promised by Dean of Freshman, SAS, and one other administrator. Then they gave me a student who couldn't teach. I appreciate that they made some investments that didn't pan out, but the result is that a lot of the services there are provided by "free" students instead of qualified professionals.