Privilege comes in many different forms. The most obvious forms of privilege — income, race, and gender — are frequent topics of conversation. Other forms of privilege – intact families, educated parents, extended families, natural talents — are acknowledged, but are usually mentioned more frequently by conservative commentators and sociologists. In my world, there’s a third type of privilege that looms large. It’s the privilege of having a typical brain.
As a parent of a kid with high functioning autism, I’m in a grey area. Many of my friends have children with higher levels of disfunction than my kid. When we meet up for drinks, they tell me their stories of paperwork hell, of kids whose obsessions take their families to the brink of sanity, of their hopes that their children can one day work in a supermarket. I keep my mouth shut and listen. They don’t want to hear that my kid is taking the PSATs next month and is marching with the band.
If I go out with friends with typical kids and they tell me about their teenagers who pass their drivers’ test and shop for prom dresses, I keep my mouth shut and listen. They don’t want to hear that my kid won’t be able to get a drivers license, not because he couldn’t operate the car, but because it takes social skills to navigate a four-way stop sign.
I tend to not share too much about my kid with other parents, because he is privileged compared to some and less privileged compared to others. But since this is my blog, I’m going to spew here.
Ian’s going to graduate from high school in less than two years and I don’t have a clear plan about what to do with him. While it is tempting to see if I could get him into an elite, four-year college, I think it’s not the right path for him. He would do fantastic in certain classes, but be at sea in a dorm and would struggle with gen ed requirements.
High schools are required to educate kids until they are 21, but those programs are aimed at kids who are much more disabled. Those programs focus on teaching kids how to work manual labor jobs and how to be independent. He would be in classes with kids who have much lower IQs and would need extensive help just learning self-help tasks like making a sandwich. Ian is more independent than my typical college kid.
I spent hours researching colleges for autistic kids last week, but those programs are very expensive. I also don’t think he needs that type of education. He really just needs a piece of paper that says he can program computers and then be put in front of a computer for a job. He can program for 12 hours a day and never get tired. He’s that weird prodigy that you read about from time to time.
I went back and forth for days last week. Should he go to an 18-21 program, which would be free and would teach him basic job skills that any kid needs? Lots of typical kids have summer jobs in a supermarket, so it wouldn’t hurt him to learn how to bag groceries. But he’ll get bored really quickly.
Should I send him to a community college, where aside from the computer classes, he would be totally isolated and wouldn’t get support for his weaknesses? That unstructured environment would be stressful for him. In some ways, he’s a 12-year old, who needs grown-up support.
After going back and forth for days, I decided that instead of thinking about this decision as “an either/or,” I would think of this as an “and.” He can do both. From 9-3, he can learn to bag groceries, and from 3-9, he can go to the community college and learn C++ and Java. Fingers crossed.
My experiences with Ian have given me a taste of the experiences of people and families who have less privilege than ours. Ian will be in classes with kids who have more financial struggles. I’m worried about his ability to have a job that will pay his rent. I have a lot of other worries, too, but my concerns about the job prospects for people without a BA put us in the same boat as kids from poorer backgrounds.
I have no road map. I know about four-year colleges and careers. I can help my older son through that terrain. I don’t know much about alternatives. That’s partially why I’ve been writing about that topic a lot in the past year. I’m desperate for alternatives.
This experience also has pushed me way to the left on social issues in recent years. We need a social safety net for people who don’t have the privileges that take them to college and middle class jobs. Even if things work out okay for my kid, I know too many families who are struggling.