A lot of teachers, educational staff and university admissions officers have this image of what an ‘ideal student’ should be. I think you all know the type? Perfect or near-perfect GPAs, dozens of volunteer hours, masses of honours classes, usually socially well-adjusted, strong relationships with faculty, seem to seem absolutely perfect on paper. They’re a solid bet; they probably don’t present a nasty surprise or a potential risk. Unfortunately, this model is harmful to those of us who don’t fit it well, or only sort of fit it, rather than gliding into the role effortlessly. I’d say that we only sort of fit it, here.
Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with these people. I’m not saying that. It’s that there is more than one way to be a good student.
There are loads of people who, despite their talents and interests, end up struggling with some aspects of the traditional schooling process. This happens quite often for people on the spectrum, since some of them may not have problems with the academic material presented to them, but may struggle with overload, social interaction or racking up all the extracurricular activities that universities think that students need to put down on their applications in order to make them seem like more viable admissions candidates. Colleges may love students who play the violin, volunteer at the local hospital, tutor underprivileged primary-school children and go on holiday to build houses in Mexico—but someone who is more subject to overload may not have those same extracurricular experiences. But at the same time, they might have the potential to add to a learning community.
Interestingly—but not surprisingly—autistics raised as boys are more likely to succeed under this paradigm than autistics raised as girls, according to this article. Women in this study fared much worse than men—none of the women profiled had university degrees at all, and the majority of them were extremely isolated. Since the Rutter and Howlin study cited in the New York Times article didn’t look at transgender people, I’d be interested to know how trans and gender-variant youth end up, compared to their cis counterparts. I also have some ‘anecdata’ to add to this: of all the spectrum people we’ve known, the ones who fared better academically were those with supportive parents who made sure that the education they were getting was best suited for their children. People with parents who were either completely clueless or were flat-out abusive didn’t fare as well.
People who would actually perform well get shut out by the gatekeepers because they may look less impressive on paper than they do in real life. (And the converse happens—you get some real ‘winners’ getting admitted to top universities because they’re adept at bullshitting—or get someone else to bullshit for them.) For instance, someone with a more ‘lopsided’ ability profile may be passed over by some admissions committees because they don’t fulfil a particular image. An example of that might be a student who is great at every subject other than one. This student may be particularly gifted at learning languages, studying within a particular branch of science, or interpreting a certain type of mathematical idea, but they may struggle in other disciplines. Since some educational systems, like those of the US and Scotland, value ‘well-roundedness’ over specialisation when gatekeeping, students who have such ability profiles may struggle to gain admission to more competitive undergraduate programmes. Their grade-point average is lower, not because they’re incompetent, but because they tend to have strengths centred in one area, rather than strengths that are spread out more thinly across the disciplines.
This tends to feed into the idea that students who might not fit this particular ideal are ‘inferior’, which…is not the case. It also upholds the structural problems that prevent people on the spectrum from gaining access to good education and employment—if the universities with more resources are all turning them down and they’re stuck going to the large local state university (in the United States) or ending up in a vocational track and not getting any academic tertiary education at all (UK, Germany), that will make it more difficult for them to find jobs that would support them and would be less overloading to them.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop after a student graduates: once they get to the workplace, unfortunately, bosses are going to pick the person with the degree from Harvard over the one from Southern Tennessee Farming University. Not because the person from Harvard is necessarily smarter than the person from STFU, but the degree is ‘proof’ that the person is capable of playing the game in order to win a place at Harvard (or has rich ‘legacy’ parents)—whereas you only need to have a pulse to get admitted to STFU. And a lot of bright, skilled people end up at STFU and its real-life equivalents—not because they’re not talented enough to be at Harvard or places like that, but because the gatekeepers screen them out because of that ‘image’. (Or worse, they end up at for-profit ‘career colleges’, like the University of Phoenix or ITT Tech, that prey on low-income students, women and people of colour.)
The problem is that people are being drowned out before they have the chance to show that they are, in fact, capable. Do I have a perfect solution for this yet? No, I don’t; however, I do recognise that it’s a problem, and I feel it needs to be mentioned.
Does this mean that I’m against ‘achievement’ or ‘excellence’ or any other words that educationists use as mantras? Of course not; what I’m trying to do is expand the idea of what ‘excelling’ means, and how people of different neurotypes can achieve without fitting into this model.