…Just a lack of motivation
For me growing up, there was no way around it. I hated math. It stressed me out and frustrated me. I remember sitting in a full classroom feeling more alone because it seemed everyone always understood what was going on except for me. I found ways to compensate for my struggles and somehow found my way through high school, college, and graduate school still performing at a somewhat average level mathematically. Unfortunately, math is a part of everyday life for everyone and there is no way away from it or around it. And I’ve learned that despite my hatred of it, it’s an important part of how I live my life; my very existence, and survival, as a working mom depends upon my ability to do basic math. And now that I have children, I found myself back in that classroom, frustrated by this new math that I am now having to help my children do. It’s the worst.
Well the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. My oldest is now experiencing the same kind of frustration and difficulty with mathematics that I experienced. The difference is that he has documented diagnoses that have increased his inability to retain this information and his reluctancy to motivate himself to try. We had noticed that Noah was struggling with attentiveness in this area particularly but also in other areas in which he had no interest, such as remembering to do his chores, some self-care tasks, and in school subjects that were to him boring. His teacher raised her concerns and frustrations with Noah and how regardless of what accommodations he was given in the classroom, he still struggled. So we decided to get him into the doctor to see if there was something else going on that was impeding his ability to focus. He didn’t want to just assume it was his behavior, or lack of trying, or pure laziness. The thing about Autism is that those affected by the condition often have specific interests towards a specific thing and will put most of their energy towards that interest. We see this a lot in Noah. If there is something being discussed in school that peaks his interest, such as history or science, he will take a keen interest in it and focus most of his attention on that discussion. Anything else, however, doesn’t receive that same enthusiasm, and math is one of these subjects that just doesn’t seem to excite him. I can’t blame him though. Math sucks.
But it is important and it is a core subject area that is tested throughout the district and state that determines ones competency and readiness for the next grade level. Noah is performing below what is expected for a third grader at this point in the game, and even taking into account his challenges and accommodations, he will still be struggling. His teacher points to his inability to focus and attend to important tasks that might help him better understand his work. And we see it as he comes home and attempts his homework, as we, mostly the husband and father, have to practically reteach him the lesson each day. It’s a rarity that he can complete his math homework independently. And with two other kiddos to look after in the afternoons/evening, it can be challenging for us to have to spend one on one time, up to an hour each day reteaching this child something he just learned in school a few hours prior. The question we had is whether or not Noah was just being lazy and choosing not to do something he didn’t want to do, or whether his Autism had a role in his inability to retain this information. Was he choosing to not do something he had no interest in or did he need a little help with motivation? Or was there something else at play that was affecting his performance? Was it a mix of two or more of the above and most importantly, what could we do to help?
Math is one of those things that never goes away. I often tell the kids that if I could’ve found a way out of having to do math in real life, I would’ve found it a long time ago. And I often empathize with them about how much is isn’t fun. Perhaps I shouldn’t approach it this way, but I’ve found that with empathy comes a willingness to at least try. Problem is, Noah doesn’t want to. And now that he’s older, he’s starting to notice the difference between him and his peers (another post on that coming soon). How can we address this?
As his grades continued to slip despite the accommodations and the one on one homework help and the before school tutoring sessions, we decided to at least get him tested for ADHD since attention was the teacher’s number one concern. I didn’t think anything of it, and figured that regardless of what the doctor found, we’d leave with a better idea of how to support our son. And even though Noah’s struggles stem from an inability to focus on unfamiliar or unfavorable tasks, we also know that motivation is a large part of it as well. All the accommodations we have implemented will only help if he has the motivation necessary to be successful, and short of using medication, how can we increase his motivation something that his brain tells him is of no use to him? He’s a smart kid. Rewards will start to bore him after a while. Who knew raising kids was so dang complicated?
So now that we have the diagnosis on top of the other diagnosis…. Now that we have the why and the what, how do we figure out the how? Motivation to learn seems to be the main issue that plagues Noah. He just doesn’t seem to want to do his work, especially when there is no perceived reward in doing so. How could we get him to care enough to try his best? And how could we help improve his attitude? The tricky thing about high functioning Autism is that to someone who may not know the child well enough, it can manifest as stubbornness or laziness or even pure defiance. And so it’s not uncommon for children with high functioning Autism to be seen as being “bad” or “lazy”. The important thing to remember is that since Autism is a neurological condition, it causes the person to perceive things in a different way. Noah’s lack of interest in math is a definite contributor to his poor performance, but there is also the consideration that he is understanding his lessons differently. As a team, we, along with his teachers, academic support team, physicians, and therapists have to determine a successful plan of action for helping Noah increase his attentiveness which first must stem from increasing his motivation to want to try his best at pursuing difficult tasks, and also teaching him ways the better focus on things that aren’t exactly of interest to him. Perhaps this diagnosis is a key to figuring out how Noah’s brain works and what kind of tools might help him find ways to motivate himself to do work that isn’t fun. Only time, and persistent intervention and accommodation, will tell.