Michael’s meaningful activities

Alexandra and Michael

We spoke to Alexandra, the mother of Michael. Now 26 years old, Michael was diagnosed as autistic at age 2. He lives at home with his parents and younger siblings. Michael has high-support needs, with significant sensory and communication difficulties.  He also has medical and behavioural challenges*.

Despite those challenges, Michael exudes pride in his work achievements. He manages many parts of his day independently, with good supports in place.

Alexandra argues strongly that meaningful work does not have to be paid employment to be of value

Early Years

Michael attended special schools and Alexandra says that little attempt was made to stretch him, that he was “stuck doing shoebox tasks”. (These are literally boxes containing everything needed for a complete activity including visual instructions. They may relate to numeracy, literacy, life skills, fine motor skills, etc.). Alexandra says he was kept at these same repetitive activities for months at a time. He was not allowed to join in other activities or groups as he did not conform to the rules and routines of the school and, at that time, staff did not have the expertise to support him. Michael was therefore given limited access to facilities and learning opportunities outside the classroom. (Alexandra notes that the school has now changed its approach. There have been improvements since Michael left and they have become more aware of how to support autistic students.)

Alexandra was regularly told that he was “not ready” to move on to other activities, but she found this approach frustrating:

“…  he can do so much more. I once showed a video of Michael measuring out butter and flour for baking. I was asked whether he could do addition and subtraction, or understand the concept ‘less and more’. We tried teaching him those concepts for a long time, but although he understands single concrete examples, he is not able to generalise his understanding from a specific instance to abstract concepts..  But to me, he only needs to know that when he adds the ingredients onto the weighing scale, the number goes up and vice-versa. It is assumed that an individual needs to understand the concepts of subtraction/addition, more/less before they can take on a task like measuring – which Michael has proven there is no need to do. But he was not allowed to move on to other tasks because he didn’t understand these supposed pre-requisites.”

We need to re-examine the way we judge and value skills. The rhetoric about letting each individual reach their potential – there has to be more creative ways to attain this than through a very singular rigid path.  Sometimes I wonder who is the rigid one.