Knowing What We Don't Know

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By Dan Coulter


We’re all guilty of it. Believing what we’ve said is perfectly clear and then learning that a family member misunderstood. This is a special hazard when someone in the family has Asperger Syndrome and a brain that processes information in a highly individual way.

Here’s an example.

When my son, Drew, went away to college, his mom and I offered him a lot of advice. Among other things, we suggested he use his college’s academic support center. This was a service that helped students review their assignments, understand what was required, and then coach them to do their best work. Drew had always done well in school, but because he has Asperger Syndrome, his mom and I figured, “He’s living away from home for the first time, so he can use all the academic support he can get.”

Drew reluctantly agreed.

He settled into college life and we were pleased that he was succeeding, not just academically, but socially. We’d occasionally think of and ask about the academic support center, but Drew never seemed to get around to going. His overall grades were good enough that it wasn’t a priority, so we didn’t press the issue.

In his junior year, when we were helping him make decisions about changing his major, we learned the reason for his reluctance. We’d assumed that Drew had the same understanding of the academic support center that we did. But he’d thought it was a counseling center and that counselors there would ask him questions and report back to his mom. Sort of remote-control parental supervision. Drew was reveling in his independence. The last thing he wanted was more supervision.

For Drew, living away from home, managing his own life and graduating from college was a major accomplishment. While he did great in some classes and spent four years in his school’s honors program, there were other courses he struggled with early on. The academic support center could have helped him.

While this was not a sink or swim situation, it was a lesson to me to assume less and discuss more in family interactions. More than once over the years (and by “more than once,” I mean, frequently) my wife has warned me about my tendency to lecture to our kids. What I saw as friendly, helpful counsel learned from experience, she saw as advising them until their eyes glazed over. At least she stopped short of using the word, “rant.”

Anyway, the academic support center episode helped me understand that, when I talk, I need to continually think about asking for feedback to make sure my family members understand what I mean. And that I may need to ask extra questions to make sure I understand what they mean. They make assumptions, too.

It’s not enough to know. We also have to make the effort to know what we don’t know. You know?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter produces DVDs for people with Asperger Syndrome and autism and those who support them. You can find more articles on his website:

Copyright 2009 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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