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Commentary: The Wall of Fame or The Wall of Shame?

15 Oct

A parent of a client e-mailed me a copy of the school newsletter and asked me to look at the “Wall of Fame” students on page 6. Placement on the “Wall” was based on the Eight Keys of Excellence: Commitment, Flexibility, Balance, Speak with Good Purpose, Integrity, This is it!, Ownership, and Failure Leads to Success. Needless to say, she wagered that many kids on the autism spectrum (and with special needs writ large) would struggle to demonstrate these skills. Then, she asked, “By default, is my kid designated to a ‘Wall of Shame’?”

Many schools have such programs that, whether peer- or teacher-selected, spotlight students for excellence and efforts in many areas greatly affected by the diagnosis of an ASD. Should we care that these kids not only (or perhaps don’t simply) have to try to make it to the “Wall,” they also have to fight their own innate difficulties? Should we brush off this reward like I do with the bumper stickers that say “My child is an honor student….” as yet another example of the boomer generation’s boosterism? Should we think that this parent is striving to eradicate the rewards that truly set students apart and that the next step is to rid the world of honor rolls and dean’s lists?

The possibility of an unspoken Wall of Shame brings to my mind the concept of self-esteem. A fairly misunderstood and downtrodden concept over the past 60 years, self-esteem is a double-edged sword for individuals with and without ASD: you need to feel good about you and you need to do well. For most of the latter half of the 20th century, people argued that if you told yourself long enough, you could feel good about yourself. During the 1990s to present, we realized that depression rates skyrocketed during the Feel-Good Age, and that doing well was more important.

Perhaps no better proof of the relationship between doing good and self-esteem comes from the population of individuals with ASD. I have literally watched practice in areas of social struggle develop confidence that yielded in improved self-esteem. Conversely, I’ve watched bullies and unforgiving teens tear down any thought of self-worth in many of my clients.

Where do the Walls of Fame and Shame fall in this discussion of self-esteem? We hear much about the Temple Grandins and the Jason McElwains in the autism community. Indeed, they are beacons of light to hold up for all to see. But they are on the Wall of Fame. How do we, as supporters of individuals with ASD, improve the likelihood of lives that may not land on the Wall of Fame, but surely do not end up on the Wall of Shame?

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