Keep Driving



This is for all those who are facing uphill battles.

For all those who are facing challenges beyond what many of us face.

For all those who love someone who wakes up every day and overcomes.

This is for all those who teach someone who doesn’t learn the same as the others.

For all those who wonder if what they do will ever be enough.

For all those who spend time designing a different kind of way, for a different kind of kid.

This is for all those who say it can’t be done.

For those who give up on the ones who take too much time.

For those who believe that everyone has to take the same route to reach a certain destination.

Five years ago, my daughter and I listened as her therapist explained the challenges she would have in learning to drive. How those who are on the autism spectrum can have great difficulty with spatial awareness, timing, and reaction speed. How if she really wanted to learn, it would likely take more time, effort, and creative instruction than one might normally require. That it wasn’t impossible, but it would require patience, small chunks of learning, and much simulated practice.

Living in our town means no public transportation. Driving means independence. We didn’t see a choice. If there were any possibility of it being done, we had to try. We put on our toughest tough, or grittiest grit, our most determined determine. We began….

I first signed my daughter up for lessons at a local place where most students completed their driver education. She went to every lesson. She split time as a passenger, then driver, during the one hour lessons. At the end of the two months, she wasn’t ready and needed more instruction. The instructor agreed to take her on individually for extended time, and said he would meet us on the weekends for an hour lesson (at hourly rate of $80). We agreed. Some weekends, he would be there waiting in the parking lot of the High School, and she would have her lesson. Other weekends, he didn’t show up, and we would drive back home — she a little dejected. The last time we did that, she said, “He doesn’t come because he doesn’t think I can”. That was the last time we went.

I called many companies who offer drivers education to youth. I called companies who offer it to adults. Finally, one of them seemed interested in this challenge. The person on the other end of the line said, “We have an instructor who’s day job is working in an independent living center for adults with autism. He might be perfect for you”. And so, our drivers ed journey, finally, began.

He said she might be able to learn, and she might not. That some have that capacity. That others, simply, don’t. That he would need to spend time with her to make that determination, and that if it was not something he felt she could do, that I needed to be okay with hearing that.

The next weekend, we met this instructor in the McDonalds parking lot. I rode in the back seat and for two hours, she drove in and out of cones in a parking lot, pulled into slots, backed out, turned, and signaled. They talked, he asked questions, she made jokes. Getting to know each other. She was still terrified of driving, but wanting to learn at the same time. Our two hour parking lot lesson ended in an hour and a half with these words:

She Can Learn.

He said she would need two hour chunks of time, behind the wheel, weekly. He said he would start out in parking lots, then move to side streets, then busy neighborhoods, then freeways. He said she had good skills, good instincts, and good judgement. He said she lacked confidence. He said she would need to be put into situations that would require her to make decisions quickly, to reroute, to anticipate others, and to stay calm. He said she needed confidence. He also said it would cost $100 per lesson. We said, “Where do we sign up”.

Every Sunday for the next two years, we met him in that McDonalds parking lot. He never missed a session. Then one day, he said the words we had often thought really might never be said:

She’s ready to take her test.

The following week, she passed her driving test. The same week, she moved into a dorm to begin classes at a junior college. She mapped out routes to her most necessary places: Wal Mart for groceries, the gas station, the pharmacy, and her favorite clothing store. She has spent the last year doing that local driving and I have never been so proud. Until two days ago:

Over the past year, I have made the two hour round trip to her dorm to pick her up for the weekends. Because it is so far. Because it’s almost all highway. Busy highway. And then on Sundays, deliver her back to the dorm. Until two days ago.

I came home from work on a normal Thursday. As I pulled onto my street, I noticed a car that looked a lot like hers. I assumed my son’s new girlfriend must drive the same car. I pulled in, got out, and came inside. And then I saw my daughter, sitting in the living room watching TV and eating a pizza she had ordered.

“How did you get here”?

“I drove mom. Like everyone else does“.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling inside me as I listened to her explain the past two hours of her life:

I don’t like having to wait for you to transport me every weekend. I have thought about this for a while. This morning, I got up and decided it was time for me to drive home. I drove to McDonalds to get a drink, and then I pulled into a parking space.  I sat there for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, trying to decide if I could do it. Trying to tell myself I could. Thinking of all the things that might go wrong. I was just about to turn around and go home, and then I decided, no. I’m going to do it. I’m going to drive home. So I did.

I want you to know, I could literally picture her sitting in that parking lot, wrestling with the fears, the thoughts, the second-guessing that has pretty much defined her entire life. The same things she felt in that other McDonalds back when she first began this journey several years ago. I imagined her sitting there, talking to herself, and coming to a fork in the road. This decision was one that I think she somehow knew would define things for her, going forward.  It was her that wanted to do it. And it would be up to her whether to bravely take that step, or drive back to the dorm.  She decided that she just didn’t want to be “unable” anymore. Just like she did three years ago. And so, with shaky hands but conviction, she pulled onto the road, turned left instead of right, and drove home.

Had I known she was doing this, I’d of had a heart attack! Sometimes maybe it’s better to not know.

The confidence in her since this simple act of driving home happened is incredible. Friday, I got home from work and she was not here. She arrived about an  hour later, saying she called a friend back at the dorm and invited her to go hang out. She drove back to the dorm, picked up her friend, and the two went and got nails done, haircuts, and a lip piercing (that one I’m not so fond of). After dropping off her friend at the end of this full day, she drove back home, again. No worries. No fears. Well, maybe a little.

I think we have just turned a corner. Again. She keeps doing that, this girl of mine. Turning corners. Taking back roads to get to her destination. Taking her time. Going over overpasses, and under freeways, on her way to her destination. Success. Sometimes it’s a straight shot. Other times, the road is blocked, and she has to find another route. But she always does.

So to all of you, Keep Driving.




The Curious Concept of Agency

Google Images
Image from brian.magierski.com and retrieved from Google Images.

I always enjoy seeing students engaged in work that causes them to take action in one or another direction in their life. Recently, my daughter experienced this type of learning. She visited a doctor to have some allergy tests run, and when she came home she spent the next few days researching all she could about histamines and how they interact with and through various body systems. It amazed me how much she learned from that independent research, as she came out informing me of these processes using terms and ideas that I really am only vaguely familiar with. She is now on a quest to figure out the educational steps one might take in order to design her future the way she dreams of it: researching rare medical conditions and disorders of the immune system, conducting lab tests, learning…. This is not something new; she has spent most of her life on her computer, researching this or that, always with a particular interest in the areas of health and wellness.

So what changed? Why suddenly is this something she feels has given her life direction? Has given purpose to her education? Why did this experience cause her to feel compelled to act? Curious and driven to research, learn, teach, and contribute to the understanding in the field?

In a recent PBL chat with @newtechnetwork and others (see archive ), a word was shared with me that I really have not pondered much in my life. A word that I thought, at the time, I may not even fully understand. A word that I found out, after some research of my own, I actually do understand and a word that explains, at least in my opinion, the curious explosion that occurs when purpose and action collide.


I considered my (vague) conceptual understanding of this word. It is a curious word. Or maybe it is just curious when considered alongside such words as empowerment, ownership, growth mindset, and engagement. It is not a word I hear much; it’s not frequently used in educational circles and conversations I have, at least not that I can remember. So I began looking into this word; more specifically, the ideas and concepts behind it. This idea of “agency”… What is it? How does it affect or contribute to student learning and achievement? How does one develop it? And how can we as educators support it?

One resource I looked at, which sought to define the term “agency” as a phenomenon related to education, was this paper written by Professor Gert Biesta of the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at The University of Exeter in 2006. This definition read, in part,

…the situation where individuals are able to exert control over and give direction to the course of their lives.

This aligns with well a general definition of agency as “…the capacity for autonomous social action” (Calhoun 2002).

New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization, offers this agency rubric on their website which I found to be marvelous. Interestingly, the rubrics, which are entitled “New Tech Network Agency Rubric, High School” reveal domains and criteria to be measured along the lines of growth mindset, seeking out of feedback, and reflective learning, among others.

Further researching turned up this article by Eduardo Briceno of Mindset Works entitled “Mindset and Student Agency”. He suggests:

Deeper learning requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire deeper understanding and skills, and most important, they become more competent learners in and out of school. They become better prepared to succeed in academics, but also in 21st century careers and in life.

But agency is not something we can “give” someone else. It comes from within. What can we do in our schools and classrooms – even our homes –  to help promote agency in our students and in our own children?

As Briceno points out,  “growth mindset”, “grit”,  “motivation”,  and “college and career readiness” standards are important areas for developing personally aware and autonomous students “capable of driving their own learning”. These ideas, he suggests, are a part of  two distinct but complex components for developing and supporting agency:

Learner Mindsets and Learning Strategies and Habits

What are some examples of learner mindsets that we promote and invest in daily? I know for my daughter, who for those who do not know, is a 19 year old college student who is also autistic, we have focused a lot on growth mindset and perseverance. On self-awareness and familiarity with her own learning style and needs. On self-advocacy, reflection, and how to recognize feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) and then how to think through that feedback and use it toward continual growth and self-awareness. We have focused on confidence building and persistence. We have also focused on recognizing challenges and knowing when (and how) to seek help. We have also focused on purpose, a sense that she “belongs” and has gifts and contributions to make to the world. This is perhaps the most difficult mindset for her. Feeling “different” makes it hard to feel a sense of “belonging”.

So what about learning strategies and habits? It is one thing to have these different learner mindsets I mentioned above as one’s goals. She feels aware and she focuses on growth not ability, and she seeks feedback and strives for purpose and belonging. Great! But what happens when she experiences something that challenges those goals? What happens when she is not successful despite her persistence and “I can do it!” mindset? And how does this look for our students? I think this goes a little bit farther, a little beyond simply “embracing failure”.  Just how do we support agency?

My daughter, just like so many other students (and adults), experiences setbacks frequently. We might not be able to teach “agency” but we can teach learning skills that support the development and growth of agency.  Here are just a few suggestions from Briceno for learning strategies to support agency, along with my own reflections about these suggestions. I will use my  daughter as a little vignette here:

Teach students how the brain works. My daughter has taken numerous learning inventories, and we shared information with her early on about what autism is and how it impacts her specifically. We did this to build understanding and awareness; to help her build capacity. She remarked one day, “So that explains why I do _______!” after reading the book “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers” by Luke Jackson (Terrible title, great read). This teaching, which was relevant and specific for her, seemed to not just bring awareness, but give her a profound understanding and acceptance of herself. Finally having a reason for her (sometimes odd) behaviors made her feel…well, normal. (I am not suggesting anyone take this approach, as this is a decision based on your own child and family, I am just sharing my own experiences and results).

Self-Efficacy. While she does have a growth mindset toward life and learning, she is also aware of paths to take should she need supports or information, or help. At school, this is again individual. For her, this came in the form of an IEP (for academics) and a few trusted adults to whom she could go to talk or ask a question, but could be any steps a student can take to meet their own needs. It is not enough to believe “I can do it!”, one also needs to know where, how, and to whom they can turn if they need help…if they can’t do it. These “paths” serve to truly support self-confidence…to enable someone to be confident in their ability to succeed, but just as confident in their ability to recover and go on in the face of an obstacle. How that looks is as individual as our students and their needs.

How To Work In Teams. While this was (and still is) a challenge for her, she has learned to offer up her particular strengths to help toward a common goal. Using her technology skills to create a video, for example, or doing the leg-work or research for a particular topic is something she does enjoy, and allows her to still work independently on her portion of a group task.

Developing desirable habits through cues and routines. Funny story to share here. She used to struggle with recognizing nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or tones of voice. She would be talking away about the current tropical depression or other weather phenomenon occurring in some other part of the world, completely oblivious to the checking of the watch, walking slowly off to the side, and other non verbal ways her peers have of saying, “Nobody cares”!! She spent a great deal of time with her therapist and a computer program, learning to recognize these little cues and nuances which are so natural for you and I –but not necessarily so for others. She has learned to regulate; to recognize when the conversation has changed topic and how to adjust to that, and when it is time to really stop talking about a certain thing that is not interesting to the other person! This is all part of the important work that has gone on, and continues, for her to become a person with a strong sense of agency.

Because, if she does not believe in her ability to direct her own path, to be heard and understood,  if she doesn’t see a purpose and feel compelled to change the world, how will she ever go about changing it? How will she ever fulfill a purpose that she does not believe she is capable of fulfilling? She won’t. And neither will our students. Agency is the line between reacting to a world in which you are only a speck, and designing a world of which you are the creator.

By putting into our classrooms and schools practices which value and support growth, effort, and learning, by recognizing and responding to individual needs, through building relationships and knowing our students, and kids, as unique learners and people, we have the best possible chance at supporting agency in our students. It will also help our students avoid the crippling effects of its absence, which she also experienced in her early life and learning experiences.

The curious concept of agency. Turns out, it’s not so foreign to me after all.

What do you think of agency? What practices do you think are important when designing an environment which helps contribute to the development of agency? I would love to hear more!

Sources: Teaching and Learning Research Program (www.tlrp.org); Prof. Gert Biesta , School of Education and Lifelong Learning at St Lukes Campus ,The University of Exeter: Working Paper 5 “Learning Lives“; New Tech Network (www.newtechnetwork.org), Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the social sciences [electronic resource]/ edited by
Craig Calhoun … [et al.]. Oxford : Blackwell, 2002





Dancing Along The Spectrum

Dancing Along The Spectrum


Nineteen years ago, I was still oblivious to the signs of something called autism. My knowledge of this condition was very limited. At the same time, my second child was born. My beautiful, peaceful daughter. I had no idea the journey into that unknown sphere was about to begin.

Now she has made it through high school and currently is in her first year of college– living in a dorm. Amazing!! Diagnosed with Aspergers, this is a person who spent most of her life preferring to be alone, living in the shadows, never going out with friends or taking risks of any kind. She is the ultimate definition of a worrier. She was also fearful of people due to so many episodes of non-acceptance and avoided groups or socializing of any kind. Nowadays, she has 4 roommates, spends weekends having “girls day out”, has gotten a tattoo, writes essays, stays up late, and has dyed her hair. Oh my!! Granted, these are typical events for a college kid– but these are huge leaps for her. This thrills me! (Well, not so much the tattoo–although she chose one that says “Hope“, saying it represented how she has always hoped for friends and fun and now she is finally not afraid to jump in there and experience life….so I actually LOVE that tattoo now).

Having a child on the spectrum has taught me many things which have helped me be a better teacher…a better parent…a better person. Here are five of them:

1. Be a self-esteem +1 ‘ er.

People with autism are often the victim of bullying. Their uniqueness isn’t always appreciated and understood. This can have a devastating effect on self-esteem. To offset that, try to involve them in things that will help build confidence.  And be open to anything.  We signed up for Taekwando, where she went on to earn a green belt. Who knew my shy, quiet, introverted daughter would be good at martial arts?

2. Recognize and celebrate individual passions.

My daughter never watched cartoons or played with toys. She spent her time watching The Weather Channel and building weather stations in the back yard, where she collected data. She can look at the sky and name every type of cloud, she can tell you the latest tropical storms, she can discuss the weather patterns forming across the eastern seaboard or the latest update on a tropical depression forming off the coast. Though not always a favorite topic of her peers, it was through this interest that she learned to read, calculate, make predictions, understand cause and effect, and draw conclusions. Not to mention find places she wants to one day visit (or never visit). Recognize passions and show you accept them for who they are. They need the positive vibes.

3. Initiate “check-ins” often.

My daughter was never going to ask a teacher for clarification. If she received a bad grade on an assignment, her embarrassment over that and lack of confidence would result in her just putting the paper away and moving on. Some teachers saw this as her “not taking initiative” in improving her grades. That wasn’t the case. She would suffer great anxiety over those things, but that happened internally. Communication is her biggest area of struggle, so if you can initiate the conversations around this, please do. Not everyone is comfortable having discussions, much less initiating them.

4. Learning styles matter.

Some kids love to collaborate. They share ideas, they enjoy working with others. But not all students are like this. My daughter prefers to work alone. She also expresses herself much more successfully through writing and technology, which is why I was so thankful for those teachers who allowed her to choose how to learn, and demonstrate that learning. Not everyone should be required to speak in front of a group or conduct an interview to gather data for a survey; if the assignment can be adjusted to accommodate styles and preferences, while maintaining the integrity of the task, please do!

5. Small acts of kindness have far reaching effects.

My daughter was fortunate to have some of the most outstanding teachers during her years in school, but one thing that really helped was that she also always seemed to have that one teacher who went above and beyond. It might not have even been a teacher on her schedule, but it was an adult in the building that always spoke to her, looked out for her, asked her how she was doing and really wanted to hear the answer. One example that sticks out: she never wanted to eat in the cafeteria because of the crowds and noise—so this one teacher would write her a pass to allow her to come to her classroom during lunch. That simple act made such a difference in how her days went-where before she would start feeling the anxiety of lunch and it was only 7:00 am!

For someone with autism, to have to navigate the social minefield of the high school cafeteria (who to sit with, how to approach the group and ask to sit…) well, that’s almost too much to bear. There are so many things which we don’t even realize are so stressful for others. Try to be sensitive to all the little nuances because they might be huge challenges for them.

Finally,  try to avoid assumptions. While there are many common characteristics or traits, no two people on the spectrum are the same. Get to know individual talents, skills, and struggles because there are many stereotypes and they are just that: stereotypes.

Even after 19 years, I don’t have all the answers on raising or teaching those with autism, and I know I never will. But these are some of the things I have picked up that have helped me (and her), and I wanted to share with you.

Thank you to all the teachers, parents, friends and strangers that have gone out of their way to show kindness and love to my daughter. You have mattered.