Busywork and the Consequences of Low Expectations Part 1

Help me…


It’s everywhere and it takes many forms. This definition sums it up nicely: “Busywork is an activity that is undertaken to pass time and stay busy but in and of itself has little or no actual value.”

It’s used in the military, in business (attending useless meetings), and, especially, in education.

Join us for your daily dose of 3 hours of busywork!!!

My daughter has been subjected to busywork from the time she was placed in a resource room at the age of three. Instead of trying to offer socialization opportunities or teaching necessary concepts, many hours of her day were spent doing busywork. How do I know this? One day I hid in the room connected to the resource room with a large picture window. The day before, after I had complained that the staff had done nothing to address my daughter’s autism, they “faked” the day for the professionals we had invited to attend. They did that day what they should have done every day: they taught concepts, encouraged socialization, and made sure my daughter and the other children in the room were occupied.

Inside that room the next day, I saw things were different. My daughter was ignored, as I knew she had been up to that time, and it wasn’t long after when we pulled her out of the school, and I began teaching her at home.

Nothing to Reach For

Children and adults with autism should be challenged. In other words, they should always have something to reach for. But throughout my daughter’s years in charter schools and then in a private school, she frequently was not challenged. I don’t mean she wasn’t given the opportunity to learn what everyone else was learning–she was. And many times she was overwhelmed. Instead of finding out what she could do, and then raising the bar (and thus, expectations) just a bit, she was either given work that was too challenging or not challenging enough. It was a cookie-cutter approach that may benefit some but certainly not all learners. This approach guarantees some students will be left behind.

Autism Professionals

I have enrolled my daughter in a wide variety of classes, have taken her to “professionals” who were supposed to help with concepts and speech, and to camps that proclaimed to promote socialization. One such professional I employed was a speech pathologist. My daughter had been a client of this professional for a few months when she told me one day that the SP had been on the computer, and it looked like she was shopping. This was while my daughter was on another computer working on a speech program. I am quite sure the SP did not expect my daughter to be able to tell me that.

How many pairs of shoes do you need?”

Just as many professionals have had low expectations of my daughter, my expectations for professionals were low. Yet I tried to be optimistic with each new hire, hopeful of a positive outcome. In the end, most in the long line of men and women I hired never seemed to even meet those expectations.

We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on interventions and activities over the years, and none was more expensive than when we enrolled her in an autism program at Vanderbilt University. The tuition was $15,000 a semester, and this program made constant use of busywork. The tipping point came when in the 2nd semester my daughter brought home several worksheets the group had to complete. The concepts were 5th- or 6th-grade level and based on what I knew about the others in the group, was below what these young adults were capable of doing. In addition, the advisors did not capitalize on her recently acquired Administrative Assistant Technical Certificate (from Nashville State Community College) when they assigned internships. She was (and still is) proficient in Word, Excel and Access, yet she was not encouraged to utilize these skills. No one tried to pinpoint areas in which she needed help (like writing), and after I suggested during a meeting that they give her writing assignments, they did so. They were uneven in their criticisms and praise and never took advantage of her innate talents (one of which is the desire to help others). After one year, she had learned little, had done only superficial socializing (because she was shy, and it was rarely encouraged), and, therefore, she started to resent the program.

Special Needs Camps

“Professionals” have underestimated my daughter’s abilities for years, and this way of thinking has caused her to miss out on learning and social opportunities. In addition to a myriad of “teachers” I have hired, she has attended many camps for young adults with special needs, and each one offered its own version of “socializing” and activities.

Two of the most recent camps, those she attended while we lived in Florida, are great examples of underestimating her abilities and doling out of “busywork.”

The first camp, which was in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, incorporated a lot of “down time” in their scheduled activities. My daughter would call me while sitting around with nothing to do, waiting for the next activity, and I suppose this form of “busywork” was the hardest to comprehend. My daughter does remember enjoying her time working with an in-house computer program.

The second camp was in Jacksonville. It lasted a month, and that fact was one of the few things about the camp that was of use to my daughter. She did fine away from home, and I would receive progress reports by email. But when the report included a negative (not being able to make decisions on time was one of them), I asked if they were going to address it (since it would probably be beneficial for her and others the rest of the time she was there). Unfortunately, one of the program monitors rejected my suggestion and explained that this behavior was not something they would normally handle. The girls in her “dorm” room rarely communicated, and once again, she experienced an enormous amount of down time. The room supervisor did allow each of them to cook meals with her supervision, and that was definitely a plus.

Another example of lack of challenges and low expectations

Soon after we returned to Michigan, my daughter attended a camp at a nature center. As always, I felt a mixture of anxiety and optimism when we arrived and she was quickly led away by a camp counselor. When the camp was over, very little socialization had occurred except with her roommate, and the most frustrating thing I had discovered about this camp experience was a project that was presented to the young adults: to simply paint a tiny bird feeder made of cardboard. The craft was simplistic and a project for children in grade school and a clear example of providing zero challenges and nothing to reach for. I was disappointed once again.

Writer’s Note: In no way did I ever want the activities presented in the camps (or in any of the situations I have presented) to frustrate the young adults. Rather, I believe organizers should have provided a variety of activities and coursework suited to each individual’s abilities and desires, including the choice of art projects and handicrafts (for camps).

Next: Social Groups and Classes

Meeting image by Yan Krukov from Pexels.
Skeleton image by Tara Winstead from Pexels.
Camp image by Richard Cordones on Unsplash.

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