58: He’s Not Even Wrong

58: He’s Not Even Wrong

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

He’s Not Even Wrong

The problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.

~Paul Collins

I am always apprehensive about parent-teacher conferences. My eight-year-old son, Jack, is autistic but he goes to school in a mainstream inclusion third-grade classroom and even though I always hear at these conferences that he is very smart, that he is “making sufficient progress to meet goals,” I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I never really hear anything that surprises me, but I am still anxious walking into those meetings.

Last fall’s conference was different. I had noticed Jack struggling more and more. I had started to wonder if an inclusion classroom was the best setting for him. I started to see his autism-specific deficits bumping up against the curriculum, and I started to see the social divide between Jack and his peers widening.

Third grade is where it starts getting harder for Jack to slide by just because he’s bright, his teacher told me. Then she blew my mind. She showed me some examples of his work and went through his answers. She showed me one worksheet and said, “I didn’t know how to grade this. It’s not even wrong, but it’s not right.”

I gasped when she said those words, when she said, “not even wrong.” That is the name of one of my favorite books on autism, by Paul Collins.

That phrase — Not Even Wrong — refers to what was originally a derogatory way of dismissing someone’s answer to a problem. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, but the solver’s frame of reference is so far off base that it is not even wrong. It perfectly describes autism and it perfectly describes Jack.

It also perfectly describes what I want for my kid — a place, an existence, where it is okay for him to be not even wrong. Because I love the way Jack’s brain works. I love the way autism has given him a unique perspective that lets him come up with some of the most amazing things. I adore his not even wrongness. I want him to find a way of life where starting from a fundamentally different point of view is an asset to him and where he can be valued for that.

In his book, Collins wrote, “Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.”

I want to help find more square holes and I am trying to get to the round holes and make them at least trapezoidal before my kids and your kids get hammered into them. I want to spread awareness of both autistic kids and autistic adults. I want this to be a world where it is okay to be a square peg without having to pretend to be round.

I don’t want to change Jack. I want to change the world.

A few weeks before my conference, I started trying to change the world by changing Jack’s class. I went in, armed with nine pages of notes, and I told Jack’s classmates about autism.

I told them how each one of them is different and how they can be a friend to Jack and other kids with autism. I told them to go forth and be different themselves, and to show other kids that it is okay to be different. I listened to them at the end of my talk when they told me, “There is a kid on my soccer team with autism,” and “I have an uncle who doesn’t talk,” and I knew that some of them were getting it.

Not all of those kids are going to make it. They will not all stand up for the different kids and adults that they run across in their lives. But some of them will. And some of them, even if they don’t act on it now, just might remember learning about Jack and autism later in life when they come across someone who acts different. And they might help that square peg find a hole that isn’t round.

At Jack’s conference, his teacher told me the story of a short passage that Jack had to write, which would get a grade of zero to three points. His original sentence earned him a zero. After a long process of reading his passage to the class, being prompted for more, and adding information, Jack finally earned his three.

The teacher has a Hall of Fame wall where passages that are really, really good and earn threes get hung up. Jack’s passage was undoubtedly not up to the standards of what was already posted there. But Jack got some tape and he took his paper, on which he’d crossed out “0” and written “3,” and he put it up there all by himself. He knew that he had worked hard and that, for him, his work was Hall of Fame worthy. And the teacher made a square hole for him and let it stay.

The world is slow to change. We have been hammering square pegs into round holes for so long that it takes a huge leap to put down the hammers. I’m hopeful that I got to some of those kids before they even pick up the hammers. And I hope that some of those kids told their parents. And I hope that some of you read this and tell your kids. And I hope that we, all of us together, CAN change the world.

~Jean Winegardner

More stories from our partners