Balance Challenge in Action! Relax ~ Work Hard

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Too much stress IS unhealthy! But choosing relaxing and fun whenever you feel like it has bad results. So how do you apply this whole balance idea? 

Let’s consider Henry:

Henry is in 11th grade. He has homework to do every night and will have to start working on his college applications soon. Should Henry “buckle down” and push himself to work harder? Or should he relax a little and take things easy?

The correct answer is… it depends.

What does it depend on? It depends on the context—the factors happening around Henry and his work. For example:

  • How hard does Henry usually work?
  • How are Henry’s grades?
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work?
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him?

So how can Henry decide what to do? Let’s help him…

Applying the Balance Challenge Scale

relax-work hardLet’s help Henry make a decision by looking at a recent Balance Challenge post on the balance between relaxing and working hard.

The visual we used to understand this balance is the scale.

The scale helps to see how these two ideas are opposites, and that you can “lean” more toward one side or another. Also, it illustrates that as you lean more toward one side (for example, relaxing), you move away from the other side (working hard).

For more details on these elements, see the Balance Breakdown page.

Another helpful image to use to make this concept more concrete is the slider:

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Again, the left side of the slider represents relaxing; the right side represents working hard. The triangle at the top shows just how much someone is relaxing or working hard.

Here are the possible “positions” along the slider, from all the way to relax to all the way to work hard:

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So how can the slider help Henry decide whether to “take it easy” or “buckle down”?

Remember the context questions we asked earlier? Where to position the slider all comes down to answering those questions.

Scenario 1

  • How hard does Henry usually work? Not so hard – he usually has free time at night 
  • How are Henry’s grades? He’s getting B’s and C’s
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work? Not usually, no
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him? People have been telling him to “put his nose to the grindstone”

Well, maybe in this context, it would help Henry to work a bit harder. His grades aren’t terrible, but he has time, he isn’t too stressed out and people are giving him reminders to work harder. Maybe he could move to around 75% hard work:

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That might mean spending another 45 minutes on homework at night, checking his homework for accuracy before turning it in, and setting up a schedule to start working on his college applications.

But what if Henry’s context were quite different?

Scenario 2

  • How hard does Henry usually work? Incredibly hard! He stays up really late every night making sure everything is perfect.
  • How are Henry’s grades? He’s getting almost all A’s.
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work? Yes. He rubs his forehead a lot and sometimes has to take deep breaths to calm himself down.
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him? People have said he’s doing a great job, but they’re worried he’s making himself really anxious.

In this context, it sounds like it would help Henry to relax quite a lot. Maybe he should be at 90% relax ~ 10% work hard:

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For Henry in this case, it could mean he goes to bed 30 minutes earlier—even if not everything has been triple checked—and he could go for a walk after school to calm down and think things through. It doesn’t mean abandoning all his work, but it does mean he should relax a lot more than he is now.

Balance Challenge in Action!

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My hope is that the Balance Challenge provides a framework for thinking about social decision-making. But it may be too abstract for some. I’d like for this to be something understandable, concrete, and ultimately, actionable.

Achieving balance is all about finding a good position on the slider—one that will be helpful to you to get a result you’re happy with. And it all depends on the context: what’s going on around you?

Using the slider to put the Balance Challenge in Action! should help people not only figure out how to think about a situation, but also how to act.

As always, I appreciate any feedback. Tweet or leave a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks!

—Aaron

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

Achieving Balance During Testing

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A special post for teachers

Today thousands of students in New York City finished up their state ELA exams and are preparing for next week’s math tests. Some terrific teachers in upstate New York wrote encouraging messages on the sidewalks outside their school to inspire their students.

It’s a really sweet gesture. I want to point out a probably unintended contradiction: the first photo says “Relax,” and the second says, “Be the best you can be.” Can you be both? It’s a lot of pressure to be the absolute best as you can be—how easy is it to relax when being your best?

To me, it seems that it’s more about striking a balance, in this case between relaxing and working hard.

relax-work hard

We looked at this balance in an earlier post. In these weeks of testing, this is the focus to take with students, particularly those with ASD. It’s not a time to cram in more test prep. instead, we can prepare students to be mentally ready for testing week.

For students who think concretely, like those on the autism spectrum, overall statements like “do your best” could be sources of stress, and reassuring comments like “relax” maybe be taken to an unintended extreme.

One the one hand, teachers want students to relax and approach the tests with a cool head… but not to relax so much that they don’t give good effort.

And we want them to recognize it’s important to work hard at something that matters… but not so hard that it makes them anxious and nervous.

To help students strike the balance, introduce the scale rather than giving blanket statements to all kids. Think about where each student tends to fall on the scale:

  • For the students who take it too easy, encourage them to focus and put some effort into their work
  • For kids who work too hard and stress themselves out, work on calming strategies to help them relax

Congratulations to the students and their hard-working/relaxing teachers (especially those at @LaureltonPardee)! And best of luck to everyone again next week next week!

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

Neurotypicals Take Note – Being a good listener

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Be a good listener

People who support individuals with ASD often address listening skills. There are some good things that come out of this work. Autistic folk often have difficulty engaging in back-and-forth conversations in a way that’s expected by their neurotypical conversational partners.

But it’s important for the presumably neurotypical teachers to note that we (NTs) are not perfect social beings who autistic people should use as role models for communication.

Neurotypicals need help listening

Occasionally there is information that becomes popular online that aims to help people improve their social interactions. One such piece is a recent BuzzFeed article, 17 Tips to ACTUALLY Listen When Someone Else is Talking. It includes such tips as:

3. Actually pay full attention to what the other person is saying.

and

8. When the other person is talking, listen for a key word or phrase, and then use it as a springboard to dive into your next comment or question.

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These are good tips! It can require some effort to give our friend or colleague our full attention, particularly with buzzing pinging devices in our pockets and on our wrists. And people do appreciate it when someone remembers and refers back to something they’ve talked about.

At first glance, it might seem that this is an article written for people on the autism spectrum. But it’s not! It’s very telling that it is written for the general public. The intended audience of the piece is not folks with diagnosed communication challenges—it’s “everyone.”

And that’s the point to remember: all people have communication challenges. When providing support and instruction to people with ASD, let’s not make the mistake to think that there is one “right” way to communicate, and that it’s our way. “Our way” is riddled with problems: for one, there is a huge number of people who don’t really listen to each other.

It’s all about balance

I hope that the Balance Challenges on this blog can be supportive for autistic people, but neurotypical allies could also benefit from thinking about them with respect to their own social decision making.

And whatever work we do to support individuals with autism, let’s give some thought to striking a balance between “our way” and “their way” of communicating.

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

I’m perfect! I stink! The First Balance Challenge.

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Do you know anyone who thinks that he’s right all the time, like he’s incapable of making a mistake?
And do you know anyone who is so hard on herself that she thinks she can’t do anything right?

If you want to make good decisions that are going to satisfy yourself and people around you, you have to be push yourself to acknowledge when you make mistakes… but not push so hard that all you see is your flaws.

It’s tough. In order to problem-solve social situations well, you need the right dose of harsh honesty and self-confidence. That’s right: it’s a balance—between I’m OK and I make mistakes.

Only “I’m OK”

On Saturday Night Live, Stuart Smalley reminded us all that:

(We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggonit, people like us.)

extreme-okIt’s good to be confident, to have a positive image of yourself. It helps you take on challenges and be outgoing. But if that feeling of “I’m OK” gets pushed too far, then you end up thinking you’re perfect, that there’s no room for change or growth.

People who take I’m OK to the extreme think something like, “I’m fine, everyone else is crazy, I don’t need guidance or advice from anyone.” Whenever a problem arises, they blame the other person in all circumstances—even when they may have been part of the problem.

If a guy named Manny is working with his classmates on a science project, and he  insists that everyone use his idea and that he does the writing on the poster and he do the calculations—his classmates will likely be annoyed. And if Manny leaves the situation thinking he’s done everything right and the others were mistaken, he won’t think to make any changes to his behavior. So he’s not likely to have much success in future interactions.

Getting stuck only thinking I’m OK prevents you from honestly evaluating interactions so you can make decisions that you and the others around you will be happy with.

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When Off Topic is On Target

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People often tell individuals with ASD to stay “on topic” in a conversation. And there’s some good reason: most people don’t like the feeling that a conversation that goes “off the rails” and turns into being about different than intended.

But do we always need to stay on topic? Have you ever thought about how a typical conversation goes? Many times, they don’t stay on one topic the whole time. It’s more like the conversation veers from the latest episode of Big Bang Theory… to theoretical physics… to physical education class.

So when do we need to stay on topic, and when is ok to stray from the topic a little? It may be helpful to think about finding a balance!

Balance Between Being On Topic and Off on a Tangent

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When to Hold Your Thought

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Have you ever had an experience like this:

You’re working with a group of people, and there’s a long discussion about the best way to solve a problem. One person wants A, another person wants B, a third person wants C… but you know the best option: it’s Z! It’s so obvious! You think to yourself, It would be SO much easier and faster if everyone just listened to my idea!

Everyone has ideas and thoughts and reactions. And we usually think our ideas are the right ones, the best ones, the ones that make the most sense. Trouble is, other people are probably thinking the same thing!

This is just one of several things to consider when deciding whether or not to share your idea with the group. As with many things, a good way to inform that decision is to find a balance!

Finding a Balance Between Sharing a Thought and Holding a Thought

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How Much Work Could a Work Chuck Work?

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1319116855468_8606634What do you mean I can’t expect to play video games for four hours every night?!

Wait, what’s the homework? And when is it due? How long should it be? Is it OK if it’s longer than that?

I’ve recently heard quotes like these from different high school students with autism. One student seems to think any assigned work is a personal affront on his free time, and the other is incredibly diligent—sometimes too much so. Two very different students with two very different problems. I think the advice we give students is partially to blame.

Common Advice About Hard Work

Teachers and parents often give young people advice about the value of hard work. They say things like, always do you best, and the only things worth having come from hard work. There’s also put your nose to the grindstone, you only get out what you put in, and many more.

p32254These mantras are probably intended to inspire people to keep working on something that’s hard for them. In many cases, this is a nice thought. But there can be problems with this advice, generally speaking and particularly for autistic individuals.

What if someone takes that advice completely to heart and becomes anxious and stressed out, thinking they must work their hardest at all times?

The other problem is that people frequently advise others to do the exact opposite! They say don’t sweat the small stuff. And, take it easy.

Well, which one is it? Should we always work hard? Should we feel relaxed all the time and never worry? Seems to me we need to find a balance.

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Finding a Balance Between
Relaxing and Working Hard

It’s not possible to always do your absolute best. That would mean not sleeping so that you can revise that report one more time. And it’s not possible to always relax. You’d never complete anything that’s required of you (and the reality is that life is full of things that are required of you).

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Joining a New Group

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Not everyone finds it easy to meet new people. Many neurotypical adults have the realization after college that they don’t really know how to make friends. For people with autism, social challenges and differences in thinking style can make meeting people even more difficult.

I’ve found it helpful to discuss the concept of meeting people in a new group using a handy analogy: finding a balance.

Finding a Balance Between
Revealing Information and Holding Back

Whether your first day at a new school, a new job, or a new club, we join new groups relatively frequently. Each group has its own dynamic—it’s own way that the people involved tend to interact. And it can be extremely complex to figure out every group’s expectations of what to say, how to act, whether to be funny or serious, relaxed or focused.

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One of the concepts I’ve worked on with students with ASD when joining a new group is the balance of revealing information about yourself and holding back information. Like with all balance challenges, either extreme can cause predictable problems.

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The Balance Challenge

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I’ve worked with folks with autism for many years and in a few different capacities—as a teacher, a tutor, a social group facilitator, a staff developer, and as a colleague. I’ve come to see the neurodiversity movement as a crucial perspective to understand and appreciate the differences in autistic and neurotypical thinking. There’s been a lot written on this topic, and I’ll leave the bulk of that discussion to terrific self-advocates like Karla Fisher and Nick Walter among others.

One concept has emerged as central in conceptualizing autism and supporting autistic individuals: finding a balance.

For example:

  • There is much discussion in the “field” about finding a balance between viewing autism as a difference and a disability (Judy Endow has a great post about this)
  • In educating students with autism, teachers need to find a balance between providing structure and encouraging flexibility.
  • And regarding support for autistic folk with social challenges, there’s the issue of finding a balance between understanding neurotypical thinking and embracing autistic thinking.

I’ll share more on each of these ideas soon, but I’d like to start with a concrete example.

Finding a Balance Between My Wants and Other People’s Wants

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One of the most fundamental balance challenges in any social interaction is to figure out how much to jump in / share / contribute / participate, and when to hold back / listen / take a pause.

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