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Terri Mauro

External Brain on Campus

By November 28, 2012

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AppleI've been trying a little experiment this semester with my newly minted college-student son: Is it possible to be an efficient behind-the-scenes external brain without getting flagged as an overprotective helicopter mama? My plan has been to hang out in the community college cafeteria, just another old lady with a laptop, doing her work and taking up a plug, while my son comes and goes to his classes. I got over the need to walk him to class after the first week, and most of the time I think I keep a pretty low profile, making sure he has what he needs in his backpack for each class and knows where we put the homework and what he should be turning in. I think of being an external brain like being an executive secretary, a perfectly fine thing to have, someone to organize and put the important things in front of someone so he can just focus on the task at hand -- in this case, learning and holding it together.

At night, I've been making sure he does what homework I can see he has -- things in a syllabus, for example (thank you professors who spell it out in the syllabus!), or on a computerized math program (boo to professors who define "midnight" as first thing in the morning, so that assignments due at midnight on a specified day are actually due the day before), or that he's managed to write down coherently in a planner or notebook. I know this degree of help sounds mightily enabling to sink-or-swim parents and professionals who believe college kids should be completely responsible for every little thing. But I did a lot of homework help with my daughter her first semester in college, and it worked to get her feet under her, and now she's pretty independent. Not everybody is ready to flip a self-advocacy switch and go from dependent to independent when the high-school diploma hits their hand. As with so much about kids with special needs, it's a process, and development isn't a race with a finish line.

As the semester has drawn on and the work has gotten more complex, there have certainly been some glitches in the stealth external brain process. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing one of those games of telephone, where the message gets garbled as it goes from one person to another. I'm trusting him to tell me what his professors say, and to tell his professors the things I tell him to tell them, and what relation what actually gets delivered is to the real thing is in doubt. It's like the executive secretary's phone and computer is down, and she has to rely on information from the very person she's supposed to be organizing. There have been a couple of heated discussions in the cafeteria that I'm not proud of, and a few times when having to advocate through him instead of talking to the school staff directly has been excruciating for both of us. As I've written before, passing on the baton of advocacy is hard when you've done nothing but advocate for years and years; promoting self-advocacy feels like trusting your child's fate to an amateur. And yes, I know, it must be done. We're working on it. Both of us are.

I do notice my son getting more and more crabby about my assistance, which is a good thing. He also frequently calls me "Mom" in a loud voice when I'm over here pretending to be a low-profile paraprofessional type, which is adorable and also college-uncool. In this first semester, he's made a leap from having a one-on-one paraprofessional in class and in the halls, something he's had since kindergarten, to being on his own in class and taking walks all around the big campus by himself, and that's a huge thing. Those are some laurels to rest on, I think. Enough to buy you at least a few semesters of an on-campus external brain with a permanent cafeteria seat.

What challenges are you and your child facing together this school year? Share in the comments. (And, you know, if you're moved to tell me I'm a terrible overpowering mom who's smothering my kids and needs to back off ... aw, you know, get it off your chest, it'll feel good, but I'm going to delete your comment. Nothing you can say that's not already playing on a loop in my head.)

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