Diploma or Certificate?

This question seems to be a hot button issue and bring up a lot of feelings. Is your child getting a diploma or are they on a certificate track? It is not a question that many parents of neuro-typical kids have to ask themselves. But it is absolutely a question that parents, with kids on the autism spectrum, are asked.

The question gets right into a quagmire of emotions because there are so many stereotypes around it. A diploma means smart and accomplished. It has a higher status. If my child who is on the autism spectrum receives a diploma then they are doing better then those kids who don’t receive one. A certificate is subpar and means not intelligent or capable. If my child gets a certificate they will not be as successful. All of these stereotypes are complete bullshit.

Let me tell you about my experience. And this is my experience and I am sure that other parents may feel differently and that’s ok. My son, Hayden, is 16 years old and is autistic. When Hayden was younger it was never a question in my mind that he wouldn’t or couldn’t get a diploma. In elementary school, Hayden was included in a mainstream environment for most of the day and he did well. He excelled at math and, while language arts was a more challenging class, we worked with our school to modify that work. In middle school, we decided that Hayden needed a more self contained special education classroom. That worked well because it kept him in smaller classes and Hayden still did well with his grades even making honor roll a few times.

It is important to note that even though Hayden did ok in school he really didn’t enjoy it. School has always been challenging because there is so much to process; directions from the teachers, information in class, what the other students are doing. It has always been hard for him to try and keep everything together in school. As he went into high school, my husband and I knew that things were going to get more challenging. His grades counted as did state testing scores. It was when Hayden started high school that we started asking whether he should move to a certificate track. My husband was more in favor of making the change because he wanted Hayden to do more things that would prepare him for when he did graduate. I felt that we had worked so hard to get Hayden to this point that I didn’t want to give up on it. I also felt that having a diploma would give Hayden more options when it came to employment. We were divided and just kept things the same.

As Hayden started his junior year of high school, we needed to reevaluate. Here are the questions we asked ourselves as we tried to evaluate what was right for Hayden and for us:

  1. Does Hayden want to go to college? Is that an option for him? Knowing whether higher education was something he wanted was important as part of this process. We needed to understand if there was some area of study that he wanted to further that would give him a purpose or an employment path.
  2. What does Hayden’s life look like after school? This is a very difficult question to answer because so much is unknown. But spending some time to think about what his day looks like and what he would be doing helped us in making this decision.
  3. Is what he’s learning in school valuable to his future? There are many parts of the educational process that are important. Learning is also important. What we looked at was what parts of Hayden’s learning and educational setting mattered to him and us. We looked at this through the lens of what we think his life will be like after school.
  4. Is a diploma important? It was this question that was the most difficult emotionally. We want the best for our kids and if we said no, was that a defeat?

Hayden was the one who helped us decide what was right for him. He told us that he didn’t want to go to college. It wasn’t a proactive conversation on his part at all. It just came up naturally because his sister is applying to colleges now and I was able to ask Hayden if he wanted to go. He said no. I have to respect that. Hayden has also expressed a lot of anxiety about school; the volume of work, the pace, and being able to process it all. He kept asking for us to make things easier.

How could I not listen to him? This is all about him. So we have started the process of moving from a diploma track to a certificate. And none of stereotypes matter anymore. I know that a diploma doesn’t make someone smart. Hayden is smart and bright and will have many opportunities in his future; doing it in a way that makes him feel good about himself and giving him a purpose. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.