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Changing Track

A career change isn’t something to fear, writes mother of two, Michele Allen. 

When I did my first degree in teaching, I fell pregnant halfway through my second year. I gave birth 10 days after my internship, and my newborn baby came to class for my last six months. 

Being on campus with a baby meant just getting the baby off to sleep and having to pull them from the car to be places at a certain time; taking notes in a lecture hall with a baby; holding a baby while doing a presentation. 

My second degree in psychology, I did online with Swinburne Online. At first it was hard because I was used to face-to-face. But online, I could finish home-schooling my children, now 10 and 7, at 3pm, and study from then until well into the evening. I could go online and ask questions of the e-learning assistants when needed and not have to go to campus. You do presentations in a different way – you might put them up on a webpage, for example, or everyone in your study group might go off and research their bit and then assign one person to do the presentation. If you couldn’t make it online because your time zone was out of sync, say, you could hear recordings and you could still post up questions later.

The flexibility made a big difference. I couldn’t have done it unless it was online.

A big part of my reason for doing that degree was wanting to understand my oldest son, Alex, better. We had pulled him from school after year 1 when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and I home-schooled. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, the signs were there. We would buy him toy cars, and all he would do was roll it along and look at the wheels. The same with his toy trains – he only cared about the wheels. 

At school, we started to see the problems. Not academically – he’s very bright. At three, he grasped the 10-base system. We’d count to 29, he’d look at me, I’d say ‘30’, he’d keep counting. He was counting in the hundreds of thousands at the age of four. I never taught him to read. I read to him and immersed him in language, and he just picked up a book and started reading to me. I never had to teach him ‘A sounds like ‘apple’. He was reading Level 1 or 2 readers at four, Grug at five. 

It was more the missed social signs. He didn’t read the tone in my voice and couldn’t see I wasn’t cranky if I asked him to do something. He was sometimes speaking in monotone patterns, another sign. About 60 percent of language is non-verbal – things like facial expressions, pitch, visual cues, emotions like excitement. A child with Asperger’s will struggle understanding that. Asperger’s kids tend to be very literal. If you say, “pull your head in”, they will literally try to do it.

Going back to study helped me a lot in understanding Alex. I’ve always been interested in why we do things the way we do them. I have been relief teaching and tutoring, and when I finish my degree, I will be qualified to work with kids with special needs as a school counsellor, or as a clinical psychologist. 

For most children with Asperger’s, there is a lot of anxiety, especially around change. If we go to the shops and I say we’re buying bread, margarine and Vegemite, and then we deviate from that shopping list, Alex gets very upset. If he asks me when we’re going shopping and I say “about 3pm, he insists “No, when exactly?”. It’s almost like a picture in their mind of what they’re expecting to see. It’s like they’re a train on a rail track instead of a car on the road; the car can turn right or left, but the train will derail if it turns. There’s also a lot of anxiety around doing the right thing. It leaves them very vulnerable. There’s no way for them to self-soothe. When people say ‘My child came home and had a meltdown, I think ‘hmm’. Alex would come home and have a meltdown for two hours. It’s hard for him. 

It’s not only people with Asperger’s who find it hard to change. This is actually my second career change. I made a living, owned a car, paid half the mortgage as a rock ‘n roll musician from high school into my thirties. I changed to teaching so I wouldn’t be in my forties doing the same thing I did in my twenties. People used to say to me “Oh, I can’t sing”. But my grandmother picked up a guitar and spent three years teaching herself to play and read music in her seventies, which showed me anybody can learn, no matter what age. You don’t have to be a virtuoso. The same goes for everything – if you can pick up a pencil and draw a stick figure, you can draw. 

I always say to my kids, “Practice makes progress,” not “Practice makes perfect.” We’ve let people down if we’ve let them go through the school system without enjoying art, music, any subject. If we focus on perfect, we’re building them up to fail, not to succeed. After years of martial arts training, I know you can never perfect a technique. Our goal should not be perfection. When you reach perfection, you’ll stop. In art, in business – all the greats are always striving to improve. 

Alex struggles with tying his shoelaces, and my youngest doesn’t like failing. I say to my kids, “It might take about 200 times. You’ve done it 198 times.” That idea of little steps is what counts.