I have an adult, autistic student who I have tutored weekly in programming since about November. His parents would like this tutoring to result in him being able to work as an entry-level programmer, but I have been slowly coming to the conclusion that this may never be viable.

We have reached summer break in the schools, and I would like to have a meeting with the parents and discuss options with them. However, I am unsure how to approach such a meeting. They are already more than aware of his challenges, broadly speaking, and I don't relish the opportunity to close yet another door. They seem, to me, desperate to find somewhere that he can become productively employed. They have been unable to turn him into a highly productive worker at their own restaurant.

He is very affable, however, and highly social. He is also pretty good at calculating in his head. (Don't read too much into this. He is not a savant, he is just a little faster than I am.)

I suspect that he would be better suited to a more hands-on task, such as bagging groceries or stocking shelves. Partly, I believe this because it focuses on his interests directly. He has an acute memory for prices and locations of items in stores. He will regularly come in and tell me about an item that has been moved to a store that I've never gone to, or the name of the night manager (who he has never met, but has been named on a sign), a change in the open hours of a local pharmacy, or the price of gas at the different stations in town.

I have worked very hard this year to make progress with the student, but at this point, I do not think they should waste further money on my tutoring services because I do not think he is being well served by these lessons. How can I approach the parents in a way that would be productive and kind, and how can I prevent offense?

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    Does he enjoy the tutoring? They might well want to continue the tutoring if it enriches his life, even if it is unlikely to be a lucrative investment resulting in his employment.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 19:14
  • 2
    That's true, and I will be clear to communicate this possibility. I think he does enjoy it. On the other hand, I am quite expensive as a private tutor, and I don't want them to feel like I am trying to pull more money from them. If it is just for enjoyment and enrichment, I could try to set him up with a student tutor for considerably less money.
    – Ben I.
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 19:20

5 Answers 5


I should preface this by saying that I'm on the spectrum...

I admire your willingness, to be honest about the situation and I realize that this can be a very delicate conversation.

I wonder if you've tried to tap into your student's natural talents? I'm not sure what sort of programming you've been working in, but setting up a mock virtual store might be a way to leverage his special interest into a new domain. Basically, if you haven't tried already, some more visual frontend web work, may be more in his wheelhouse.

But programming obviously isn't for everyone...
If you truly feel that you've reached an impasse, then it's time to talk to the parents about it. Having been on both sides of these conversations, I would strongly recommend that you avoid the bagging groceries angle. It would be very easy for the parents to misconstrue that...

Focus on what you're observing, where is your student struggling, where are they doing well? Try to be balanced and honest about what you're seeing. Be honest that you feel they're probably spending a little more for your services than they might need to.

You said your student is an adult. That tells me that the parents have had an awful lot of these conversations over the years. IEP (individualized education plan) meetings are their own circle of hell. They'll probably appreciate it if you're honest, direct, and brief. Take the time to really listen to any feedback they have to offer.

Bottom line. Don't say grocery bagging. They know their kid's interest better than you do, and they likely hired you in the hopes of avoiding that line of work. But be honest that you feel like you're​ not making progress.


Disclaimer: I'm on the spectrum myself so I realise that I'm not going to be particularly objective here. I apologise in advance if anything in this answer comes across as harsh because I get the impression that you are actually trying to be a decent guy and "do right" by everyone involved.

Have you tried actually talking to the student themselves to sound out what they think of the tutoring and their hopes and aspirations?

The nature and severity of an autistic person's differences from the perceived neuro-typical norms can vary wildly from person to person. But something I see a lot is a well-intentioned but misguided and ultimately harmful tendency to infantilize the autistic person and frankly I'm a bit concerned that this is happening here. I understand that in this particular scenario his parents are your "customer" in the sense that they are paying for the tutoring etc., but put yourself in the student's shoes. How would you feel if your tutor went behind your back to your parents and (in effect) said that you weren't cutting it in the lessons and that they should stop wasting their money and get you a job stacking shelves instead? Especially where there has been a history of struggling to find a good career fit? It would be pretty soul-crushing right?

On the subject of the store-related talk from your student, it sounds to me very much like a classic example of an autistic person's attempt to make small talk while missing the mark of the social "norm". It doesn't necessarily translate into an interest or something they want to do as a job any more than you discussing the fact that it is raining with a colleague means you want to be weatherman. I could probably relay very similar information to you that your student does, not because I'm interested in things like gas prices particularly (other than the pretty standard desire not to pay more for something than I have to obviously) but more because I can't not absorb that information. I don't use that sort of thing as small talk, but that's simply because I am (just about) socially aware enough that other people generally don't. In my head there's essentially no difference in how I would categorize that information in my head from what the weather is doing.

You may well be correct in your assessment that software development is not a good fit for this person, and this may well mean a gentle conversation with him and his parents suggesting that he might be better off on another career path but don't cut him out of the loop of that and do treat him as the adult person he actually is.

  • 7
    Unfortunately, autistic is a very broad term, and it can be hard to articulate the situation accurately, particularly because the word is so delicate. The goal, as I understand, is to avoid moving him into an assisted living facility. He does get asked what he wants, but is not always able to reply. He is genuinely enthusiastic about working at a pharmacy (he was clear on that point), but for whatever reason, his parents are steering him away from this course. (It is not my place to second-guess them on this matter; they know him and his situation better than I ever will.)
    – Ben I.
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 12:33

I'd like to respond as a parent of a child on the spectrum.

First of all, there is nothing we wouldn't do and no length we wouldn't go to for our child. We would move heaven and earth for him and if we discovered that moving to another state would be of benefit to him, we'd find jobs and move.

People on the spectrum, especially high-functioning people, can have very rewarding careers in a field that they're passionate about. They bring a laser-like focus and attention to detail that cannot be matched. But it needs to be something they're passionate about. Otherwise, they stand a good chance of failure.

If my son were to say "Dad, I'm interested in programming", I'd find a tutor for him and I'd find the best possible tutor for him. I'd work nights if I needed to in order to pay for it. I'd make that investment in him. But I'd also expect that investment to bear a result. If he has no interest in or aptitude for programming, I'd want to know it so I can invest in my son in a way that will produce a result. As the tutor, I'd expect you to share the results of that with me. I don't need to know details, but if you as the expert feel that the tutoring in this subject area is not a productive use of his time and skills, I'd want to know. Otherwise, I'd submit that the tutor is taking advantage of the situation.

Of course, my son should be involved in the discussion as well. it's my job as a parent to teach him to be an adult without me around. That doesn't mean "toss him to the wolves and see what happens" but it does mean teaching self-advocating, knowing how to handle himself in unknown situations, and take feedback and process it. This would be an important lesson for him.

WRT your suggestion: it's an interesting thought. Some autistic folks show an amazing knowledge of detail about things that would put people into a swamp. Granted you're a programming tutor and not a career coach (so it's outside the scope of your engagement), but it may be worth mentioning it to the folks to gauge their reaction. I wouldn't say you're limiting him; I don't hear "that's all he's capable of doing anyways" from your post. But if it is an interest of his, maybe logistics, inventory control, purchasing, or a similar field may be of interest to him.

Best of luck with this conversation! It may be very difficult to have.


I would advise against bringing this up:

I suspect that he would be better suited to a more hands-on task, such as bagging groceries or stocking shelves. Partly, I believe this because it focuses on his interests directly. He has an acute memory for prices and locations of items in stores. He will regularly come in and tell me about an item that has been moved to a store that I've never gone to, or the name of the night manager (who he has never met, but has been named on a sign), a change in the open hours of a local pharmacy, or the price of gas at the different stations in town.

His parents probably hired you precisely to avoid their son getting stuck in what is a mostly minimum wage field forever. If you are truly convinced that programming isn't a good fit for him, however, you could look into other positions that incorporate that kind of passion as a recommendation, to "soften the blow" so to speak on the parents.

Ultimately it's a judgement call you have to make, but you're already on the right path by considering what your student needs before your own employment with his family.


As a reference I have a close relation on this spectrum.I admire you willingness to spend the effort in tutoring him. It is a lot of work and not always enjoyable.

As far as talking to the parents I think you should level with them about two things. The first is that his occasional extraordinary skills have not yet found a need or special place in the programming training that you have been able to offer. I say this because I expect they are looking to you to help make the most of the skills he has. He sounds like he is gifted in some areas (eidetic memory of items and their locations) and respectable computation skills. Such skills are not essential in programming. Logic and planning out mulit-part problems are more important.

As an example;People often think that a "Math Wiz" should be great as a programmer. They would be if they know what steps they go through to get their results. It is when they can see these steps and use them as needed, or modify them, that makes a clever programmer. This would not be true of a savant. A savant in my understanding cannot explain the method they use.

Secondly, as he would struggle as an entry-level programmer what future would there be for him at such a position. He would stay at this level much like a job stocking shelves with unerring accuracy.

In both of these you should emphasize that while he has not improved/blossomed etc. it was only with what you have been able to offer. While not diminishing your skills you can let them know that some other training could find something new and yet unexpected.

Additional edit: In my experience as a programmer the demand for new logic and solutions has often been replaced by references to any one of thousands of special functions made easily available in a Software Development environment. If his logic is not up to snuff he may yet excel if he can memorize the basics of a few hundred of available functions in a popular environment, say ASP.NET. The details are available for a developer but with his capacity to memorize it might be useful to see if learning a toolkit of functions and procedures could give him a better outcome.


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