Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Insight

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I run into some information that causes me to re-examine what I thought I knew.

A SCENE FROM THE PAST: At a school I directed for a number of years, we had a high percentage of students who had a variety of learning disabilities. We also had several – eight to be exact – students who had either autism or asperger’s syndrome. We – the students, teachers, parents and I – worked to find ways to involve our students in authentic learning and community experiences. Sometimes we had more success than others.

There was an older student in our program, one who was bright, articulate, curious, fond of routines and a lover of predictability: a student who thrived when he knew exactly what to expect; and who was rattled when others couldn’t “see” what he “saw” in a discussion. Situations in which there was more than one right answer were difficult for him to cope with – or comprehend. As he entered seventh grade, we found the social piece was becoming increasingly difficult and causing pain to him, to his classmates, and to his teacher.

After one particularly distressing day, Mom and I spoke about possible alternatives. We had an existing HomeSchool program at that time and Mom requested that he be allowed to participate in the HomeSchooling program. Social interactions, she pointed out, were a stumbling block for him across the board, in every setting he found himself. He wanted to learn – was eager to pursue advanced studies. We’d tried, she said, to make the traditional setting work. Maybe it was time to try something else.

After discussion with the student, with Mom, with the teacher and the Rabbi, we all agreed it was a viable alternative. I agreed to work up an accelerated course of study designed to challenge him well beyond what we were able to do in class. I spent time in transition discussions with both the family and the class he was leaving behind.

HomeSchooling worked – for about three weeks.

Then Mom called and asked if I could meet with her and the student. The student told me he was learning a lot, but that there was something missing: a learning community. Even though he’d had problems in class and with the other students, he missed being with them and hearing their ideas. He asked if he could come back to class. I reminded him that the class wouldn’t be able to move at the accelerated pace – he understood that. And that there were going to be times when he disagreed with others – and I expected him to remain in control of his temper. He agreed to do that.

So I began to do some scripting, both with him individually and with the class collectively. I told them how I expected them to greet each other; what words they could use to disagree (respectfully) with each other; and specifically how to stop pushing each other’s buttons. We also provided a couple of safety nets for the more volatile participants.

As things settled in, the Rabbi and I conferred. I expressed how incredulous I’d felt when the student said he missed being with the class, even though it was hard for him. I remember saying, “All the literature tells us that Asperger’s kids prefer to work along – they don’t want to be in groups working.” The Rabbi listened. “Perhaps,” he said, “the literature is wrong. And maybe these kids fit in when the community can accept them.”

FAST FORWARD: Last week, rushing through the grocery store, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a book: Look Me in The Eye (John Elder Robison). I stopped in my tracks.

How often had I said that to students, until I learned that for some students, eye contact makes it impossible for them to share their thoughts?

I reached for the book and read the subtitle: “My life with Asperger’s.” I read it through in two days, unable to put it down.

On page 211, John Elder Robison writes:

Many discriptions of autism and Asperger’s describe people like me as “not wanting contact with others” or “preferring to play alone.” I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone. And all those child psychologists who said “John prefers to play by himself” were dead wrong. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life.

I am very grateful that my former student felt safe enough to approach his Mom and me about re-entering the classroom. I am very grateful that I had the sense to LISTEN to what he was saying. I am very grateful that I was able to pull out specific words and phrases to teach this group of young men and women not only what to say, but how to say it. I am very grateful to the other students in the class who were able to rise to the occasion. And, I'm very grateful that I was able to discount what "all the literature said" and regard my student as a unique individual.

It ended up being a good year.

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