25 July 2011

You really think that?!

A teacher said a couple of interesting things to me the other day, and I'm so glad he did, because it gave me a chance to present to him a different way of looking at things. The teacher concerned is passionate about teaching, about reaching children and having a positive impact. He's intelligent and obviously thinks hard about the best ways to teach, so please don't think for a minute that this kind of thinking is far off the beaten track.

These statements below both might seem a lot like reasonable, rational, logical statements, but the reality is that they are in fact simplistic, unreasonable, illogical, inequitable, lacking in acceptance and quite frankly, very ill-informed.

The world isn't filled with people with Autism, so...

The first statement made was that a child with Autism lives in a world that isn't filled with other people with Autism, so the child with Autism needs to modify/adapt in order to fit in.

Sadly, this is VERY common thinking. Teachers everywhere expect the child with Autism/Aspergers in the mainstream classroom to adapt and modify constantly in order to fit in. Teachers have lots of good reasons for this thinking, not least of which is that their classroom will be easier to manage if they "can just fix that Aspie". And sure, the world isn't filled with people with Autism, so there are times when the person with an ASD needs to fumble their way through neurotypical settings and adapt as best they can.

But what this hegemonic thinking chooses to forget is that Aspergers, in many ways, could be looked upon as a dysfunction of the ability to adapt. Adapting to change, to lack of predictability, to the world around them is extraordinarily difficult for people with Autism. And they are surrounded by neurotypicals who can change pace or switch channels faster and more naturally than they can change their underwear. But still the weight is on the shoulders of the individual with Autism to do all the adapting and changing to the neurotypical world.

Would you say the same thing to the student with Cerebral Palsy or spinal injury? (ie: You can't walk properly, but the world is filled with people who can, so you'd better start learning how to do it better. And because you don't walk like the rest of us, we feel awkward and uncomfortable when we watch you, so can you make more effort to fix that please?)
That's the kind of thinking which used to keep wheelchair bound people out of education facilities, restaurants and malls because of steps and inaccessible doorways. It's also the kind of thinking which meant little kids with CP used to be placed into nursing homes with dying old people.

Would you say the same thing to a deaf/blind student? (ie: You can't see/hear properly, but everyone around you can, so you'd better adapt lickity-split!....")
If we thought this way, we wouldn't have those noisy, vibrating pedestrian crossing buttons which keep people alive on busy roads.

What about a student with dyslexia? (ie: "We know those words are moving around on the page for you, but hey, it's not a problem for everyone else, so you'd better adapt to how we do things, because it's too inconvenient for us that you're different!")

We all know this is unreasonable thinking and that we need to make adaptations to enable all students to have an enjoyable and successful education. The message here is simple - students with Autism are entitled to the same level of regard.

The position that people on the Autism Spectrum must adapt to the world around them simply because everyone else in it doesn't have the same needs as him represents exclusivity and absolutely lacks in empathy and compassion for the difficulties faced.

It's tragically ironic to me that we talk about Theory of Mind (the ability to put yourself into someone else's shoes and imagine their experiences) and Aspies' challenges around this, but much of the time we refuse to see things from their perspective, and instead try to find a way to mould them to fit into our neurotypical way of seeing and doing things.

Maybe we could consider instead, showing a little empathy and creating a space which makes them comfortable enough to excel and experience true happiness.

A moment in an Aspie's shoes:

The student with Autism/Aspergers is probably very anxious.
The student with Autism/Aspergers is probably in sensory overload most of the time they are at school.
The student with Aspergers finds it difficult to adapt.
The student with Aspergers isn't necessarily aware that they are annoying someone or disrupting the class. They won't necessarily see people's reactions.
The student with Aspergers has no idea what everyone wants from them most of the time, or why they are in trouble. (How are they supposed to know what adaptations to make?)

Allow the person with an ASD to be themselves in your classroom.

Think about it this way. The student with Aspergers struggles to understand the social communication around them. If you ask them what they think of it, they'll tell you how they don't get the point of all that stuff. It is also virtually impossible to motivate someone on the Spectrum to do something which doesn't suit their outlook on the world. If they can't logically see a reason to do something, then they simply won't, because to them it defies common sense to go down that path. (I suspect there are plenty of neurotypical people who would feel the same way if they were being told to do something which made no sense as well).

...it's a very illogical way to approach educating them...

This by definition means that they are highly unlikely to do the adapting that you are asking of them. So it's a very illogical way to approach educating them. Do you think that it's fair to set them and yourself up for such an epic failure like this? In the long term, quite seriously, it's far simpler to just educate the other students about Autism, and make changes which allow the person with an ASD to be themselves in your classroom.

An afterthought: If you think you've managed to fix your mainstreamed student with Aspergers, because they're no longer disrupting the class, have a think about whether your behaviour management strategies might be suppressing rather than allowing them to be who they are. How happy are they really? Are they just trying to please you by being well-behaved, but not getting any school work done or making any friends? Are there any other similar incongruous pieces of data in the student's experience at school?

Just because they're behaving, doesn't mean they're learning, achieving their potential or, most importantly, happy. It usually just means they want to please you, and sadly, they'll even harm themselves to achieve that.






The second comment was an idea he had that Autism is rapidly increasing in numbers because of all the technology we have around us. The comment was that we are creating a generation of people with Autism because they spend so much time in front of computers and playing video games, so they don't develop social skills - and consequently develop Autism.

Autism isn't something you can catch... It's not something you develop because of your environment.

First, Autism isn't something you can catch, nor is it something you can get from sitting in front of a computer or playing too many video games. It's not something you develop because of your environment.

Any inference that environment causes Aspergers/Autism is just another form of parent-blame, and is archaic, unhelpful thinking, like the label of "Refrigerator Mother" from the 1950s.

The increased diagnosis of Autism/High-Functioning Autism/Aspergers is due largely to increased awareness. It wasn't until 1994 that Aspergers Syndrome was added to the DSM IV (the official, internationally accepted diagnostic criteria for mental illness and developmental disorders). We also know now that statistically about 1 in 100 people has Autism. So it stands to reason that once a label was available for Aspergers, there would be a helluva lot more diagnosing happening from that point forward. (Coincidentally, the prevalence of home computers began its spread/growth from around 1994-95, but that still isn't a relevant detail.)

As to any increase in Autism occurrence outside of that, I think we can safely say it has nothing to do with the rapid technological advances of the last 15 years or so. I won't profess to be a Darwinism expert, but if History and Science teachers have served me well, it's clear that evolutionary upheaval tends to respond to the much more pressing matters of survival, like extreme climatic change. It's barely within the realm of logic to claim that evolution would react so strongly to such minor stimuli as a computer screen!

Besides, it's nothing new - Aspergers symptoms were first recorded by Hans Asperger during World War II. We just didn't know about it until recently because his notes/records were hidden from the Nazis (he was worried that the children he'd been observing would be taken away and killed or subjected to scientific experimentation). Eventually his daughter had his findings published and now we know about Aspergers. Voila! Let the diagnoses begin!

Technology opens doors for people with Autism...

If technology has played a role in the world of Autism at all, it has been to open doors. Many people with ASDs feel at ease in the world of technology because machines are structured, predictable and non-judgemental. Now people with ASDs have many more exciting (and less stressful) career paths available to them, and greater opportunities for a happy, fullfilling adult life, with less pressure to perform well inter-personally in the workplace.

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