Tuesday, September 1, 2015

School through the lens of an Aspie

My son has Asperger's.  School for him was an intense experience.  I wanted desperately to help him but to do that I needed to understand how he saw the world. This was not easy as he found it hard to explain why he reacted to certain things, what made him angry and scared. I read lots of books and found people like Sue Larkey on line which helped. I got better at supporting his needs, acting as a translator of sorts. Sometimes I was great and other times I failed miserably.

Tony Attwood, renowned psychologist specialising in Autism, said something to the tune of - 'People with Asperger's don't suffer from Asperger's, they suffer from the attitudes of other people.'

Boy, he really hit the nail on the head there!

My son is the bravest person I know. School was often a frightening place where he was bombarded with everything that terrified him. Yet he would walk into that classroom every day knowing he would have to face his fears again and again.  I remember one particularly difficult year, he told me very proudly as we drove home that he'd discovered a great way to cope with the playground at breaktimes - he would hide in the toilets.  Terrific! Just what every parent wants to hear.

For all the teachers who saw him as a problem, he was fortunate enough to have three teachers who weren't fazed by his sensory needs to crawl into a cupboard or under cushions. They saw him as a valuable member of the class and appreciated his strengths and individuality. While in their classes his self esteem would improve, meltdowns became rare and bullying was greatly reduced. 

Via Twitter I follow an Aspie who goes by the name of @aspienaut. He tweeted this post he wrote back in 2012. I think all teachers should read it. Sure it is one person's experience but it offers a window into an Aspie's experience of school.

This is taken with permission from Paul Siebenthal's blog - Aspienaut - Wired Differently
When my character was still developing, I had not yet formed the coping mechanism I would soon rely on as an adult when over whelmed or upset; namely, going into ‘Stand-by’ mode.  A state in which I turn inwards, go quiet but eventually my processors cool, I reboot and then can carry on.  It was not always so.
A new follower on twitter expressed concerns about her son’s temper.  I offered to write a short post about what he may be feeling and why he could be reacting as he is.
In order to explain what at times may seem unexplainable it helps to understand a few basic things about growing up ‘Wired Differently’.  When you describe what growing up on the spectrum is like, it makes ‘melt-downs’ and anger slightly more understandable in young people on the spectrum.  
For the first few years of my life I was able to live in a quiet world.  The world of home, of familiarity.  My bedroom was exactly as I needed it to be, the people who came into my life were people I knew, people I expected to see.  The noises I heard and the food I ate were what I expected.  I wore the clothes that I liked and which felt good against my skin.  When things deviated from this norm I would act as though the world was ending.  My reaction would seem so extreme, so over the top, so spoilt and angry it would dumbfound those around me as they watched this child go berserk because something was moved or had changed.  I would hit another child at nursery for approaching me.  I’d pick up a rock in the playground and chase a child down and throw it at them with all my strength because they had moved my toy car from the painted line on which it was traveling.  There were so many things and so many times that my reaction would seem extreme.  When I was 6 it was 1980.  Kids like me were just not understood, our behaviors rung no alarm bells, we were just called naughty, were just bad children.
On my first day at school I wasn’t even meant to be going.  We were actually taking my sister to her first day at a new school.  On arrival the headmaster asked my mum how old I was, my mum told him and he took my hand and said, ‘he can come too then!’  That was my first day.  It sounds incredible now but that’s what happened.  Needless to say, school was tough for me.  School for me was about coping.  Managing fear, managing stress and managing people.  
At the back of the class on the alphabet animal wall was a clock made by Smiths.  A large round clock with a long second hand, a second hand that seemed too thin for its length.  With each tick, each tok the end of the second hand shuddered, as did I with the sound it made, a sound which only I appeared to hear.  This combined with the noise of the chalk on the board, the smell of the poster paint.  The metal chair legs, whose rubber ends were long worn away by bored children’s fidgets, scraped along the floor.  All of this made it almost impossible for me to follow what teacher was saying.  I could tell from the letters on the board and the work on my peers desks that we were at this very moment practicing writing letters.  I on the other hand, was just trying to cope with being there.
Factor in; the meaningless facial expressions of your peers and the teacher, the strange things they say, like ‘you need to pull your socks up young man’ or ‘when I get home I can’t wait to watch the football, its going to be blinding!’  So, there you are trying to cope with all this but how do you cope?  How do you manage?  You start to focus in on the things that you can control.  You develop routines, ways of doing things that allow you this brief window of feeling that things are ok, that you may even have some control.  You line up your pens on your desk. You wear the same clothes, every day.  You eat your food in order and only the foods that you can texturally cope with. 
You focus in on the things you can do.  You can’t cope with the school lesson but you know things, you remember things, and these make you feel better.  So you try and tell people what you know, but its not what they were talking about and they get annoyed with you.  You find it hard to take on board the kind words of those who care for you because what they say doesn’t make any sense either.  They talk about things getting better, improving in time but you don’t work like that.  There is no future in your world view, just a now!  You don’t imagine the future, you find no solace in this magical place, this future ‘never never land’.  You are just you, here, now and you’re frightened.  Stressed and lonely, your way of needing to do things; your routines, your knowledge and interests literally mean everything to you.  They feel like they’re all you have and when even these are taken away, changed, stopped, then to you, it feels like a matter of life and death.  Your very existence is at stake and so your reaction reflects that.  That is why we meltdown, shutdown, go into stand-by or even lose our temper.  Yet we keep on trying, keep on learning, trying again and again to cope with this mind blowing world in which we find ourselves. 
© Paul Siebenthal Nov 2012.

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