Portraits of Autism #15

Back when Max was being diagnosed, we took him to see a psychologist who had done some pioneering work in Turkey with autistic children. She had trained several child psychiatrists who were reputed to be the best in Ankara. Maybe that doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things - Ankara not being exactly a centre for cutting edge autism studies. In any case she was much better than the first psychiatrist we took him to. That one 'forgot' to tell us, the first time around, that she thought Max was autistic...

One thing we were told in recommendation for this psychologist was that she had worked with autistic children for a long time, and had had some success in helping them live independent lives as adults. In particular, she had worked with twins who'd gone on to study at university. This gave me pause for thought. How many students are there who are autistic? How many of the students I've taught? And if I did teach some students on the spectrum, how did I respond to them?

There was one student, once, lets' call him Frank. He was one of those students who seem to be well-meaning but perennially disorganised. So disorganised, in fact, he hardly ever made it to class. He seemed very stubborn, very literal. He certainly didn't respond particularly well to my heavy sarcasm when I thanked him for gracing us with his company when he did turn up to class. He just stared, rudely. He did read the texts before coming, though, unlike many of the others. And he had interesting things to say in discussion. It's just that he said them in a slightly weird manner, always so serious, not always responding to others' comments, sometimes butting in at an awkward point in the debate. And that's what a lot of them do - students, that is - taking part in a philosophical debate isn't the easiest thing in the world. But his difficulties were a little more pronounced. Also, he tended to sit alone, and the other kids tended to ignore him.

I tried to encourage him - he was obviously a very bright, capable and hard working student - but I'm afraid I did lose my patience with him on a few occasions, and eventually, I stopped trying to help and he failed the course. The following year he was in my class again. Again, he failed to turn up for a few classes. Then, when he did turn up, he didn't have the right text. So I told him off. I said that at the very least, he could pay attention to what I said when he bothered to turn up to class. Then something very strange happened. He stared at me and said he'd never been to my class before, that we'd never spoken, and that he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I got a bit annoyed. I suggested he might be going too far. He stared some more. Then, slowly, he came to a realisation and said: 'You must have been talking to my twin brother Frank. I'm Tom'.

So there you go: I had both of them in my class that year. Each as impossible as the other. Each highly capable, with fine philosophical minds, but finding every little thing an obstacle. Slowly it dawned on me that they might be autistic. But of course, at the time, I had no idea what that meant. And no one told me. Had I been better informed, I wouldn't have been quite so impatient with them, and I would probably have found better ways of teaching them. Or maybe they weren't autistic at all, and they were just slightly awkward students. But just maybe, they were the twins I heard about a few years later.

I don't know where they are now. I wish them luck.

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Josie said...

Ah. . .school can be so hit and miss for the students, can't it?
I had one boy in my class who was autistic and just didn't "get" jokes. The rest of hte class had asked if we could do something fun in class today. So I replied in an outraged, yet clearly joking, voice, "Fun? Fun? No, we never do anything fun in English. It's not going to happen."
So my little autistic kid pipes up in my defense,
"Oh, Ms Josie yeah we do sometimes do fun stuff."
So sweet.

Sandrine said...

Indeed they are... But I think what's always going to be a problem is how the other kids, whether primary school age or university students, respond to autistic kids. How did the rest of the class respond to that kid's comment? What a sweet sounding child.

Josie said...

I don't really remember. The other kids didn't pay him much mind though. He didn't stick out much except he was very neat and organised so it wasn't so obvious.
He was a lovely kid. This was 10 years ago and I wonder what happened to him. Also to a couple of others with issues. . .but still sweet kids.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I remember a couple kids in my school when I was young and would be 99% sure in hindsight that they were autistic, but of course it wasn't recognised in the early 70's as it is now. I wonder often what happened to them. They were so like Amy in many ways.

CJ xx

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