As the daughter of a GP who didn’t have much truck with diagnoses of an educational nature, I have perhaps inherited a little of his scepticism when it comes to identifying some of these traits in very young pupils. With children hitting key developmental milestones at such varying rates, it is often all too easy to reach for a ‘label’ prematurely, in the hope of seeking justification for slightly unorthodox behaviours. An area that has fascinated me for quite some time though, is that of Asperger’s Syndrome – although here too, of course, there are wildly varying degrees of severity.
Over the years, I have had the immense privilege of being a part of the educational journey of a great many children and it is fair to say that some of the most remarkable personalities that I have encountered have been part of this particular cohort. Indeed, today’s reminiscence is centred around one such pupil – a young lad that made a huge impression on me, at a time when I was still very much ‘learning my trade’ and (dare I say it) perhaps rather too quick to judge!
‘X’ had joined the school that term, and he was one of the few children who seemed to understand my particularly dry brand of humour. He would regularly give the impression that he wasn’t really paying all that much attention to what I was saying and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he would give a wry smile and respond with some crushingly insightful response. I warmed to him immediately.
We were approaching the end of November and Christmas was beginning to loom large. Cue the big announcement regarding my choice of musical for Year 3: ‘Stable Manners’ by Mark & Helen Johnson. I did the usual introduction (stopping just short of an actual drumroll or fanfare) explaining that we would be retelling the Christmas story – but through humour, and no less than 10 catchy songs! Full of enthusiasm, I started to teach the opening number straight away.
Well, ‘X’ wasn’t a fan of singing, and he clearly thought that the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus was terribly passé. He yawned rather conspicuously and stated that the first song was ‘boring’. Now ordinarily, I would have been livid at such a damming appraisal (and from a 7-year-old too!) but I saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand… I smugly responded that “it might be boring if the song was called ‘Nothing is happening tonight’ but the fact that it was in fact entitled ‘Something is happening tonight’ meant that it was anything BUT boring” – or words to that effect. But, far from being chastened by this professorial flexing of muscles, ‘X’ simply looked at me (with palpable disdain) and muttered that “everything is relative”. I was torn between exasperation and a grudging respect; this boy certainly had guts!
Well, a few more weeks went by, and I was just leaving school for the day when I heard quite a commotion coming from one of the Year 3 classrooms, on the floor above. The noise seemed to be emerging from the classroom of an extremely experienced teacher, and that is possibly what piqued my interest enough for me to make a small detour…
I mounted the stairs as quickly as I could and headed in the direction of the rapidly escalating sound of various learning resources being hurled angrily across the room. On arrival, I was met with the (rather extraordinary) sight of my colleague standing in the doorway (quite literally spellbound) whilst ‘X’ proceeded to fling as many items as he could at anyone foolish enough to try and enter. The other children in the after-school activity had already been moved to an adjacent classroom, in an attempt to minimise any distress that this outburst might cause.
I quickly went to intervene, but something told me that my hitherto default setting of ‘yell first, question later’ might not be the best way forward. If I’m honest, I also suspected that my colleague had possibly already used this approach, hence the red mist that had evidently descended! So, rather uncharacteristically, I got down to ‘X’s level and, gently taking his hands (and a large amount of Lego bricks) in mine, I asked him if he could tell me what had made him so angry.
After much gnashing of teeth, very little eye contact and something bordering upon hyperventilation, ‘X’ began to respond. His eyes still welling up with tears, he asked me: “When someone says that it’s time to put everything away, does that mean that you have to take the Lego model (that you have spent absolutely ages building) completely apart?”.
And that is when the penny dropped.
For you or me (and indeed the vast majority of the other children present) my colleague’s instructions would have been abundantly clear. In order to put the Lego away neatly (in the two large drawers that had been assigned to this) it was fairly obvious that the 3ft model that ‘X’ had painstakingly created, would need to be more or less dismantled first. However, to ‘X’, this was not the instruction that he had been given and to his mind, therefore, it was totally unacceptable that one of his peers had taken it upon himself to start ‘destroying’ his masterpiece in an attempt to speed up the tidying process.
I often wonder if this particular trait is one of the most debilitating aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. Admittedly, the list of signs and symptoms doesn’t make for easy reading – with ‘lack of social awareness’, ‘difficulty making and sustaining friendships’ and ‘a failure to respect interpersonal boundaries’ all making the headlines. However, in a world where we rely so heavily upon the ability to ‘infer the thoughts, feelings or emotions of others’ a tendency to take things quite literally must be an absolute minefield to circumnavigate. However, whatever ‘X’ lacked (in relation to the understanding and processing of language), he more than made up for in intellect and wit. He had a tremendous personality and I still remember him with great fondness; he certainly knew how to keep me firmly ‘on my toes’.