Embracing the extraordinary

Continuing Professional Development (or CPD) is one of those terms capable of striking fear into one’s heart. Whilst the concept of developing and enhancing one’s professional abilities is something that most of us are more than willing to subscribe to, the quality of a training course can vary dramatically from provider to provider, and it is true to say that there have been times (throughout my career) when I have been left seething at the hours that have been lost to a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course that has failed to deliver on any level.

As you might imagine, most of the courses that I have attended have been child-centred and the arrival of my own children certainly brought about a distinct change in my outlook. Almost immediately, my focus switched from judging a course purely on the quality of its biscuits(!) to determining whether I could use any of the skills acquired to make my homelife just that little bit easier…

And I suspect that the data management courses designed to track pupil progress (and inform future planning) would probably work equally well for tracking the mood swings of a tweenager or evaluating the volatility of a child’s palate – if you were so inclined!

One training course that I recently found utterly inspiring though was ‘Working with Autism’. What made it unusual was the fact that a sizeable portion of the information imparted was by teenagers or young adults who themselves were learning to live with autism, and the integrity of their testimonies was incredibly powerful. Listening to the many ways in which they found ‘everyday’ scenarios stressful provided a valuable insight into the challenges faced by those who are neurodivergent. And with between 30 and 40% of the population falling into this category I began to realise just how vital it is that education professionals develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Otherwise, how else can we ensure that we provide a positive learning environment for everyone?

It is generally understood that certain qualities tend to be prevalent in those who display autistic tendencies and even those with limited experience will know that taking things literally is a common trait (meaning that it’s best to avoid using confusing idioms) and that by keeping instructions to a minimum we are being sensitive to the additional processing time that will probably be needed too. However, one thing that I had totally underestimated was the extent to which most of us use visual clues in our routine interactions with others – one activity bringing me up short.

Working in pairs, we were asked to hold a short conversation – but with our eyes closed. Almost immediately, it became clear that not being able to see when our opposite number had something to say meant that the conversation became incredibly stilted, and we found ourselves either talking across each other or leaving lengthy gaps in between exchanges. In short, the whole experience felt unnatural (and more than a little awkward) and this was despite being in the fortunate position of working with a close friend with whom I usually have a good rapport. How much harder must it be for those who struggle to interpret the visual clues so readily accessible to the neurotypical?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person and, as such, prior to attending this course I was inclined to focus on the negative aspects surrounding ASD. In my defence though, the very fact that being on the Autistic Spectrum is classed as a Disorder seems to invite this type of response. However, I came away from the course with a renewed sense of optimism and a deep-seated respect for the remarkable individuals that make up almost two fifths of our society.

Perhaps by celebrating their talents (such as attention to detail, drive for perfection, extraordinary memory, exceptional honesty and alternate problem-solving skills, for example) rather than focusing upon their struggles, we might begin to eradicate the stigma associated with this condition, once and for all.  

To label, or not to label, that is the question

Over the years I have met a great many parents whom, at one time or another, have faced this particular dilemma. They have come to realise that their child is struggling at school, and they have begun to take those first tentative (but necessary) steps towards seeking some kind of help and support.

In my experience, when a group of parents get together over a coffee, the conversation usually adheres to a common theme – that of parental self-deprecation (after all, how many people honestly think that they are ‘acing’ this particular role?!) interwoven with the fundamental reality that most of us just want our children to ‘fit in’, be happy and to achieve their true potential. And it’s incredibly difficult to accept when something ‘isn’t quite right’. Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety begin to surface, and it can take a while for us to work through our own emotions, let alone ready ourselves for the inevitable challenges that we will need to help our children to overcome.

Society as a whole, of course, offers very little encouragement here.

As demonstrated by some of the abhorrent behaviour surrounding England’s defeat at Euro 2020, prejudice is evidently still very much alive and well. Whether pertaining to race, sexuality, age, or religion it would seem that ‘equality’ is the luxury of the few and there needs to be a concerted effort to change this. And like it or not, with every educational / behavioural diagnosis comes a certain amount of stigma too and (whilst progress is undoubtedly being made to address this) one can understand why a parent might be reluctant to authorise a comprehensive assessment for their child, for fear of them being ‘labelled’ and therefore viewed differently from their peers.

I remember taking part in an INSET session some eight or nine years ago that was looking at the common signs of, and useful strategies to help, those children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Being a subject that genuinely interested me, I had (rather uncharacteristically) listened intently – and made copious notes too! And just as I was beginning to wonder if my child might actually be ‘on the spectrum’ too, the presenter explained that most children under the age of five would exhibit a number of the behaviours outlined and that the mean age for ASD diagnosis ranged between 38 and 120 months. My relief was palpable (the proverbial weight having been lifted from my shoulders) and I settled down gratefully to the paediatric first aid course that followed.

All these years later, I have come to realise that my reaction was ‘normal’ (but also incredibly short-sighted) and this has made me much more empathetic towards those awaiting the diagnosis of a specific educational need for their child. The very notion that one’s treasured offspring might not be able to access education (or understand social convention) in the ‘usual’ way can be difficult to accept, and it is not uncommon for parents to feel a degree of culpability either – unwarranted or otherwise.

However, I wonder if an analogy with the labelling found on an item of clothing might be worth some consideration here? After all, without such a label there is a real chance that a particular item of clothing might become damaged or (in the event of it being dramatically reduced in size) rendered utterly worthless to the wearer. By attaching a ‘care’ label to a child then (rather than simply viewing that label as a set of arbitrary instructions) there’s a strong chance that this might help to alleviate some of their feelings of confusion and inadequacy. And better still, you might just be furnishing your child with an enduring sense of self-worth too.

When the red mist descends

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’.