The behaviour of some people just bewilders me. No. Actually it sickens me sometimes. Let me give you a couple of examples…
Whilst out recently I saw a lad - he must have been 17 or 18 – shouting and screaming in the street. Life, apparently just wasn’t fair. The woman he was with looked on into the distance as he screamed in her face that she had ‘ruined his life’ and that she was the ‘worst person ever’. What was this all about? The fact she wouldn’t lend him £5. ‘What an entitled, spoilt brat.’
Having said that though, there was that young ‘girl’ who was really lashing out at her mum. When I say lashing out, she was actually punching and kicking her before throwing herself on the floor in a tantrum. ‘Two things about that. One being that she was doing it in the first place, and; two, what sort of parent was this woman? Letting a girl of about nine or ten act up like that?’
Oh, not the kids in question, nor their parent either. The reactions to them. Those that stared in disgust. Those that mocked, that scorned, that ridiculed. You see, both kids involved here are autistic. You’d never tell from just walking by a meltdown. Twelve months’ ago or so, I may have had a similar reaction. Perhaps thought the same thing, but I have been fortunate enough to have four people come into my life that have lived with autism all their lives. A mum, a daughter and two boys with autism. In this last year I have witnessed many meltdowns, many tantrums and at times have found it hard to cope with this. What I have experienced as well though is an insight into a wonderful new world where life is viewed in new and magical ways. I have experienced compassion, love and with these, a thirst to understand more.
What is autism? Well, for starters this blog doesn’t afford me half as much time, as I’d like to go deeper into the subject but, if you’re interested, here’s a crash course animation: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZYtA26fbFCYIecm-WsEaeQ/featured Its charm and brevity should give you a flavour for what I’d like to talk about.
Being a learning designer, self-confessed learning theory geek and Dad to two neuro-typical kids, I was intrigued by their interactions and wondered how these boys ‘differed’ from my own children. Oh yes, I did say boys. The younger of the two, Jay, has hair way past his waist, and is very proud of this; he often gets mistaken for a girl, a fact which he ‘is so over’! The thing is though, the more time I have spent with them, the more I have realised that the differences aren’t as wide as I first thought they would be. All things are just generally turned up to 11. Emotional and sensory overloads are understandable when you consider this. Jay is ten and what he doesn’t know about the cosmos isn’t worth knowing; he’s a sponge for all things science. He struggles tying his shoe laces though and other day-to-day tasks are sometimes way beyond him. How then does this remarkable young man have such a disparity in ‘basic’ and ‘complex understandings’ in certain subjects?
The answer came to me when I thought we’d make burgers together for dinner. As base ingredients and end result Jay knew what was what, but had no concept at all on how one became the other. We treated it like a science lesson in the end. We likened each ingredient to the building blocks to the universe, and took it from there. Elements came together, atoms formed, evolved, nurtured, and was eventually served on a lightly toasted bun with salad and a good helping of cheese. Facts can be learned verbatim; application needed a different approach. Doing this with Jay has reinforced my belief in breaking topics down to their most basic components and then putting them back together with context in mind to provide a deeper level of learning. Learning by ‘doing’ opens so many more doors. I have since learned that this approach has successfully been used in teaching/training autistic people for many years now. It’s a shame that we’re only just starting to catch up. I say catch up because, in my limited experience, seeing these two remarkable people in this remarkable family function the way they do, puts many neuro-typical learning practices to shame.
As we reflect on Autism Awareness we should perhaps do so with intrigue and wonder as opposed to fear and misunderstanding. Brilliance is only a slight change in perspective after all.