In my last post, I introduced Simeon – a 14 year old with learning difficulties and a strong desire to join the British Army, along with a conviction that his life was over because he wouldn’t be able to fulfil this dream.
My first thought was: ‘He’s right – they’d never accept him. Still, at least that’s one nice kid who won’t come home in a coffin or with limbs missing a few years on.’
Hot on the heels of that came: ‘And anyhow, he has no idea what army life involves. He’s just spent too many hours playing Call of Duty and fantasising about holding a gun and killing anyone who gets in his way.’
Slowly it occurred to me that beyond my prejudices I had no real knowledge about the army. I also had no right to dismiss Simeon’s dream so lightly. I therefore decided to investigate further. That way, I’d be able to give him more information. He’d know whether he had any hope of joining the army and he’d also have a more realistic idea of what army life involved. I also nursed a suspicion and hope that as his skills and self-confidence improved, he’d be ready to let go of the desire to hide behind heavy weaponry.
As you might expect, the Ministry of Defence has a comprehensive website, positively bursting with information on recruitment.
The good news, from Simeon’s viewpoint, was that he wouldn’t be expected to have passed any school exams. On the other hand, he would have to sit a whole raft of tests and assessments if he wished to join up. There is a useful section of practice tests for aspiring squaddies to try out – even an interactive one where they take part in a team challenge with a bunch of other young hopefuls.
So when Simeon turned up for the next lesson – quite smiley and cheerful this time – I explained our new programme of study. We would continue with the maths and English as before, but would also devote some time each lesson to trying out the BARB tests and other assessments the MOD provides online. We would also research all possible aspects of army life (or as many as the Ministry felt willing to show us) so that, when the time came, he’d be able to make an informed choice about his future career.
The first test was called Reasoning. It had questions like ‘Bill is heavier than Sam. Who weighs less?‘ Perfect! Exactly the sort of activity Simeon needed to develop his language processing skills. He focused completely and scored 10 out of 12. High fives all round and he was positively beaming.
“I want to try another one,” he said, eagerly.
This time he selected Letter Checking. It involved scanning pairs of letters and deciding how many of the pairs were matched large and small case versions of the same letter. Simeon is a very visual learner, so this was a perfect morale-booster. He scored 100%. Unable to believe his luck, he ran through it again, with the same result.
As you have probably guessed, not every aspect of the assessment tasks went this smoothly. Some contained instructions which went way beyond Simeon’s ability to process information. Initially, he seemed fine with this and persevered by attempting the tests again to try and improve his scores. However his strategies weren’t great. He eventually resorted to guessing blindly and consequently found his marks dropping still further.
The following week he arrived in the blackest of moods and told me he’d decided he would live rough when he grew up and would be glad if this shortened his life. It took a good forty minutes of morale-boosting tasks and encouragement to bring him to a point where he admitted he was feeling better and didn’t really want to be a vagrant.
We’re currently breaking the difficult tasks into smaller, achievable activities before returning to the BARBs. I praised him at one point for working so hard and applying himself to the challenges I was setting him.
“You’re really making progress,” I said.
“That’s because – for the first time ever – I’m being taught by someone who’s not a complete asshole,” he responded.
Like every young person I’ve encountered on the autistic spectrum, Simeon has a sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others that borders on telepathy.
“How would you feel,” he asked, watching my face keenly, “if I came back from a spell in the army and I had killed some people?”
I really didn’t need to reply. He’d understood that despite the effort I’m making to help him reach his dream, I struggle with the idea of anyone ending the life of someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s spouse or parent.
He sat for a few moments, talking quietly about the implications of ending a life and admitting that he’d never before truly looked at the repercussions. For the first time the fantasy and the reality were starting to separate in his mind and I saw that at some point, much further down the line, we’ll be having some deep conversations on this subject.
I have the greatest respect for Simeon and total faith in his ability to make positive choices in the future.