A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Learn, Child, View, Thumb, High, LikeIt was over twenty years ago, and I’ve taught a lot of lessons since then.  None, though, quite as extraordinary as that one.

They were 5 to 7 year olds, only ten of them, all with speech and language difficulties and several with autistic spectrum perception.  We were doing a mental addition and subtraction activity and I was recording their answers on the board.

There was a wide ability range and a couple of the kids were exceptionally bright.  I was doing my best to stretch them, while keeping the less able group involved.

I had a hidden agenda, though.  There was one boy – a six-year-old – whom I was watching particularly carefully.  He was one of the highly intelligent ones.  He always focused on the task at hand, worked hard and was unfailingly polite and charming.  We’d been watching him for a few weeks, my teaching assistant and myself, ever since I’d confided to her that I felt I was losing my grip on this class.  To be honest – and I’m not a person given to paranoid delusions – I was beginning to suspect that this little child was intentionally sabotaging my lessons.

The activity started quite normally, but before long he started.

‘27 +13?’ I asked.

‘40,’ someone said.

I wrote 40 on the board.

‘No, it’s 41,’ he said.

I talked through the calculation, using my best patient teacher voice.

‘But you said 28.  28 and 13 is 41, isn’t it?’

Hmm.  This sort of thing happened all the time in my class these days.  Normally I’d have accepted that I’d made a mistake and wondered, yet again, why I was becoming so absent-minded.  Today, though, I was ready for him.  I pretended to be flustered.  There was no flicker of a triumphant smile from him.  Maybe he’d made a genuine mistake…

We carried on.  He did it several more times, selecting his moments with infinite care.  If I stood my ground, he backed down instantly with a polite, ‘Oh, sorry.’  If I hesitated or acted confused, though, he’d capitalise on it, wasting vast amounts of time in the process.

By the end of the session I was in no further doubt.  All the times a vital piece of equipment I was sure I’d laid out for a lesson had gone missing and was then found in the most ridiculous place – by him, naturally; all the lessons where he was endlessly under my feet and I was practically falling over him, yet he’d always have a perfectly valid explanation for being there; all the times when half the class ended up repeating some stupid little phrase over and over, while he sat, bent over his work and looking up in mild surprise at their behaviour;  all this and more was being orchestrated by a child of six with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum and severe speech difficulties.  It beggared belief.

Later that day I took him aside and asked him, point blank, why he was playing these mind games.

‘What’s mind games?’ he asked innocently, but the mask was slipping.  I could see a gleeful twinkle in those wide green eyes.

‘The little wind-ups you use in my lessons, like in maths this morning,’ I replied.

He gave a yelp of delight.  ‘So it’s YOU!’ he said.  ‘I thought it was you.’  And he smiled his concrete-melting smile.

He went on to explain that he’d been trying his ‘tricks’ on a number of key adults in his life for some time, waiting to find the one who figured out what he was doing.  I had, it seemed, passed the test.

So as his teacher I had two choices.  I could get angry, label him as a disruptive and manipulative pupil and apply sanctions.  Alternatively, I could be delighted that I’d come across such an audacious, brilliant and imaginative mind, give him the deepest respect and remember never to underestimate him.  I chose the latter.  Of course I did.  This was a once in a lifetime meeting.

From that day onward we became the best of friends.  Twenty years on, we still are.

That’s not to say he’s let me off the hook.  Far from it.

If he wants me to discover something, to move closer towards his level of comprehension, he will never simply tell me.  He uses the Socratic Method.  It’s the most effective form of education ever developed.  The student is given scenarios and placed in situations which require high-level problem-solving skills.

Hiking, Nature, Walking Trails, JeansI’m given a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, often a heady mix of physical and psychic, since he operates in both modes.  He ruthlessly ignores my questions or pleas for hints.   If some of the breadcrumbs have disappeared or been blown off course, I’m simply expected to work harder and faster to find the rest.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating – the kind of buzz people get from climbing mountains or running marathons, I suppose.  If I fail, he ups the stakes.  If I succeed he’s utterly delighted and we are able to communicate on a higher level than I’d ever have achieved alone.

I’m busily following one such trail at the moment.  Here, as an example, is just one of the crumbs he’s thrown me:

Phone, Communication, ConnectionAutistic people are capable of communicating and socialising. They have a naturally different method of accomplishing this. What exactly that method is I don’t believe is fully understood at present by either autistics or non-autistics. I don’t believe the correct words have been attributed to autistic matters to describe or explain them properly. I suspect at some point this will be achieved and hopefully will allow autism to be harnessed to its full potential and remedy the blindness of so many.

Wish me luck  🙂


13 comments on “A Trail of Breadcrumbs

  1. I suppose It’s cheating If I interfere 🙂 So that’s will, I take it? Wow, He’s nothing like me at all. Oh, I was meaning to get back to your e-mail, but this is why I hesitated- I can’t speak for everyone.
    Anyway, I don’t get it. Apples and oranges, people.

    • In certain ways, from what I can gather, Sage, he’s very like you, but in others very different. Thing is, people (and that includes aspies, obviously) are very complex, multi-layered beings. No reason all aspies should be the same any more than all redheads or all Africans, I suppose. Also Will at 6 was a very different person to Will at 16 or 26. He’s far more reclusive now.

      Interfere all you like – I’m very happy to cheat! And if it’s any consolation, I believe Will is also looking for answers that are broad enough to cover all possibilities, and not finding it easy.

  2. I would agree with him that autistic people are capable of communicating and socialising in their own ‘ALT’ way. To me the problem is more one of being part of a 1 in 100 (or whatever) minority of ALTS. It’s like doing a radio broadcast from a desert island – so few ‘receivers’ within range. That’s why, I think, autistics instinctive to recognise and are drawn to one another. Sheer loneliness, and relief.

    I wonder if he isn’t already quietly working away at this latest challenge, and is seeking input from a neurotypical. Probably nothing formal or official – unacknowledged, casual?

    For some reason I keep hearing that odd line from (?) Paradise Lost – To explain the ways of God to Man.

    • I suspect you’re right, ‘Rosie’. He’s working at it. I love your quote there. Haven’t read Paradise Lost in decades, but I loved it when I did and those words sum it up exactly. Quite a challenge, then…

    • I think the luckiness works both ways, Cheryl! ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’
      Did I suspect that Will would end up teaching ME so much, at that point in our relationship? I think maybe I did, and had at least enough insight to recognise that he was a child to be nurtured and listened to, as have so many others in my life.

  3. This picture (the telephone) makes me think of Transpersonal Communication: transfer of informations outside our biological organs of perception. The telephone can’t be supplied with electricity and cable, so it can’t work outside telepathy. It could mean that whenever the telephone can work normally, we don’t rely on our capacity for transpersonal communication. But when the tool doesn’t work correctly, then we access to our less known capacity. It’s unfortunate since this capacity maybe opens infinite possibilities…

    An interview of Stanislav Grof who initiated the work on transpersonal psychology, can be found here (http://mhmrcv.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=41802).

    And I agree with Cheryl Jensen: “your students are lucky people”!

    • Goodness! I went no further than finding a piece of artwork that seemed to sum up the thoughts that lay beneath my young friend’s thinking in that extract. Seems it worked, since you have perfectly summed up the ideas he and I have been discussing for some time.
      I’ll certainly check the interview you have linked there.
      Thank you so much for your comments and kind words, Alain.

  4. I love how this is written 🙂
    A pure understanding right there of autism being able to change consciousness, show people how energies and our understandings of it can change vibrations all over the world. Autism is a beautiful gift, unconditional love. Thanks for this 💕

    • Thanks so much for your comment.
      Yes, that’s just the way I feel it is and I feel so honoured to have met this child/man and to have learned so much from him.
      Thankfully, life continues to bring people with autistic spectrum perception to me and I enjoy their company and insights so much. ❤

  5. Pingback: A Partridge in a Pear Tree | Looking at Life

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