Sunday, October 14, 2007

Non-diagnosis and perspective

Nearly every year that I taught at that private school in the States, the Advanced Placement literature course was part of my load; there were two different curricula for it, so I alternated my syllabus between years. This started out as quite the treat for me. It's a difficult course, requiring students to truly stretch their abilities. To that point, most of their work on the language I taught was composed of grammar and translation. Suddenly, they were expected also to read poetry in this language, be able to analyze it on various levels, and write coherent essays conveying all of this. The payoff, however, was that they had the opportunity to read truly great literature.

Usually with a course of this level, the students have enough invested in the subject that they are interested and want to do well. They also tend to be focused on their college applications and making sure that their transcripts include the right number of difficult courses. Although I have issues with this, it theoretically led to motivated classes. I say, "Theoretically." My first AP class was a dream class, but after that I had a mix of students who just wanted the AP credit and/or were really too weak to handle the demands of the course, with only a few of the best sort thrown in.

In the last two years that I taught this course, I actually had behavior problems to deal with. Both times, it was a core of boys who were, quite simply, mean, plus another boy who was frequently the target of their teasing. From everything I'd heard, this dynamic had been going on for years.

The target of the teasing, I'll call him E., was an odd boy. To see that he had trouble reading social cues would be a gross understatement. His attempts to joke often fell flat with the other students. Some of the teasing would go over his head, but sometimes it hit him hard and he'd lash out. He was generally regarded as intelligent, but his strengths were in memorizing and concrete thinking.

The first year that I taught E., the syllabus involved reading significant parts of a long, narrative poem. In addition to translating and analyzing the assigned portions, students also had to read the entire work in English and be able to keep track of what was happening in the plot. E. would drive me nuts by openly demonstrating that he had not read the story closely--usually with questions that revealed an ignorance of the story beyond our text's minimal summaries, but also by refusing to keep track of who the different characters were.

He also made frequent reference to what a translation of the poem said when we went through the original text in class. Despite my lecture to the students along the lines of "Technically, you're not even supposed to be using a published translation when you're working on your own translation for class. Moreover, published translations are never going to be literal translations, so they won't help you get the grammar right. But I also know that you will use a translation, because everyone does--and I did. So here's my bottom line: don't tell me you're using it and when you do use it, use it responsibly" (followed by an explanation of what that means). His fellow classmates got the hint; however, E. continued to say things in class like, "but that's not what my translation says."

I remember one day in class when he had made another remark, can't recall the topic. But I sighed. Audibly. He didn't make any sign of noticing, but the rest of the class laughed. And I got very upset with myself. Because I have always considered it my responsibility, as the adult in the room, to keep such feelings to myself, to give no indication of my personal attitude towards students with whom I have personality conflicts. So I worked very hard not to let that happen again, although he continued to drive me crazy.

At the beginning of the next year, my second year with that same core of trouble, one of the administrators left copies of an article on Asperger's in the faculty lounge. I read it with general interest until a couple pages in, when I saw a picture of one of the kids being discussed. He reminded me immediately of E. Now I'm not saying that there are easily discernible physical markers of Asperger's, but the picture triggered something for me.

Suddenly it was clear: E. had Asperger's!

No, he hadn't been diagnosed. And I wasn't going to force my idea on others. (There was a whole other dynamic with his parents and the administration, so I knew I'd get myself in trouble approaching either party.) But just thinking about E. in these terms helped me reshape my relationship with him.

I made sure that any directions I gave to E. were as concrete as possible and didn't assume that he should be able to fill in the details, even when his classmates could. When he asked questions that were either repetitive or (to me) obvious, I either answered them patiently or told him where he could find the information for himself. I assigned groups for cooperative work and created seating plans that minimized his proximity to the bullies and other distractions. I made sure to praise him when he did good work--not more effusively than I would have with other students, but I made sure to praise him. And I cut off the bullies in no uncertain terms, not that I had condoned their actions in the previous year, but I decided this was a case where I needed to come down on them harder than I usually would--and they did back off a bit at least.

I can't say that I ever came to like this student. And even if his perception of his experience in my classroom didn't change at all (and I'm not sure it did, he really was that clueless about social interaction), my experience of his presence did. It also made me realize that, as a teacher, I did not need a special report from the study skills coordinator indicating a diagnosis to be able to adjust my teaching to a student.

I have been thinking about E. a lot since starting the process of getting Scooter evaluated, this time from the parent perspective. Even more since it is looking increasingly likely that Scooter may not receive a diagnosis that puts him on the autism spectrum, possibly no diagnosis at all that would relate to special services at school. This is not entirely a bad thing, as I don't expect he'll need extra support past the first few years of school. But I do worry that, without an IEP, the first few years might be even rougher and he might end up disliking school--something that could have long-term consequences.

And so I cross my fingers and hope that my expectations of our school-district-to-be are correct: that teachers will be experienced in dealing with students of all sorts, that they will be willing to make minor non-disruptive accommodations if it will make a difference for a student, and that the other students will be accustomed to "odd" students and therefore more accepting. High hopes and high stakes.


bubandpie said...

What a fascinating story - you've alluded to it before, but thanks for writing it out in full. True, you didn't need a diagnostic report to alter your teaching, but you DID need the framework provided by your own ad-hoc diagnosis to recognize the child's deficits and realize that they were involuntary. I'm glad he had you for a teacher.

Lisa b said...

Same thoughts here as B&P. You did need to have that article left lying around to give you the tools to work with E. what if you had never read that article?

Hopefully the teachers in your new district will be experienced and knowledgeable to serve scooter with or without a diagnosis but I don't think it can hurt to come forward with ideas to help them.

I taught a boy who so obviously had aspergers that I was stupified when someone said it to me. It was so obvious I hadn't even processed that I hadnt' labelled him. I wasn't told by admin that this is what he had but I have no doubt to this day some people knew. He was asked to leave at christmas because we just could not accomodate him. I think though we could have we just didn't want to. With a shadow or assistant he could have done fine in my class but that is not the way the school functions and they are not leagally obligated to accomodate any differences.
It just occured to me reading b&ps post yesterday that so many of the boys had reports that described learning needs - sensory, social, processing but that not one ever used the term autism.
interesting no?

Aliki2006 said...

We are only a few months into second grade with an IEP and and I am so thankful we have one. School has become so much more bearable for Liam, although we still struggle with it. School is a hard place to be in for kids like Liam, Asperger's aside--he's introverted, quirky, anxious, and socially awkward. The IEP helps him thrive and manage his day--helps him stand out so teachers notice and work with his unique gifts instead of being frustrated with him (and this happened already in kindergarten and 1st grade--talk about labels--nothing is worse than having your great kid labeled early on as being "difficult" and uncooperative). It is very obvious to us that Liam has autism, but the difference with Asperger's and more "traditional" autism is that he does have the ability to self-reflect and hopefully, to work on controlling his environment and his behaviors. The IEP and related services help him with the tools to do this--these services are critical, IMO for a child with Asperger's or any form of high functioning autism, if they stand a chance of learning how to adapt to their stressful environments.

Good post Mouse--and you are obviously an amazing teacher.

Mouse said...

I'd like to think that what I did for E. wasn't unusual, since that would give me more hope that Scooter might have teachers who were able to make similar adjustments. On the other hand, I expect to be talking to his teachers before school even starts, so we shouldn't have to rely on their coincidental observations.

There is a chance that Scooter will be able to qualify for extra support by means of some vaguer, school-based diagnosis. The school district does their own evaluation and so has a little wiggle room, but I'm not sure yet if that means they're more or less accommodating than a developmental pediatrician would be.

cinnamon gurl said...

Great post.

Have you read Look me in the eye: my life with asperger's? I bought it Saturday and already I'm 200 pages in. It's riveting and disturbing, and makes a great case for diagnosing kids. He said he used to wonder if he would suddenly turn into a serial murderer, since people seemed to believe that of him and told him so because of his social cluelessness and inability to make eye contact.

Mouse said...

I really want to read Robison's book--it's on the list for when we get back to the States (pricing and exchange rate and all). I'm even more interested since seeing Running with Scissors this past weekend--Augusten Burroughs is Robison's younger brother.

The other, even more personal reason for wanting to read it is to see how closely it reflects my own experiences.

kittenpie said...

Interesting. B&P has just been pondering much the same thing - does she want the diagnosis or not? Will it help Bub to be identified, so kids know why he is different, or make it worse? Hard to say, that's for sure, but it's true that it just might help his teachers know how to work with him.