Me and My Autism Gene
In 1999, after 20 years at my school, Mr Chips-like, I became acting deputy headteacher. Within weeks, the SENCO had gone off long-term sick and – as the member of staff with a relevant qualification (a Dyslexia diploma) – I became acting SENCO as well.
I LOVED the job of SENCO. I have always said that anybody with a textbook can teach clever kids, but it takes an inspired teacher to help pupils overcome their learning hurdles.
I especially loved working with the autistic pupils. I got on with them uncommonly
well – I seemed to understand them better than other teachers. It was only as I began to read up on autism that I realised that, in fact, I shared a number of behaviour-characteristics with them.
Although 'autism' in its extreme form is stultifying and tragic, 'autistic behaviour', in its milder forms is a very common and important proclivity. Have you never asked yourself why the autism gene has never 'evolved out'? It is simply because it is too valuable to lose.
I am prepared to suggest that, without the autism gene, humankind would never have progressed from the cave.
Many more males than females are autistic. Autism harks back to a primitive past where women were the communicators and educators, and men were the doers and the makers. Autism runs in families. It is closely associated with engineering – where there is an autistic child in the family, there is usually an engineer. There is something about engineering that needs skills which easily 'tip over' into autism.
Autism and Academia
Your son lines up his dinosaurs. The order differs – sometimes by size, sometimes by colour, sometimes by other features that he has chosen. But you try to tidy away the line at your own risk.
A friend's child goes through his bag of plastic balls; some are returned to the bag, some are kept out to play with, a number are thrown away down the stairs. Again, any attempt to disrupt the process evokes an extreme reaction.
I would suggest that both these behaviours are 'autistic' in nature. Many little boys shows elements of such behaviour.
Autistic children cannot cope with disorder. This is because they are trying to compensate for their lack of empathy/intuitive comprehension of the world by attempting to impose rules on its behaviour. So they are always sorting, ordering, categorising, analysing (this may come as a surprise to some mothers when they imagine their autistic son's bedroom, but even in what seems to you a huge muddle, everything has its proper place
, and you will get a outburst when he cannot find something).
Is sorting/ordering – i.e. 'analysis' – like this not the basis of higher study? And is not the investigation/discovery of 'rules' the basis of most (especially scientific) research? Putting things in order, working out schedules and hierarchies is so much a part of academia that you might even think that scientific method had been developed by autistic people. At the higher levels, autism and study merge.
The autistic child in your class mislays a crayon. Huge tantrum! He careers wildly through the classroom, ransacking the pencil cases of other pupils, accusing them, attacking them. All attempts to get him to calm down only make him worse.
'It's only a pencil – get things in perspective', you try to tell him. But he cannot; it is you
who doesn’t understand. That pencil is gone … forever. Its loss ruins, destroys the set of crayons in his bag … forever. Not only is the day ruined, but the loss has overturned the order of the world, permanently. That set of crayons can never be made whole again. It is a kind of death. It is
a big deal.
Thus the autistic child is frequently obsessive. Things MATTER to an autistic child, and this is often married to anger, because people only lose their temper about things that matter.
But is this obsessiveness not also an essential element of successful research? Even low-ability autistic children will often become experts – expert train-spotters, expert ornithologists – compiling their lists, concentrating for hours to add a [whatever] to their growing collection.
Does not the able autistic perfectly fit the stereotype of the genius scientist, single-minded, unable to relate to his colleagues, forgetting to eat or wash, developing the invention which will change the world?
The Nature of Learning
Marshall McLuhan – the Canadian philosopher famous for the aphorism 'the medium is the message’ – had a theory of learning. Before the written word, he said, learning was a collective, community function. The historian was a story-teller, and the myths of the tribe would be learned by rote. Knowledge might be set to music, in the form of songs, and it was rehearsed communally, in the tribe's ceremonies and traditions.
The written word, said McLuhan, changed all that. Learning changed from a communal to an individual occupation. Greek scholars such as Plato sat alone and thought, then wrote down their ideas. Apart from a very few disciples who could sit at their feet, most scholars 'learned' by going into a room, alone, and reading and thinking … alone. The age of the scholar-in-his-garret developed.
And so it continued, argued McLuhan, until the present age … until, he suggested, the invention of rock and roll, and global methods of communication, changed the nature of learning. With Bruce Springsteen, we did
learn 'more from a three-minute record than we ever did at school’. Team-research, brainstorming, television (and McLuhan would have LOVED Twitter) have made learning much more of a herd – a hive
If we ever do return wholly to community learning, then the obsessive, isolating autistic gene will cease to be an academic advantage. But as long as we continue to communicate knowledge primarily via the written word, learning will remain essentially an intensive individual activity, and the higher-order autistic will be, well maybe not king, but certainly professor.
The Primacy of Analysis
Where am I going with this?
In the last post, I argued that we needed to listen to Simon Schama, and to reinstate narrative into our teaching.
But, to be honest, I think we also need to point out that – where narrative might be OK for newcomers – analysis is for academics.
It's all very well to agree to emphasise narrative – and all good fun – but we need to accept that the ultimate goal has
to be to move the pupils into analysis and evaluation. That is not to say there is no place for narrative.
I was amused to hear Michael Riley, in the recent Historical Association
debate on what sort of history school history should be, remarking how difficult he had found it to teach the causes of the civil war before the pupils knew the story of the civil war … before they knew what the civil war was
How true that is! Since we usually start a topic by looking at its causes, we often launch straight into an analysis (of the causes), before going on then to the description of the event. This is surely back-to-front! Narrative/description is the lower-order, and analysis a high-order, skill.
Surely we should start
with the narrative/description in the initial lessons, and then progress to help the pupils analyse the event when they know what they are talking about.
A well-constructed curriculum
For a recent publishing project, I took the National Curriculum statement of attainment for History, and broke it down into the different skills – factual knowledge, causation, interpretations, significance etc. If you want to see the grid, I have posted it on the internet here
I was struck by the fact that – despite variations in the taxonomy of each skill, there was nevertheless a clear general pattern, whereby description was the lower attainment skill, 'explanation' earned a higher level, and 'analysis' gained the highest grade.
Bluntly, I think the Statement of Attainment has got it right. It is another aspect of the current Curriculum which we need to leave alone.
John D. Clare