Saturday, 19 September 2009

What lies beneath

Euan has started attending a special needs school. The first week was difficult and exhausting, and not just for him. He would come home from school almost suffocating with bewilderment, letting out strangulated screeches at the slightest provocation, kicking, yelling and crying until bedtime. Everything was strange and frightening, from the bus that picks him up at the door each morning to the new teachers, the smaller class sizes, the unfamiliar mode of learning and the absence of his classroom assistant from his mainstream school. Each of these changes on their own might have been bearable: coming all at once, they must have felt like diving into a bed of nettles. Somebody recently introduced me to the "Coke bottle" analogy of autistic children. They can seem placid and contented during the school day, but all the time they are storing up stress on the inside, like a coke bottle being shaken, and once they come home, the lid blows off. That was Euan for his first week at school.
Slowly, though, he is adjusting to his new surroundings. One thing that helped was being allowed to take his teddy, Greeny, with him. At first we tried to dissuade him, believing like good parents that toys should stay at home. Then we went to a meeting with his teacher and she showed us a photograph in the corridor of Euan holding Greeny. Next she took us into the classroom and explained that Greeny had taken on the role of Euan's monitor, acting as a conduit for explaining his tasks and a reward if he behaved well.
Watching special needs education in action has been a fascinating learning process for us. There is endless negotiation, glacial progress at times, but underpinning it is a tremendous sense of purpose and achievement. Developments are small but revealing. Euan is already benefiting from the closer attention of his new school. His language is improving and he has started drawing stick figures, which gives us a new way to tell stories with him. And then there is the question that keeps coming up, the one the teacher put at the heart of our meeting: "How much does he really understand?"
The short answer to this is: a lot more than we imagined even a few months ago. Euan's mind is constantly turning up surprises. I wrote not so long ago that his affinity for numbers seemed to be more to do with remembering sequences than calculation. Then today something happened that knocked that whole presumption out of the water. Euan was listening to a CD on the computer using Windows Media Player. He likes to watch the visualisations and the time bar that fills up across the bottom of the screen as the track progresses. Today he took things a step further. As he listened to the CD tracks, one by one, he clicked on the time bar and slowly dragged it across the screen, constantly checking his position against the figures on the right which show how much of the track has been played out of the total time. So when the figures showed 1:30/3:00, Euan would have the bar exactly in the centre of the screen.
It wasn't an exact science, but he unmistakeably knew what he was doing. And what he was doing, unmistakeably, was calculating what proportion of the track had been played and expressing it visually. When I though of it like that, I was astonished. It reminded me of what someone had once said about Paul Gascoigne: he may not be bright in the academic sense, but he can measure in his head in a split-second exactly how hard to kick a ball so that it lands at the feet of a team-mate who is running towards a spot 60 yards away. Just as footballers possess a remarkable natural sense of physics, so Euan seems to some kind of instinct for division.
Similarly, we have tended to assume that Euan's ability to read was limited to recognising words rather than understanding meaning. That was until he picked up one of his Sesame Street books and read out loud: "Wake up! Wake up always! The sun is all on!" The interesting thing is that these aren't the words on the page. The actual words are in Dutch. What Euan was reading out were his own translations. Imperfect ones, as you might have realised, but translations nonetheless. "The sun is all on" should be "the sun is already up", but the Dutch words for "already" and "up" can mean "all" and "on" in other contexts. So Euan can work out single words and two-word phrases, but struggles with sentences. At least, that's what we'll think until something else happens to make us revise our opinion.
This is not told simply for the sake of parental pride. Euan's intelligence is hard to measure on any meaningful scale and even harder to exploit. His attention span is severely limited, he is hard to motivate and any change in routine or switch of task is met with howls of resistance. But now and again we catch a glimpse of what might be going on behind that glazed expression, and it is a tantalising prospect, like shining a torch into a crystal-lined cave.

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