8 months ago



Frankie 161 room and

Frankie 161 room and stared out the window, looking at the flag in the schoolyard. Instead of answering questions in class, he asked questions about the colors of various flags seen around town. “What are the colors of the flag at city hall? What about the flag at the car dealership?” he would ask with a grin. Though his teachers knew perfectly well that Frankie knew the answers to these questions, they would patiently answer them. This did not, however, reduce the frequency of the questioning. By the end of the day, Frankie could become quite aggressive if his questions were not answered immediately. Sometimes he would hit the other children, throw books on the floor, have screaming fits. His teachers reluctantly suggested to his parents that they consider home schooling. The school board would be happy to provide him with a tutor. Frankie’s situation was becoming desperate. His parents came to see me, hoping I could find a way to improve his behavior and his learning at school. To teach him at home would mean depriving him of the opportunity to interact with other children and so perhaps improve his social interactions. Frankie had enjoyed his first school years and had made some friends who came to the house to play and invited him to their birthday parties in return. The more time Frankie spent with other children, the less he seemed to pursue his eccentric interests at home. Now he wanted to play with other children, not just on his own. His parents thought this positive change was a product of their determination that he go to the local school rather than to a special school for children with autism. But now he was clearly unhappy in school; he was bored and uninterested in the regular school subjects and was interested only in flags. He was making little progress in reading and arithmetic. He showed no inclination toward social studies or science. His teachers said his autistic symptoms and his obsession with flags were preventing him from learning the curriculum and were interfering with the education of the other students. Those children no longer wanted to come over to his house to play. Because he was so bright, the teachers assumed that he could learn the regular curriculum in the usual way. I have known Frankie since early childhood. He was always interested in things that blow in the wind. I remember his mother telling me that when she hung laundry out to dry on blustery mid-summer mornings, Frankie would run back and forth laughing gleefully as the wind made the sheets billow from side to side. He loved to go to the park and fly kites with his father—great big blue kites with long tails that swished back and forth, dove into the wind, and then caught an updraft

162 A MIND APART and sailed straight up into the sky. All this was charming and amusing, and it gave him and his parents much joy and pride. But now his interest in things that blow in the wind was causing considerable distress and making it difficult for Frankie to learn anything at school. He was in danger of being marginalized and excluded from his school community. * * * One of the challenges that teachers face in dealing with children with autism and AS is that it’s difficult to get their attention or to motivate them to do any schoolwork. They are generally not interested in following the standard curriculum—in learning math facts, writing an essay, or playing with other children in the schoolyard. A teacher standing at the head of the class will not catch the attention of a child like Frankie. He will not necessarily look at the teacher, process what the teacher is saying, or follow directions. Frankie may be daydreaming, replaying in his mind certain cartoons or movies he saw years ago, remembering the video game he played last night, or mentally running though the collection of flags he has at home. His body is there, but his mind is somewhere else. What takes place in the social context of the classroom does not have meaning in a compelling way for the child with ASD. The other difficulty is that the learning style of a child with ASD is different from that of more typical children. Frankie has a prodigious memory for facts and for visual details. It may take him a while to learn something, but when he does, he learns it very well. The problem is that he cannot generalize from the facts to more abstract or conceptual rules; he has difficulty categorizing his experiences and his learning. So, for example, Frankie can learn how to solve a mathematical word problem involving apples and oranges but not if the same concept is presented as shoes and socks. He can learn about the meaning of a word such as ”history” by reference to early settlers to this country but not in reference to early settlers in South America. He can learn why it’s wrong to hit a child because he has taken something that belongs to him but cannot apply it when the other child will not share a toy. He can learn specific rules but cannot always apply those rules to new situations. At home, Frankie’s parents had learned that everything has to be broken down into component parts and each part taught in detail. The parts then have to be assembled one by one into a new concept. His par-

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