Frankie 171 puter, using only the commercially available programs. All these programs work by breaking down the complex task of reading or other subject matter into its component parts. In the case of reading, the child practices over and over again the symbol-to-sound correspondence and practices putting together the sounds into words and eventually into sentences. * * * Understanding the way children with ASD think is a large part of the “art” of teaching them in schools. Indeed, this understanding is a prerequisite to learning since it provides a framework for understanding the goals of an education and where to begin, and suggests the ways to achieve those goals. In supportive environments, both Frankie and Heather were capable of learning a great deal. Yet the process of learning for them is not the same as it is for typical children, and it is precisely this recognition (and the ensuing accommodation on the part of parents and teachers) that allowed such positive skills to develop. What Frankie’s teacher and Heather’s mother were able to appreciate was the advantage of using eccentric interests as a vehicle for learning the standard curriculum, the need to break down the complex into the simple, to use rote learning skills to learn these more simple concepts, and to use visual presentations of educational concepts (especially computers) to enhance understanding. This approach, it is important to understand, is primarily an accommodation to the disorder, not a treatment of it, based on understanding the disorder in all its myriad manifestations. Such strategies will not erase the deficits that come with ASD, but they will help prevent those deficits from making it impossible for the child to learn. When teachers and parents capitalize on a child’s strengths and work around the child’s deficits, provide a positive and supportive environment for learning, and hold appropriate expectations for the child given the learning characteristics of a child with ASD, the child can enjoy going to school just as much as typical children. An added benefit of that enjoyment is that social and communication skills improve as well. I sometimes walk to the apple orchard that overlooks the station where Trevor and his grandfather watch the trains come and go (see Chapter 9). I sit very still on the old bench at the top of the hill. The wind blows through the trees and causes the long grass to change color as the breeze travels up the hillside. I remember Frankie and his kites.
172 A MIND APART He gets such enjoyment from a wind like this. It gives him an opportunity to fly that kite way up in the sky, plunging and sailing with what looks like wild abandon. It’s gratifying to see him now, so much happier at school. The school appreciates his talents, ignores his eccentricities that are irksome, and in general accommodates but, at the same time, challenges him. Heather, too, finally has found a school environment that appreciates her talents, and she is now enjoying that walk to school in the morning. These developments contrast starkly with those dark days when going to school was a little hell both for them and for their parents, when they were at odds with the institution of school, when there was no understanding of ASD, when there was no accommodation to their talents and eccentricities. * * * There is a remarkable short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer, that perfectly illustrates what happens when there is no accommodation to a child’s difficulties. The story is called “Funes, the Memorious,” about a young man with a prodigious memory who can forget nothing. He remembers every detail of his life in the particulars and is completely absorbed in his contemplation of the visible world. He is acutely aware of the uniqueness of everything he sees and so cannot categorize or generalize; a dog seen at one time of the day is not the same dog seen a minute later. And, in fact, he is right, as the pre- Socratics would have said. His learning style lacks organizational strategies, lacks the ability to use contextual cues to categorize and apply one concept to several situations. Funes’s memory challenges our conventional notion of what is unique and what is different, what is the same and what is a repetition. But it comes at a cost, obviously, and that is the difficulty in learning and thinking: “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract,” writes Borges. And because Funes could not forget, he could not generalize. The narrator of the story is profoundly affected by his night of conversation with Funes: “It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures.” Funes is paralyzed by the multiplicity of superfluous gestures that infect his memory, and his cognitive system quickly becomes overloaded as he remembers everything and forgets nothing, just like the child with ASD. This short story captures very nicely the inner world of children