I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.
Socrates, The Distant Past.
Teaching is bloody awful.
Actually, I absolutely love my job and have been glad to have spent almost two decades teaching the next generation physics, chemistry, maths and a whole host of other subjects. Originally, I qualified as a regular secondary physics teacher; idealistic, dreaming of providing an education that didn’t instantly become dis-interesting, disengaging or ultimately disaffecting students – I wanted to succeed. To be an engaging educator, who always wants the students to question why, never simply take what is said at face value.
I worked in mainstream teaching for years, before moving across to work with Autistic Spectrum, ADHD/ADD, Special Educational Needs and students with mental health issues. These wonderful people, I have been lucky to spend over a decade with; teaching, guiding, trying to help them, and myself, find direction.
As one student quipped, ‘When you’re disabled, you have to put twice the effort in as someone who’s not, just to get treated [by work/school] the same‘. An unfortunate truth, something that I had not actually taken to heart nor understood when I was a younger man.
You see, I am Autistic. With a capital A.
I didn’t find out properly, until into my 30s; prior to that, people assumed and called me crazy. There was simply something within me that kept dragging me down, every time I have got within the proximity of any kind of success. Nobody could put a finger on it.
“A personality disorder that makes him susceptible to mental illness”
A Psychiatrist, My Distant Past.
This series of pieces are to help and educate. I’ll look at communication, education, independence and other issues throughout.
To help parents, teachers and those with issues to look at why they face problems. How to address them as pragmatically as possible. What is actually achievable, which, can be quite incredible. How does the neuroscience work? What is the latest psychology; how do we understand what it is to be autistic, to have ADHD and to live an independent and happy life?
Tough questions that require resilience to even face.
Ultimately, I am not talking for people with autism; ‘when you’ve met one autistic person – you’ve met one autistic person’. Like everyone, those with mental health issues, pervasive developmental conditions like autism and ADHD, are unique individuals. Uniquely lovely as well, of course, as uniquely motivated.
What I can do is pass on years of experience and insight, both professionally and personally. To highlight and explain that the actions people see are not simply the products of poor parenting, bad behaviour, tantrums, inflexibility, torrents of talking are not the end but the beginning of understanding how people such as ourselves communicate.
For example, as a rough guide, the brain prior to the age of 11-12 has not properly developed the frontal cortex area of the brain. That part of the brain designed to think critically and evaluate. Hence, why teenagers can seem frustrating and frustrated, and that’s before bringing hormones and other issues into the equation. The brain is developing but not quite enough to be able to explain things eloquently, in the expected civilised manner of an adult.
Each brain develops differently, at different rates and in very different ways. Consider each brain a seed, they grow roots and shoots and branch out. Whereas, one shoot might not grow; another takes the food and energy and can become quite incredible.
Yet, as a society, we may have an understanding of brain development, but do not make the link to behaviour and communication and expect the child, or developing adult, to act exactly as an adult would.
These are the ideas of an adult transposed on people who may lack that capacity currently. Some may never quite have that particular capacity, but have many other wonderful qualities as a person.
A child is powered by emotion, not critical thought. Emotions are raw, hateful and glorious. They push and pull with the force of a tornado. As the brain develops, we create maps linking thoughts, concepts, ideas, memory, smells and so on that link into neural networks. It is easy to stimulate a thought or memory from a smell, for example.
In education, one of the challenges is how to engage the people in front of you, not the people that they are expected to be. To motivate them and see how education and personal development combine. That you can learn resilience and independence with direction.
On a sombre note, however; for those of us who have to become part of a society that does not know or understand us; nor as a colleague once said to me, “We don’t have time to get to know you as a person, so we can only treat you like everyone else“. A fair comment, but what creates success is learning the individual. How else can you help others to reach their goals if you do not find out what those ambitions are?
I am also, sadly, not like everyone else. One day, I’d like to meet everyone else; as the students, parents, families and careers I have met, simply have not been like everyone else either.