Saturday, May 13, 2006

How Aspergery are You?

It's my favorite new adjective. Aspergery. I came across it while reading Time Magazine's series of autism articles. In one of the articles, The Geek Syndrome, reporter J. Madeleine Nash writes, "There is no question that many successful people — not just scientists and engineers but writers and lawyers as well — possess a suite of traits that seem to be, for lack of a better word, Aspergery."

I'm currently making a career move from teaching kids with a range of disabilities to exclusively teaching kids with autism. Why? While other teachers seem to get exasperated by their students with Asperger's and autism, I get along with them easily. I really don't get the problem. These kids are amazing. Who wouldn't want to teach them? At the beginning of the semester, I was warned by several teachers about Jeremy, a 9th grade "troublemaker." Teachers apparently couldn't control him. One teacher said, "I just don't know what his problem is." This is why EVERY teacher needs special ed training. I realized within two minutes of meeting Jeremy that he has a classic case of Asperger's. As yet another example of the stellar special ed services in the South Bronx, Jeremy, despite having a very clear IEP indicating that he should be in small classes, had been placed in large high school classes with no special ed support. According to a guidance counselor, Jeremy's IEP had been "lost in the shuffle." He wasn't placed in my class until spring semester.

Jeremy is wonderful. I hang out with him during lunch. He fixes the classroom computers and shares his unique life insights. One of his more colorful insights came during a fixation on breakfast cereals: "Apple Jacks make sense. I realized that this morning. They make sense. They just do." (He went on for about 15 minutes.) Jeremy also easily passed the Living Environment Regents exam on his first try. Although I try not to show favorites, the other kids are obviously becoming jealous of my relationship with Jeremy. One day, hyperactive Christopher began banging on my classroom door during lunch. Jeremy was absent that day. When I ignored Christopher's banging, he shouted, "If I was Jeremy Stevens you would let me in!!!" (Christopher actually banged out each syllable of the sentence on the door as he yelled this - we'd had a grammar lesson earlier that day.) What can I say? He was right. I love kids with autism, and I know that teaching them is what I want to do with my life.

As I've begun to interact more with my students with autism, I've also begun to realize that there is a reason I understand and get along so well with them. I'm a bit Aspergery myself. I would certainly never claim to have any form of autism, because I don't, but mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does seem to run in my family, and I believe OCD and Asperger's are neurologically linked. In his brilliant portrayal of an OCD-inflicted detective on the hit USA show Monk, Tony Shalhoub shows us just how quirky, exhausting and lovable people with severe OCD can be. Some Monk fans believe Shalhoub's performance more closely resembles a person with Asperger's or high functioning autism. In any case, Detective Adrian Monk reminds me of Jeremy. A lot. He also reminds me, to a lesser extent, of my sister, several friends, and - oh crap! - myself.

I suspect there are many people out there who have more Aspergery minds than they're willing to admit. Taking a look at my own mind helps me better understand my students with autism. I recently began working with Pre-K kids in their homes. One four-year old girl lines up all her stuffed animals on her bed in a particular order, and she has a tantrum when they're out of order. (We're working on this.) Another student fixates on symbols. On the playground, while his non-autistic classmates naturally socialize and play together, this boy naturally gravitates toward every letter or number to be found on the playground - usually on signs. This is in some ways great because he's learning to read at an unusually early age. But it's not so great when he socially isolates himself. Like Adrian Monk says, "It's a blessing. And a curse."

Hanging out with these kids has helped me recall some of my own childhood 'quirks.' Like many of my students, I have hypersensitive hearing, and I've always been easily overwhelmed by certain noises. I used to get unusually upset by seemingly minor sounds around the house. I also remember fixating on symbols, creating patterns, and repeating them in my head when I was a kid. I used to sit in my childhood living room, stare at the digital clock on the VCR, and repeat in my head, "Eight flash flash ten. Eight flash flash ten." The "flash flash" came from the blinking colon on the digital clock. Who even notices that? I also remember fixating on street signs while sitting in the back of the family car and having to repeat, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop" eight times before reaching a stop sign. (There was a "Stop Ahead" sign, then "Stop Ahead" was also written on the road, then "Stop" was written on the road, then there was a white line on the road, and then, finally, there was the stop sign. Thus, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop.") I'm not sure what I thought would happen to me if I didn't repeat this phrase eight times, but I just had to do it. I think it started when I was eight.

As many girls do, I kept these things hidden, and no one knew what was going on in my mind. (I believe both autism and OCD are under-diagnosed in girls.) I still occasionally catch myself memorizing a license plate for no apparent reason or washing my hands far too many times. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to check the alarm clock that I already checked ten times before falling asleep. Of course, my apartment locks can never be checked too often. Sound familiar? I think we all, to some extent, have minds that cause us to do seemingly bizarre, repetitive things from time to time. We all have our neuroses. (And I'm willing to bet that those who spend time in the blogosphere have them even more so than others.)

I'm one of the lucky ones. My life has not been held hostage by OCD, Asperger's, or any form of autism. I believe fewer lives would be if, rather than judging and fearing children with neurological disorders, more people - especially more educators - were willing to take a look at their own minds and see how much they have in common with these kids. Often, when I tell people I teach kids with autism, they'll say things like, "Oh I could never do that. It would be too sad." Sad?! I don't find it the least bit sad. Kids with autism are amazing. Frankly, there's something sad about people who don't get that.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Losing My Faculties

Losing My Faculties by Brendan Halpin is THE best teacher memoir. Period. Get it and forget about Frank McCourt. Halpin manages to write with a hilarious, ego-free voice. How many teachers write with an ego-free voice? Not me, that's for sure. Every other teacher memoir I've read has somehow annoyed me. Losing My Faculties is different. It's obvious Halpin cares infinitely more about kids than kissing ass. He taught high school English in Boston area public schools. And no, I don't know the guy.

An excerpt:

"One day John busts out with, 'Your mama's so black she went to a night class and got marked absent!' I am getting ready to yell at him, and I'm really afraid I am going to have to pull Latoya off of him in about two seconds. How could a white kid be so dumb as to make such a totally racist joke?

The class explodes with laughter. Latoya says, 'Good one John,' and he gets high fives all around the table. I have no idea what just happened."