Of A Different Mind

Tracing the changes in mindset and curriculum to autism during her teaching career ELEANOR O’REILLY concludes being different is not the problem but being treated differently is …

Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline Roque), 1954.

Autism isn’t a new invention. Autism has been with us through the ages, though it did not become the mainstream diagnosis it is today until well into the 20th century. History is littered with famous, inspiring people who have retrospectively been placed on the autistic spectrum. However, throwing around names like Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll or Charles Darwin runs the risk of romanticising ASD and does little to help our understanding of it.

When I first encountered somebody “a bit different” I was a child and she was my friend. As children then it was of no consequence, difference paling into insignificance, so long as it didn’t interfere with our play.

At seventeen, high on a mixture of boyfriends and first dates, I realised the girl who had been a bit different, during those halcyon days of lollipop sticks and plasticine pets, was more noticeably different by now. Separate and solitary, for the most part she was left to her own devices – by students and teachers alike – gliding silently down polished corridors like someone walking through water or trapped behind glass; we gave her a wide berth and we moved on, leaving her behind. We didn’t know what to do with difference.

My grandmother would have called her “a little bit strange”. There had always been someone “a little bit strange” in the endless stories she told us as children. Mostly made from the stuff of her own childhood, they were peopled with characters called The Slither-Snot Byrne (no explanation required) or Half-a-Crown Mary who (though her name suggested lurid transactions of a sexual nature) cleaned houses, reared random children, donated organs etc, and never charged a penny more than the half-crown of her name.

In my grandmother’s time, there was no such thing as autism or spectrums. Being a bit strange, or a little bit strange, was measured in old idioms and inherited traits – the yard stick set by the distance the apple fell from the tree, or by the similarities between the dog and the pup. Ah, poor Brigid Maguire, or poor Francie Dempsey, she would say, poor meaning something closer to pity than underprivileged. Sure, such and such’s great Uncle Mick … so and so’s second cousin Eileen … as far as anybody could reliably recall, had always been a little bit strange, which was usually a by-product of suffering with The Nerves. Blanket diagnoses such as these were always mouthed silently, in the same way she formed words like The Menopause or The Change, as though speaking them out loud might intensify the probability of her or one of us (God forbid) contracting the muted condition.

It was Dustin Hoffman, not my grandmother and not the Department of Education either, who brought a new term for strangeness into our collective consciousness when Rain Man was released in 1988. But still, a card-counting savant didn’t really educate us so much as entertain us. It took another 14 years before we legislated for those formerly deemed “ineducable” to be properly recognised within our school system when a series of Education Acts for Persons with Special Educational Needs were passed.

When I did my higher diploma, over 20 years ago now, there was little or no mention of special educational needs. We studied Pavlov’s dog and the history of education in Ireland. And we got very excited about this new World Wide Web thing that was being spun. Having completed my teaching practice in a fee-paying school in south County Dublin I became a permanent member of staff there, and the only differences present in the classrooms were in tones of false tan and in highlighted hair.

It was only when I landed down in Gorey in 2001 that I came anywhere near understanding, or indeed seeing, difference in the classroom. Initially, when asked by the principal of the school to take on a certain group of third year students, I was reluctant, to say the very least. This particular class, instantly identifiable by their tree name, was notoriously difficult. At that time, streaming was still the norm. Students were rigorously ranked according to their abilities (which is great if you find yourself in the A class, but not so life-affirming if you’re flung in and buried alive among the Es!). Ingeniously, we attempted to camouflage this merciless alphabetised system by giving each group a tree name, rather than the old format of letter labelling. But of course, everybody knew that to be an Oak was to be top of the proverbial pile, just as being an Ash was to be down digging at roots. Obviously I told the principal my talents would be utterly wasted teaching pass English. Imagine. I had, after all, given up a permanent position in a fee-paying school in south County Dublin, to come here! His answer was simple; Sure, anyone can teach the bright ones!

Over the past ten years, teaching and learning have begun to be understood differently in many ways, while our education system has been going through overwhelming and sometimes bewildering changes. But it is in the classroom every single day that we face the challenges and chances of our age, while never losing sight of the most important players on the stage – the students. Yes, the blackboard is now white and interactive; books have been swapped for iPads; old courses have given way to new; the millennials are now generation Z. The “Zers” were born social, their little digital footprints formed before they could walk. More global in their thinking and more accepting of the inexhaustible variety of life, they understand difference.

My grandmother used to tell us about babies (boy babies, especially) being dressed up as something else. A disguise, she’d say, to trick the fairies. The fairies, like ASD, seemed to prefer boy babies. There were stories of women chasing Changelings around the kitchen with pokers and sticks or throwing them into the fire. In 1884 Anne Roche drowned three-year-old Michael Leahy because, unable to speak, he was different.

Now, thankfully, difference is normal, having its own vast selection of modern idioms to support it, with wise, new sayings plastered across t-shirts, wrapped around coffee cups, tattooed over backs, fronts and foreheads. Rest assured that “what makes you different makes you beautiful” or that “plants are just like people; they’re all different and a little bit strange”.

According to figures published by Irish Autism Action, there are 276,000 people living with autism in Ireland. However, a diagnosis of ASD doesn’t just affect the individual, it also impacts on the family. For every person with ASD a further five people, at least, are affected. In response to this, we have a parents’ support group in the school which meets once a month. Autism is a lifelong condition and as such, the emotional support and well-being of our students is prioritised over exam results. We have a great number of SNA’s and talented teachers in our SEN department who devote themselves so utterly and completely to those who need them that some days it feels like there are as many adults in the classroom as there are students.

There are breakfast clubs, lunch-time clubs, computer clubs and chat-shops; there are quiet spaces, shopping sprees and tours; all designed to bring together students with ASD, encouraging them to discuss their concerns and their interests, to communicate and cement friendships. ASD students can avail of mainstream classes, tailored timetables, extra tuition, or whatever schedule best suits their needs. But most importantly, the ASD students in Gorey Community School are cared for with such understanding and kindness, by both the student body and staff, that their integration has become simply another organic part of school life.

And it is truly wondrous to see the student who hid under a desk for the first three months of his secondary school life walk confidently down the crowded corridors now, heading for the lunchtime crush across the road in Aldi. Or to witness the excitement of the very anxious, very insular boy, as he stands at the crater of Vesuvius or outside the brothel in Pompeii with his mainstream classmates, all of whom are tittering at the phallic symbols etched into the walls or at the explicit, erotic frescoes painted in ancient ochres and reds.

I often think of my childhood friend, and how things could have been so different for her had she been born later – not left languishing in the holy halls of our holy school.

Being different is not the problem but being treated differently is.

Eleanor O’Reilly

M for Mammy, Two Roads Books, by Eleanor O’Reilly is out now.

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