A knock on the office door distracts my attention from the computer screen, I look around and through the glass wall I see a young woman.
RR: Come in.
Young woman: Hello are you Professor Rose?
RR: Yes. Richard will do. How can I help? Have a seat.
Young woman: I’m Sandra, I’m a second year student and I’m just starting school placement.
RR: That’s good, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience.
Young woman (Sandra): I hope so. But there’s a boy in my class… Can I ask you a question? I need some help
RR: Of course, ask away. I’ll certainly help if I can.
Sandra: I have a boy with autism in my class, what should I do?
RR: What do you mean?
Sandra: What should I do with this boy?
RR: I have no idea. What do you think you should do?
Sandra: How should I teach him?
RR: I have no idea. How will you teach the rest of the class?
Sandra (looking alarmed): Aren’t you the professor of inclusive education?
RR: So they tell me.
Sandra: So you must know how to teach autistic children
RR: Well, I know a little about children on the autism spectrum, and in my career in schools I did teach many children with that label. But, I’ve never met this boy
Sandra (becoming a little irritated and probably wishing she’d never come here): He has autism. I thought you would know about autism and could help me.
RR: Ok Sandra, let’s talk about this boy and what you know about him. Then we might be able to share a few ideas. I do want to help, but maybe we are asking the wrong questions.
Sandra looks at me with an expression that says – “so this is what it means to be a professor – the man is clearly an idiot!”
Scenes similar to this have been played out in my office a few times over the years. The problem is I have a title, and this particular epithet conveys a message that indicates knowledge. In one sense I suppose I do have a certain repository of information, including some relating to autism spectrum disorders. But as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
At some point Sandra has probably sat in a lecture theatre with a hundred other students when I have been led in to talk to the assembled masses about some aspect of promoting inclusive schooling. Sadly I see very little of undergraduate students and when I am placed in front of them in this manner I feel a bit like the late Queen Mother – wheeled in to say my piece at the opening of some special occasion. Whatever the event might have been Sandra in a somewhat deluded manner seems to think I have the answer to all her classroom problems.
I have no doubt that Sandra is going to be an excellent teacher. She is bright, inquisitive and thoughtful; all characteristics that we hope to see in those who work with children. I am sure that after this initial part of our conversation she was thinking that she had made a wasted journey along the long corridor at the end of which my office is located. I hope that by the time she left, half an hour later, she was feeling more positive about the visit.
Sandra was suffering from the kind of apprehension that I have witnessed in other undergraduate teaching students about to embark on a school placement, where they are expected to hone their newly acquired classroom management skills. She has been presented with a class list and a few notes about the individual pupils with whom she will work over the next few weeks. There, in bold letters designed to strike fear into her heart next to the name of a boy on the list are the initials ASD (autism spectrum disorder). This might equally have been ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) or one of a number of such labels conveying the message that this boy is going to be difficult to teach.
I can quite understand why the label assigned to this individual child stood out in Sandra’s mind far more than his name. Almost everything we read about pupils on the autism spectrum begins with a discussion of “deficit characteristics”. Wing and Gould’s triad of impairments immediately raises expectations that this boy and his teachers will have difficulties communicating to each other, that he will lack basic social skills and be unable to empathise with his peers and in addition he will be inflexible in his thinking. These are indeed characteristics that we see in individuals that bear this label. However, these alone are not terribly helpful as we plan to teach the specific child.
Over the next half hour Sandra and I discussed Kevin (a far more fitting label for this child) and tried to think about how we might set about to plan for his needs. We talked about finding out about his likes and dislikes, his patterns of behaviour and routines, the ways in which he is perceived by his classmates and whether he relates to any particular individuals in the class. We covered the familiar ground of structured teaching, the use of visual support and the necessity to differentiate teaching and celebrate learning, both formal and informal. We also discussed the fact that many of the strategies and ideas we had explored would benefit all learners and need not be restricted to an individual simply because he is said to have a special educational need.
At the end of the visit I think Sandra left a little happier than when she arrived. We had discussed ideas and considered the nature of what might be termed inclusive teaching, (though I never used this expression for fear of frightening her away). I told her that my door is open and she can return at any time. The very fact that she arrived at my office indicates that she is a thoughtful teacher who wants to do the best for all the pupils in her class. I have no doubt that Kevin will benefit from her care and professionalism and it seems to me that Sandra is destined to become an excellent teacher. In particular I asked her to come back and tell me more about Kevin, but begged her please not to tell me about his “diagnosis”.
Hopefully she now has a less stereotypical view of children described as autistic. I suspect her perception that all professors are slightly mad will be less easily changed!