Podcast Ep 2 - Signs of Asperger's at school
Hi there, and welcome to episode 2 of the Stephen’s Evolution Podcast. Thank you for joining me in this episode. It’s good to have you. I’m Stephen McHugh, your host. I have Aspergers, a form of Autism.
In this episode, I’m going to talk about autism in the school environment and how to recognise signs of it in children there. So, this episode may be of interest to you if you work in a teaching capacity. I will be talking from the view of a pupil, based on my personal experiences from being at school and growing up. I’ve never worked in a teaching capacity myself.
The information contained in this episode is for informational purposes only, and not to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, or professional teaching advice. Please be aware that the content in this episode may remind you of your own struggles with autism, or those of a loved one. Take your time, and listen to this episode at a rate, and at times that you feel are suitable for you.
Here in the UK, the primary school system is divided into 2 parts, infants for children aged 4 to 7, and junior years for children aged 7 to 11. The schooling system may be different for you, depending on what country you're residing in.
Some of the content will be based on a report from my 1st year and a half at school ,before we moved house. In addition, some of the content I got off conversations with my parents in times gone by, along with some memories of mine.
During my first year at school, and my first term, I would sometimes spend time wandering around the classroom, and would rarely settle into any work. There were also times when I wouldn’t complete work, partly due to a lack of concentration on my part. Furthermore, I could be distracting during story times and other quieter periods. I would repeat whatever my teacher would say to me, nor would I respond readily to questions or instructions. To the school at the time, these were signs that I have communication problems.
I had fixation on certain things, like the clock, and certain toys. I could only say numbers from 1 to 59. This may have been due to the fact that I had an interest in clocks, watches, and anything time related.This helped me to acquire good knowledge of time, including hours, half hours, and quarter hours.
Once I gained sufficient knowledge of numbers beyond 59, I would spend periods of time in class, arranging selected numbers into numerical order. In addition, I became competent at recognising basic shapes, like circles, triangles, squares and rectangles. It was becoming obvious that I had a love of anything mathematical related.
I had certain hypersensitivities. Whenever the weather was good, the school would naturally encourage the children to play out more, which would mean more in terms of noise outdoors. Sometimes I would therefore want to go back inside, where it was quieter and calmer.
Based on a school report of mine from those times, it was stated that getting eye contact with me proved difficult. Here, one may think that a lack of eye contact may mean one is not paying attention, or just not interested. A child may therefore get told off for displaying behaviours like these. The child may be overwhelmed by all the information given to them, and be trying to make sense of it all in their own ways.
Over my first year and a half at school, I got better at responding to questions and instructions. On two occasions, during Christmas plays, simple roles were found for me. I would say a line on each occasion. And there were also other times when I’d tell my teacher some news. But generally, I was happy with my own company.
During my 2nd year of school we moved house. This was during the 2nd year of infants. I would therefore be going to a different school. In my new school, the primary concern of the headteacher at the time was, was I going to be a problem for them, and would too much time be devoted to dealing with my needs rather than focusing on delivering the level of education the other kids deserved. This was all at a time when little seemed to be known about autism. I, of course, was too young to understand what was going on.
Another trait of autism is preferring certain routines. This is another thing that I believe educators should be aware of. In my new school, an example of this was when I was happily engaged in building things with building blocks, and my teacher called me to read for them. At first, I felt reluctant to do this, having been unsettled in the disruption to my routine of building things with the building blocks. In situations like this, educators and teachers should devise routines beforehand, saying what activities are to be done from whatever times to whatever times.
As time went on, other traits of mine became evident, most notably delays to my language and speech development. I would take in language, just like everyone else, except that I interpreted it using different mechanisms. I took very concrete views of it, with little in terms of flexibility being employed. Consequently, I found it difficult to understand more complicated views of language, including inferences and idioms.
My difficulties with language meant it took longer for me to understand what I was being asked to do, and apply new knowledge. This included trying to understand new mathematical concepts. Teachers would therefore find it difficult to get it out of me.
Another behaviour of mine became apparent to my teachers, a lack of cooperation during class discussions and stories. It was during these periods when teachers would notice me being in my own world more. I’d be preoccupied with distractions and thoughts related to my own obsessions and interests.
My difficulties with language couldn’t have helped here either, as this meant it’d be difficult for me to follow, understand, and appreciate what was going on in the stories themselves. In addition, my difficulties with inferences meant it was hard for me to work out how characters may be feeling. It didn’t help that my vocabulary was rather limited for me at the time.
Going back to my lack of cooperation, one of my infants teachers noticed this during sessions of physical education. A reason for this may have been linked to my language difficulties, which would have created problems for me understanding instructions given out to the class as a whole. And given that PE wasn’t one of my stronger subjects, I likely lacked the skills and know how to carry out certain tasks. Having certain hypersensitivities can lead to one being distracted by the noises and activities of others in the class. Furthermore, difficulties with social interactions can lead to problems with group work, especially where communication deficiencies are concerned.
There was also one quiet session during one afternoon. A thunderstorm came. I left the session and walked towards the classroom window, as I remember being more excited about watching the storm, than what was going on during the class session was at the time. There were times where my teacher was puzzled about how I could know facts that I couldn’t possibly have known.
On a certain day and at a certain time, I would get anxious and nervous about school. I was sent for one to one sessions with another teacher, who pushed me quite hard. For me, there is a danger that pushing a child too hard can cause them to become afraid of learning, and trying out and experimenting with new things.
As I said earlier, this was all at a time when relatively little seemed to be known about Asperger’s. I was seen to be a new and unique case by my new school. The teachers at the time had to try and think up new and innovative ways to try and help me. Hopefully as awareness of Asperger’s increases, teachers should have access to specialised training, if need be.
This reminds of going swimming sessions during later junior years, when swimming teachers told you off for doing things wrong. That’s one thing that made me nervous about going swimming.
Another issue that faced me with swimming was fear of the deep end. To solve that, I would go swimming with my family outside of school, and use that opportunity to face the deep end. Gradually, over time, my fear of the deep end would gradually wane.
There may also be issues with lack of interaction with other children, which is another autistic trait. They may be on their own more often than not, due to their difficulties with interacting in social situations.
Looking back, it was easy to have confidence in the headteacher at the time, in the way they ran the school. The school had a culture that, I felt, was welcoming and accepting of me. This played a part in me having playmates during break and lunch times.
Another behavioural trait of mine was to ask questions to which I could probably work out solutions to for myself. This may have been linked to the fact that I liked to look at things from different angles.
Seeing the name Geoffrey spelt with a G or a J, or that the number 1 was spelt ’one’, when I logically thought that it could be spelt ‘won’ confused me. That is why I would likely say things over and over. I think I probably felt insecure, or not confident enough in my knowledge, and just wanted confirmation and reassurance. I was also worried that things might not be the same next time.
During my first year of junior school, there would be times when I’d have trouble with my work. This may have been linked to the fact that I lacked the confidence in having a go. I’d be afraid of getting things wrong. In addition, I’d find it difficult to ask for help, possibly linked to fears of being told off for doing things incorrectly. I’d also be worried about being told off for not paying attention, since I did have the tendency to sometimes be in my own world. And this was picked up by my teachers.
And, of course, my language difficulties meant it would take me longer to understand new things and apply new knowledge. It is likely that I didn’t understand what questions to ask in order to seek the right sort of assistance with my work.
I was referred to a professor of Psychiatry, who diagnosed me with Aspergers. It was arranged for a therapist to link up and work with the school in order to help the teachers more directly. My case was compared to me being in the Pacific Ocean, and within safe reach of the seashore, rather than being far out in the deep waters. My case was seen to be rather mild. The school was reassured that they were doing a good job in my case.
The fact that I had the tendency to get quite anxious about things, reminds me of something else. Being put in test situations. One reading test stands out for me, where I only scored 9 out of 44. In the test, one had to select the correct words to complete given sentences. It’s quite possible my anxiety may have played a part here, and caused me to rush through the test, when perhaps slowing down and relaxing more may have helped me to make better choices.
I remember one question was, ‘there was no……. for six months, and all the wells on the island were dry’. Here, I chose sun, when the correct answer was rain. I only realised this later that day.
When it came to reading, I did like a certain series, where the stories were initially short, funny, and full of action. However, as the series went on, the books got too long. This didn’t put me off reading though. Some books I enjoyed reading again and again. It was through reading books, and doing activities that I enjoyed that I could build my vocabulary, rather than doing it in everyday conversation.
Some days after the reading test in which I only scored 9 out of 44, our headteacher came in, and went through it with us all. When they saw my score, they took a sympathetic and sensitive view of it, having been reassured by the professor who diagnosed me that if I was ever unsuccessful at something, it would not be due to naughtiness, a lack of know-how, or a lack of motivation.
I like the fact now that they looked at the personal progress I was making, and not using standard tests as a guide to one’s ability. There are other ways to do this for me, rather than comparing results with other children’s.
Schools should always be mindful of children’s strengths and interests. One of my interests was, and still is, music, and piano playing. During my junior years, opportunities for me to put my talents to good use were found. One such opportunity was playing in an orchestra for a play, which I remember to be, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. This happened to be musical to some degree.
I also liked the way the school was being flexible in order to meet my needs as best they could. I had an interest in trees as well as music, and was allowed to do my own personal projects on these topics compared to the rest of the class.
Despite the fact I had my difficulties, and that I needed greater support, it was felt that there was always an underlying improvement in me.
By the time I got to secondary school, I no longer needed specialist support. There was the matter of meeting other pupils from different schools and, of course, newer teachers. Around this time, schools and other educational establishments were only just beginning to become aware of autism.
During one of my first sessions of Physical Education at secondary school, I did get into a little trouble, as my body language may have given the impression I was being rude and naughty. And those of us with autism can struggle with what various forms of body language mean, along with facial expressions. We may inadvertently show these.
Group work can cause worries for those with autism, especially with choosing and having partners to work with. Lunch times can be anxious times too, possibly as an autistic child may not have anyone to hang around with, and be uncomfortable with the idea of themselves being on their own, as they may find it difficult to fit in with the rest of their peers. There may also be the fear of being targeted by bullies. Autistic students may spend break and lunch sessions in quiet areas of school, like I would sometimes spend it in the library.
Whenever I came across people for the first time, I was always reliant on them making the first move. I didn’t have the confidence to do it myself. I had the fear of rejection, possibly because of the way I interacted with others, and the world in general.
And that’s all for this episode. If you’ve found it helpful, or that its resonated with you in some way, why not let me know. You can find a link to me on twitter at the footer on my website stephensevolution.com.
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Goodbye for now, and I’ll talk to you all again soon on the next episode, when I shall be talking over a series of episodes in more depth about what helped me during my school, and education days.