I always remember the first autistic child I helped with literacy. He was in a class full of eleven year olds, in his own world, tearing up bits of plastic carefully protecting the bits with his hands. He was calm in his obsession. I watched and, after a while, asked him if it was a dinosaur he had there, he nodded as he seldom spoke any words. I asked him why he had his hands around it. He gave me one of those looks I have seen many times before, “you really should be able to realise this for yourself, but you seem kind so I will humour you”. He pointed to the nearby open window and an incoming breeze. “Ah” I said, I get it “if you take your hands away the breeze will brow away the pieces.” So I went and closed the window so he didn’t have to worry so much.
I demonstrated with my hands how to stand it up on the windowsill and then on the grass bank outside. I asked him about the size and colour of the dinosaur, keeping him focused all the while on his picture.
I then showed him a post-it with ‘T-rex’ written on it, which I held in his eye-line, between him and his imaginary dinosaur. I asked him to slip the word onto his picture and spell T-Rex. Bless him, he spelt, to my amazement, ‘Tyrannosaurus’, I could hardly believe what I heard. He then spelt it in reverse order! The teachers were even more amazed. He was completely relaxed and obviously found it very easy. He then went on to demonstrate the skill with several other dinosaurs. He was clearly enjoying this.
Before I started, I had no idea that dinosaurs were his specialist subject or that, at the age of eleven, he had not spelt any word in his class for the last six months. In fact his teacher told me that if she had been there when I started she would have said don’t mention dinosaurs. She was a lovely caring teaching but she had been trying to teach him other things as well.
As for the boy, I had just given him an important how to and from then on, he saw all his different words on the side of a dinosaur, staying relaxed and with little effort. I and many other Autistic children will always be indebted to this little boy who explained so much about his world, without hardly uttering any words.
Since then I have always followed the child into their obsession. I have found Thomas the Tank engine very good, because he can have trucks, with say, bananas in one truck and the word painted on the side. Then apples in another, pears in another and so on. Also big objects like trains and dinosaurs help to keep the words still.
“Bridges to Success – how to transform Learning Difficulties” (www.bridgestosuccess.co.uk) is full of stories like this one.