Thursday, September 29, 2011

An American (School) Girl: The Autism Edition

One of the worst things about eighth grade for our girl is the ringing of the bells between periods. Every time the alarm sounds, it jangles her keenly sensitive auditory neural pathways, and sets off a cascade of neurotransmitters to generate a flood of adrenaline. Instead of shrugging and heading from class to class, she races through the hallways as though pursued by a saber tooth tiger or a pack of wolves (not to mention the threat of detention for tardiness). When she hears a bell she'll plough right through any obstacle — inanimate or animate — to ensure that she's on time to her next class.

The excruciating (for our girl) sound of the school bell is, according to educator Cathy N. Davidson, one of the many remnants of an educational infrastructure designed to create the compliant and synchronized industrial workforce needed to populate the factories and offices of 20th century America. The bells, the desks in rows, the proscenium stage set of chalkboard with teachers at lecterns, the out-of-date textbooks, the separate vocational and college tracks, and the standardized multiple choice tests (the results of which can shape the course of a life) are the educational dead weight of the industrial age that could keep our country from realizing the genius needed to succeed in the current century and the future it holds.

Twice in the past month I've had the pleasure of hearing Davidson talk about her new book, Now You See It: How the Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learnwhich takes up these and other problems (and possibilities) created by the disjunction between our neurobiology and the structures of our schools and workplaces. Along the way, Davidson's research on neuroscience has led her to consider the anomalies found among kids like ours.

In a particularly evocative section of Now You See It, Davidson writes about the fate of children with Williams Syndrome across cultural contexts. In the United States, where happiness and effusiveness are considered virtues, the ebullient and embracing nature of Williams Syndrome kids make them more lovable and socially acceptable.  However in the context of Japan, where a reserved demeanor is valued, Williams Syndrome children are more likely to be institutionalized — possibly because of their (perceived) rude and intrusive behavior.

Reading this passage had me thinking about the social deficits that our girl has. She's on the other end of the emotional continuum from the Williams Syndrome kids. Our sweet girl is by no means warm and cuddly. She rarely engages in the back and forth of tween girlhood. She's not what anyone who'd just met her would call friendly or welcoming. Smiling is just not a default facial expression for her. In short, she lacks those social skills that are so highly rewarded in the "how to win friends and influence people" American context. Her reserved nature would be a problem for any kid, but it's especially a problem for a girl. While good cheer and an affable nature are valued in middle class American boys and men, they are all but required among the girls and women of this group.

Our girl's social reticence is a very real phenomenon, but it is the social requirement of female friendliness that transforms her particular affect from a simple fact to a significant handicap. 

As our girl shoves her way through the hallway to get to class on time she is not just frantic and rude, she's also unladylike, ungracious, and simply less lovable. She's violating the social norms of her nation, as well as for her gender and her class. I am painfully aware of how she seems to others -- remote, rude, awkward, pushy.

Sometimes I wonder if things would be better for our girl in Tokyo, home of the Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh she loves. There she would be strange, but her strangeness would be chalked up to being a foreigner, to being gaijin as I once was. Sometimes she even asks when we can go to Tokyo, or what it was like when I lived there. I'd like to tell her that it was strange and wonderful — a lot like she is. But instead I tell her about coffee shops that serve pasta topped with mashed potatoes and gravy or sushi bars that make sashimi so fresh it's still quivering on your plate. Our girl recoils in horror at the thought of either, and in that moment I know that however much of a neurological foreigner she may be, in so many other ways she's still an American girl.

Now there is only the small task of making over an America in which she can thrive, and, in the meantime, an eighth grade class where she can more than survive. 


Anonymous said...

Great post. I think it was Daniel Tammet who spent time overseas and found it very helpful. I often wonder the same thing....

audball said...

I agree with your M; the bells are just awful! I think what's worse than the loudness is how unpredictable they can be (well, if you're like me or my El and choose not to wear a watch!). And we too experience the frantic "rush"'s painful. Would earplugs (small and discreet) work for her in the hallways?

We, too, find lots of in things related to Japan to love. Although I'm Chinese by heritage, I wish I learned the kanji to be able to read some of the descriptive information on the fun games and toys. We follow Pikmin (an older Nintendo game), which has a real science bent and cute "kawaii" illustrations of strange little animals and foods. I think your M would love Japan - a country just as unique as your girl! :)

MothersVox said...

Thanks Anon and Audball for your comments here. I read Tammet's first book and I think you're right - he did spend time abroad and found it helpful. There is something about being an actual foreigner that is rather freeing -- one's neurological foreign-ness recedes into the background. I think that also worked for our girl's father, who is not from the US originally. He has often commented that he would never have been able to achieve in his home country what he accomplished here.

@audball I like the earplugs idea, except that she needs to be able to hear the other information in the environment. Sometimes I wish she were at a school for the hearing impaired . . . in so many ways her challenges as a child with a significant auditory difference are similar to those of other hearing impaired children.

I think that you're right that our girl would love Japan . I should start looking for ways to get her there. Maybe I can get a teaching exchange appointment there. I hadn't been thinking about that, but of course I ought to be!

I will look into Pikmin. Our girl loves science and all things kawaii!

Liz Ditz said...

Thanks for pointing out Davidson to me -- it's on my list now.

Carol Greenburg (@aspieadvocate) spent time in Japan -- read her essay at The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism George Takei on My Mind.

Interview with Carol Greenburg also has some sensory insights.

Omniscient said...

Great Post. Keep up the good work on <a href="”>Dealing with Autism</a>.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

My eight grader was diagnosed with PDD/NOS. He no longer has an IEP. He struggles with getting to class on time because he has fine motor issues as well as sensory issues which delays him and prevents him from staying on task. His school has issued a two hour detention for being late to class too many times. I feel as if they are punishing him for being autistic. Am I wrong? Should I protest?

MothersVox said...

Hi Anonymous, Sorry that I have been away from the blog for a while and your question has gone unanswered until now.

Should you protest? Yes, but the bigger question here is why a young person with ASD doesn't have an IEP. With an IEP in place, your concerns can be addressed more readily. Why does he not have an IEP anymore? Can you get an IEP in place? The IEP is the tool for ensuring that his rights for reasonable accommodations as a student with a disability are met. Without an IEP, it is much more difficult to make the case that he is being punished for having a disability.

I would recommend that you get an IEP in place immediately, that includes strategies for helping him deal with sensory issues, or necessary support persons to help him with this.

I am very sorry to hear of this happening.