I can honestly say that Twitter has been the best source of support, friendship, professional development and interesting dialogue. Online, over the phone and face to face whenever I have met people I tweet with. The connections I have developed over that time have given me and our school opportunities we could never have dreamed of, much less afforded.
Last week I got the opportunity to meet someone I have been in contact with on Twitter for all of that time. One of the first people I connected with actually. I remember thinking his tweets were intelligent and immediately realising when I read his Twitter name and bio that he had been diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult. Something a lot of people apparently miss. That surprised me but I suppose perhaps it shouldn't. Lots of people make the mistake of making life online two dimensional. We also like lots of the same music and tend to find the same things funny.
Over the years in several schools I have been special needs co ordinator, including in my current school. The issue of labelling or not labelling children with a medical diagnosis has constantly cropped up. The whole thing is a minefield for parents who often don't know what to do for the best and actually just want their child to be happy and valued at school and through their life. It's also a hot potato for teachers as we are always mindful that we are not medical professionals but we want to help the child and family as much as we can. Over the years I have come to use the term 'fixed thinking' when talking about behaviours that parents or medical professionals might feel need labelling with the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder. After all, who are any of us to say that a person's thoughts are disordered? What order are they supposed to go in? My friend that I met last week has an IQ of 154, marking him out as incredibly gifted. Presumably the order his thoughts choose to go in contributes to that intelligence.
'Arseburgers' as he calls himself on Twitter, put this very simply. He explained that it means very little to him what the label is. Hence his choice of Twitter name. It has helped him very much to learn about the behaviours associated with the diagnosis though. The way he described it to me was that he has to deal with a lot of extra peripheral stimulation. Things I may tune out. The colour of a passer by's coat, a car horn, someone else's tone of voice in a conversation over the road, he finds difficult to tune out. This can become over stimulating, exhausting and stressful. Over time he has developed the ability to filter out a lot of this peripheral matter. There are also strategies that help him. He has lots of sets of pretty much the same outfit for example, cutting out the need to choose what to wear in the morning and limiting extra brain activity on matters that don't need thinking about.
As we talked about this it became really clear to me for the first time after all these years as a teacher why children cope with some of this peripheral stuff better at school. When parents have asked me that question, and I've been asked it a heck of a lot, I usually answer that school is more structured. But it's more than that. The innate culture of school is all about cutting down periphery noise and colour. As well as creating opportunities for supported active engagement and risk taking when learning. Filtering for those too young to filter. School looks as expected, sounds as expected and smells as expected, every day. Except at Christmas, and we wonder why some children struggle with that! In my school we favour quite traditional methods and children have the same teacher for two years. It's quiet, it's calm and they know how the adult is going to speak to them and be, without having to think about it at all. When I described that my friend said that is 'a luxury' to anyone that thinks as he does.
School was not as positive an experience for him. There was obviously a lack of understanding about his thinking and he was probably far more intelligent than most of his teachers. Then there were the misunderstandings. For example he was caned three times for refusing to call his teacher by her double barrelled surname. He described his confusion over this 'I have one surname, everyone I had ever met had one surname. I couldn't process the fact she had two surnames.' After three encounters with the cane an adult eventually took the trouble to explain why she had two surnames and the issue was resolved. I'm glad this wouldn't happen to a child now. However the misunderstandings still do. A parent recently told me that a pupil of ours thought all of the children at a holiday club they went to knew one another already. The reasoning behind that was that they were talking to one another and knew one another's names. They were wearing name labels. We don't know always where there are misunderstandings because the pupils don't know they are misunderstandings. That's just how they think.
Professionally I have learned as much from non educationalists on Twitter as I have from educationalists. Sometimes a non school perspective really helps, particularly as I have never really left school!
And so to the title of this post. How pupils think isn't always a barrier and is often a huge opportunity. My friend is extremely successful and has had jobs most people, including myself, would admire. Not many of us have a list of IMDb credits lets just say! A parent recently showed me a photo of a chair her 9 year old had built out of scrap wood found in Grandad's shed. It could have been the work of a skilled carpenter. I often encourage parents to embrace the opportunities at the same time as navigating the barriers. The way the child thinks and the way we react shapes who they are. We really need to spend time thinking about that and planning our behaviour as adults.