We all have special needs: teaching autism in english class

As a high school English teacher, the importance of using clear, precise, and respectful language is something I remind my students of all the time.  Before my grade 9s (ENG1D) begin their book club unit on the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I took the time in class to pause and think about the language we use when discussing the book’s protagonist, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome named Christopher Boone. This was one specific goal, but in general, I wanted to raise some awareness in my class about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The previous class, I had given the students a handout with background information about ASD and Asperger’s from Autism Canada, with a few questions to answer for homework. My random fact of the day, written on the board, was:

The WHO estimates that the rate of autism is growing at 14% around the world

We discussed why this statistic may be on the rise, and my students arrived on their own at the debate around the extent to which there is a higher incidence of autism or a higher diagnosis rate because of increased awareness of the disease.

Before the students came in, I had stuck one cue card on each of their desks with one of the following words written on each card:

Spazzer, Retard, Stupid, Mentally disabled, Autistic, Person with autism, Person with an ASD, Person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s kid, Different, Special needs, Crip, Mong, Idiot savant, Slow, Different, Special , Sped, Handicapped , Weird, Idiot , Person with special needs

Some of these words were from the novel; some were from the schoolyard. I then drew a line on the board and asked the kids to quietly come up and stick their cue card somewhere along the line.

Offensive _________________________ Respectful

This led to a wonderfully productive discussion about the disorder, and about our use of language. As we discussed the words, I asked the students if they wanted to change the placement of any of the cue cards. I asked them questions like:

  • Which would be the most appropriate words to use when talking about Christopher?
  • Why is the language  we use so important when discussing these issues?
  • Why do some words that were OK at one time now offend people? Are there any words that used to be offensive but are now OK? (This led us to a discussion of words like “queer” and “the N word”)
  • Can a word be neutral in some contexts and offensive in others?

Students were eager to share their perspectives, including several stories about their own “special needs” and about friends or relatives who have autism.

I read a passage from the Chapter 71 of the novel:

All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs… (Haddon 54).

We discussed the idea that everyone has special needs even if they don’t have Special Needs – and discussed the phrase “Normal is a dryer setting” – (also the title of a wonderful blog by Amy Wink Krebs,  a writer whose son has autism).

We ended up with all of the words beginning with “person” on one end of the line and drove home the point that a person with any sort of disability is a person first, and that they should not be labeled or defined by their disability. One student even suggested that I write “Christopher” beside “Respectful” because, indeed, the most respectful way to address a person with autism is by his or her name.

After quickly taking up the homework questions, the next activity delved into the language of the book, but still with an eye to empathizing with the challenges that everyday life poses to people with autism. I asked them how they would describe the author’s writing style (detailed, straightforward, simple words etc.).  I read an amusing passage from chapter 29 about why Christopher does not like metaphors:

The word “metaphor” means carrying something from one place to another . . . and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word “metaphor” is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining and apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about (Haddon 18-19).

We reviewed what similes and metaphors are, and I then gave them a handout about figurative speech:

An idiom is a word or phrase that is used figuratively in common speech to mean something other than its literal definition. Christopher has a hard time understanding idioms. Picture the idiom in its literal translation – this mental image might seem funny, but it could confuse and overwhelm a person with autism.

I began with the example, “I saw the school play last night. It was sick!”  I grossed them out by explaining that this could mean that everyone was sneezing all over each other and that the actors threw up on the audience. This led to a really cute impromptu comedy routine between me and the students, as they shouted out clarifications like, “No, I mean it was the bomb!” “The roof was on fire!” etc. For the rest of the period, they worked on creating straightforward, literal and direct statements out of commonly used idioms (here is the “Curious Idioms” handout).

It was a very successful lesson and I hope that today, as I observe my students’ book club discussions, I’ll see them thinking about their language and paying closer attention to the language of the text.

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2 responses to “We all have special needs: teaching autism in english class

  1. Great post about language and its impact – and what a great book! Incidentally, I got the phrase “Normal is a Dryer Setting” from another great book about autism called “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon, set in 2030 or so, about a high-functioning man w/autism who must decide whether or not to undergo a procedure to make him “normal.” I highly recommend it! YOU are a great teacher. Keep opening those minds!

  2. I love this post!! Great job.

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