Who’s Crazy?

posted in: Life, Newsletter | 0

Paintings by Sean O’Neill  and Cher Shaffer


I have two sons with Dyslexia and ADD, and I have many symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder myself, so I have always been interested in learning as much as I can about the disorders. When I was teaching I took some useful classes in working with students with learning differences. The best of these was a summer workshop at Landmark College in Vermont. Landmark is a college for students with severe learning problems, and they have explored ways to help intelligent kids overcome impediments to learning, so it was useful for high school teachers like me to learn from them.

The biggest lesson I took from that summer is that people with dyslexia  have reduced activity in the part of the brain that retrieves information. Imagine the brain as a large desk top with piles of information on it. An average person has decent luck organizing the information in ways that make it relatively easy to retrieve the information they are seeking. For a dyslexic the desktop is so cluttered and disorganized that retrieval is difficult. A strategy I learned at Landmark is to break a large writing project into short steps. Students brainstorm their ideas onto sticky notes and then move these ideas around on a large sheet of paper until they are organized into a coherent essay outline. Then as students are ready to write a draft, they have a roadmap to guide them, rather than relying on memory to hold all their thoughts as they write.

Recently I was talking with someone knowledgeable about the Autism Spectrum and how we are learning more about it.  She mentioned, as if this were common knowledge, that dyslexia is on the spectrum. I was surprised to hear this news, but it made some sense. Both are brain-centered conditions that impede progress. As I read the research, however,  it appears that while those with Autism might also have Dyslexia, the two are different in the ways they work in the brain. So someone with Dyslexia isn’t necessarily on the Spectrum.

I am fascinated by the research on Autism, and especially Asberger’s. I knew very little about Asberger’s until recently, even though it is now obvious that I have known several people in my life on the spectrum, but at the time I wondered what their problem was, and not necessarily in a kind way.

I had a boyfriend in NYC who was a genius, but he operated by his own rules of social behavior. When we were together he was usually reading and ignoring my witty conversation. He dressed like a Mormon missionary in the wild sixties while I wore gypsy attire. He had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell, but had spent little time in Ithaca. When we dated, he was a student at Albert Einstein Medical School, yet he never attended classes and still made straight A’s. He is a psychiatrist today. He had been diagnosed with Asberger’s, and even though I was in awe of him, I found his behavior really annoying and hard to comprehend. I still had no idea what Asberger’s was.

A student I taught at Country Day had no diagnosis, but had some similarities with Leon. Toby was very articulate, but (unlike Leon) had difficulty getting his ideas on paper. His social skills were on a par with Leon’s, though. In my Creative Writing Class, we took a field trip every Friday, eating at an out of the way restaurant in a part of town the students did not know. They were then to write a story based somehow on the trip.Toby’s mother came to see me and thank me. It seems that this class was the closest thing to a social life Toby had ever had. He had never had a play date or been invited to a child’s birthday party. Going out to lunch and sitting at a table with other students was his first social experience. He couldn’t joke and talk with the others, but they tolerated him and let him sit with them. He probably was on the spectrum, but we teachers had no knowledge to help us with him. I’m not sure if even his parents understood what was going on with him.

I just read an excellent novel called Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern, who is the mother of an autistic child. The central characters are a mother and her autistic son. Several other characters are on the spectrum, and McGovern does an excellent job helping the reader understand that autism is indeed a spectrum, and that the symptoms and behaviors are as varied as the treatments. This relatively recent book made me realize that we have learned more than we used to about the autism spectrum.

I keep thinking about the novel and asking myself why I am so struck by it. The characters all have their own issues, whether or not they are autistic, and find that they make missteps and wrong judgements, driven by motivations they cannot understand.

As we learn more about The Spectrum and what that means, I think we will all find ourselves  on it. Autism indicates a condition where people have a hard time reading social cues, tend to fixate on things, and are socially awkward. At one time or another, all of us have probably found ourselves on this scale. The first step we all should make is to let go of expectations about how we or those we know “are supposed to” behave and what is “normal.”We are all doing the best we can with what we are given and deserve some understanding and compassion from those around us.