October 12, 2009

Today we did further work on citizenship. Harry and Adam were assigned to bringing me around the school and introducing me to five or six administrative figures, then they were told to show me their three favorite places in the school. Even after four weeks, the school is a maze to me and I was impressed by how well they navigated the place they clearly see not just as school, but as a second home. I was also impressed with how many people they were familiar with as we walked the halls. Virtually every adult greeted Harry and Adam by name and many students exchanged hellos as well. The exercise was aimed at working on the boys’ communication methods as members of their community.

Those for whom this task would not be ideal did other appropriate exercises that worked on their citizenship skills. Archie is has difficulties with language, though he is very high-spirited, quick and energetic, and completely coordinated on the computer. His favorite website is www.bbc.co.uk – he checks the weather, stock markets, and loves watching videos of politicians. We watched a speech, by the Conservative Party leader David Cameron, about six times until someone, evidently not a fan, made him switch it off.

Noticing that Archie was especially adroit in running the various programs on the BBC website, I asked Mark if Archie was visiting this site because it was a citizenship activity or whether this was a common occurrence. Mark answered that yes – it is practically the only site he visits. He will report back in sign language to the rest of the class, passing on the weather, news, etc. “Archie!” Mark asked, “How is the money – is it up or down?” A few clicks later, Archie made a loud “d” sound with his sign for down and began running around the room, upset by the bleak financial outlook.

During my first session at Riverside, I noticed that the instructors in the classroom have the habit of mimicking some of the students’ quirks, tone, and behaviors. Archie, for instance, towards the end of the afternoon will starting saying “Ar-chie!” and make the sign for home (a tepee motion with his fingertips) and, distressed, will slap his face with his hands. Often, David and Mark, who are the class clowns more so than any student, will mimic this motion while simultaneously comforting Archie, signing “home is soon.”

Their mimicry is clearly not insidious – Archie’s and other students’ stress is alleviated in these moments, as they are too focused on laughing and, of course, involuntary behaviors are never mimicked – but I wondered at the example they are setting. I hinted at the humor in the classroom in a previous blog, but I avoided describing the degree to which mimicry is a part of it. Frankly, I was quite uncomfortable with this type of interaction at first.

Yes, humor is a good social skill to teach to adolescents who have Autism, but how is humor received when it is directed at the child? After having been in the classroom for several weeks now, however, my thoughts on the subject have definitely changed. I know that I am technically present as a student volunteer, but I’m clearly foremost an observer, learning both from the pupils and the instructors. I accepted very early in my time at Riverside that some things were bound to shock me, put me at unease, and I would doubtless have many questions, regarding method especially. I have come to accept that this imitation is a prompt for social “normalcy.”

I know the dangers of using that word – and “average” is often a better substitute – but by “normal” I simply mean the common patterns of social interaction. For instance, I will make fun of my roommate’s quirk of folding her dirty laundry, among other things, without thinking twice. Most importantly, humor is a common form of expression among equals. I have written on the comfort in the classroom and the intuition of pupils and instructors alike – perhaps this form of humor is an extension of those feelings of comfort and equality. Oversensitivity can be a fault.

In the world beyond Riverside, if a pupil is on the receiving end of ridicule or mockery, it doubtless will not be executed as lovingly as it is by David and Mark, but at least it will not be unknown. The students have learned to laugh at themselves and their classmates’ quirks as any close-knit group does. This self-effacement in itself is a social skill from which, I’m sure, mainstream students could also benefit. These students are nearly adults and well aware of their differences – David and Mark will often ask the class if I should get a “tablet” to calm down (many of the pupils take sedatives several times throughout the day) – and they will protest with laughter that, “Mary doesn’t need a tablet!” Week after week, I am amazed by their incredible attitudes as they are dealing with issues much more complex than the average sophomore in high school, issues that I am trying hard to understand.