Fitting into Society

The word ‘autistic’ has often been seen as derogatory – referring to children and adults who do not easily fit with society’s idea of normal. An article by Alice Thomson (Times, 24.11), focusing on Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, ‘The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention’, attacks this out-dated view.

Thomson’s article cites Greta Thunberg, saying that her Asperger’s syndrome was ‘her superpower, rather than something negative.’ Having recently watched The Queens Gambit on TV (Netflix), it did not occur to me that this ‘pattern seeking’ character might fall into this particular category. But think about it: how many of us could visualise the changing patterns made by chess moves across the ceiling, as she did? Was it Asperger’s syndrome that really benefitted those chess-playing skills – to make her a world champion? Fascinating! Baron-Cohen further argues that autistic people have been crucial to our creative and cultural history since civilisation began, and that without them, inventions, from the wheel to digital technology, may not have happened.

Baron-Cohen runs the Autism Research Centre, and believes that about 700,000 people in Britain have this condition. He also asserts that society is missing out on the strengths that such people possess because education focuses only on their weaknesses. He also argues that about 25% of children don’t fit with the way schools teach. We need to think about this: one quarter is a large fraction of children who, potentially are not succeeding as well as they might.

Through my own educational books, I have written often about styles of learning that focused on sensory input: mainly auditory, visual, tactile, or social – or a combination. Baron-Cohen’s book invites us to see people as either ‘systemisers’ or ‘empathisers’: the former being those who recognise patterns, have good memories, or pay more attention than usual to detail (the chess player) – while the latter group are good at social relationships, communication and imagining the thoughts and intentions of others.

I have always thought of autism as along a spectrum – from mild to severe – arising from the term ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’. It is unfortunate that autism has been connected to ‘disability’ since it was first identified in 1943. As a teacher, I too have been guilty of linking children’s differences – with disabilities or disorders. We live and learn.

Baron-Cohen explains that some ‘systemisers’ may not learn well from the traditional teacher standing at the front of the class, communicating through talk, with a change of focus every thirty minutes when the bell rings. Such children may learn far better from doing and exploring patterns: from nature, history or geography. Baron-Cohen gives us an example of the bone flute: that someone had to first ask the ‘what if’ question – then to seek the ‘if and then’ pattern that answered it.

I am reminded of the Jeremy Vine Radio 2 series, ‘What Makes Us Human,’ in which people were asked to respond to this particular question. Sinead Burke is 3 feet, 5 inches tall, with the condition known as dwarfism. She too has challenged the assumption that people are either normal or not. Her response to the ‘human’ question focused on diversity and difference as part of being normal.

As an ex-teacher of children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) it worries me that children are often placed in boxes outside that of so-called ‘normality’. What is normal? Is it having average intelligence? Is it doing things that the majority of people do? Whatever it is, individual differences, however they are demonstrated, must be celebrated – rather than identified as some sort of weakness. People who are different, have strengths that are often difficult to identify. That estimated quarter of children who ‘don’t fit’ must not be allowed to fail – simply because education cannot easily adapt to their needs. It is up to schools to change.

What matters is that all children are enabled to find an outlet for their unique ability and ways of thinking – for the sake of their mental health. Society will also benefit from exploring all our human differences. Normality is for everyone! We all fit in.

PS. I am the author of thirteen books for staff in schools (Routledge): plus five educational books for parents. Knowledge is strength – and strength is power! So knowing WHAT and HOW children learn year by year (from my books) is the key to unlocking every child’s potential. If your child has SEND, Book 1: Support Your Child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: a guide for parents, offers all you need to know about the SEND system. Books 2 to 5: Support Your Child At The Early Years Foundation Stage, At Key Stage One, At Key Stage Two and At Key Stage Three, also offer a comprehensive outline of WHAT should be taught, WHEN and HOW. They are available from Lulu or Amazon, written by Sylvia Edwards.

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