This story was sent in by a new addition to our writing team – Ms. Alexandra Peel – explaining her experience with a student named Benedict *.
I met Benedict* when he was 16 years old. He came to the college, where I work as a Learning Support Practitioner, to study art. Now before you go thinking that he was probably some kind of savant – he wasn’t. Benedict could draw and paint no better than the next person, in fact, he was worse. He actually had little if any artistic talent. But as far as Benedict was concerned, he was going to be a top graphic designer!
As is common in many individuals who are diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Benedict had accompanying learning difficulties; namely dyslexia and dyspraxia.
The first thing one noticed about Benedict was how handsome he is; he stands at around 5’ 8” and has extremely dark brown, almost black, hair that is cut short at the sides and back, and flops across his forehead at the front. His eyes are dark brown and he seems to have a permanent light tan. His smile is lovely and genuine and he is polite and friendly.
The next thing one notices is his odd gait; he walks with his toes turned in slightly and has a ‘floppy’, weak-kneed walk; an immediate indicator that he has a learning difficulty. Many of my colleagues and myself, have become adept at spotting a student with support needs in the first 10 to 15 minutes of seeing them; a person’s walk is incredibly revealing.
So I was assigned to Benedict, along with 6 other students with varying support needs (two more of whom were also ASD), and we got along really well. It is incredibly important that support staff and students can form a good working relationship, especially so with those diagnosed ASD; although it has to be made clear to the student; and repeated, that ‘we are not friends, we can be friendly but this is a working relationship’. Benedict made it clear that he regarded himself as having Asperger’s Syndrome, though he grudgingly agreed it was part of the Autistic Spectrum – Asperger’s Syndrome in the UK is regarded as the ‘lesser debilitating’.
Initially, Benedict got along well with his classmates, but over the course of 2 years he spent less and less time with ‘friends’. He could be seen tagging along the tail end of a group, or hanging around on the edges of small groups. His dyspraxia meant he was always knocking things over; paint, ink, water, canned drinks, sometimes across the desks onto other student’s artwork. Benedict took all the rebukes from them with a smile as he haphazardly cleaned up. He would not let me take notes for him when the teacher spoke, but as his writing was slow and large, he missed information when the tutors gave instructions – I would take surreptitious notes and if Benedict asked, he could use them. (A large part of Learning Support is based around trying to get the student to think and act for themselves, to become independent, after all, they will not have support workers once they leave the safe environment of an educational establishment.)
Benedict could go for weeks in a pleasant, half-vacant manner, and then it would all go wrong. Usually the trigger was an argument with his father the previous night, and absolutely nothing could get Benedict back on track, I could do nothing to induce him to work. For a few days all he would do was talk, talk, talk, about his dad and the state of their relationship. He would follow me during breaks and continue the conversation; he constantly demanded my attention which added to his withdrawal from classmates. Of course, as his Support Worker I listened, talked, made suggestions and listened some more. Then it would end as abruptly as it started, and he would be back to work.
Benedict was obsessed with getting a tattoo, every single opportunity was taken to talk about this tattoo; from the concept, to the design and where he was going to have it to which tattoo parlour he was going to get it done at. One day, whilst I was meant to be talking to another student outside, Benedict followed us out, and the one-sided tattoo conversation began – I timed him – he talked non-stop for 25 minutes. When I pointed this out to him, he merely gave me that knowing smile and then carried on.
Studying art is a more complex activity than most young people think, you need to not only be able to draw and paint, use Photoshop, create collages and prints etc. You must learn to appreciate the art of others, you must annotate all your own work, you must learn to ‘read’ a painting, and you need to be able to understand what the artist was thinking when he/she made the piece. Understanding how another person may be feeling or what they are thinking is a massive stumbling block for people with Autism/Asperger’s. When asked to describe a picture, Benedict did not understand the question, so I simplified it, I asked him to describe my wedding ring first. One would generally use words like, round, smooth, a circular shape with a hole in the centre, silver in colour, and so forth. He would say, “Well, it probably means something to you.” And I would say, “Just describe it, Benedict.” He then would say, “It’s probably very expensive.” My response; “What does it look like?” “It looks like it might…” “No, Benedict, just tell me what it is.” “It might be for a special occasion.” “Can you tell me what shape it is?” He would smile, “It’s round.” And that was before we even got to what a dead artist might have been thinking when conceiving their idea for a landscape or abstract painting.
Benedict’s Autism meant that he could not imagine what another person might be thinking. Most disagreements we had were about what I, as a Support Worker and artist myself, would say the reason for an artwork was. He said that maybe the artist was just painting a picture; the deeper meanings behind pictures were elusive to him. Another aspect of Benedict’s Autism was his intractable nature; when he had made his mind up about something it was nigh on impossible to change his mind; he viewed it as tenacity. Quite often he would give me a certain smile which meant, “You’re wrong.”
This inability to ‘bend’ or accept change, or try something new, caused terrible friction with his classmates and tutors alike, and for 2 years I stood between them and Ben, like a guardian and defence wall – for both sides.
Benedict completed his course; he gained a Merit for his Final Major Piece – a reinterpretation of the anime movie Spirited Away – created in Photoshop with manipulated images and photographs he had taken himself. He was really happy with his work and to have been successful and gained this grade.
So, he made it through college, it was time to take the next step. Benedict had found himself a little part-time job in his final months of study; he had diligently searched for something to do so that he might have some independent money. It was not in the arts, but he did get enough money for a tattoo – which he did not have done in the end – he decided to save up to buy CD’s of his favourite band – Tenacious D (an American comedy Rock duo led by actor Jack Black). Benedict’s easy-going nature meant that he had made one or two friends; real friends whom he was determined to keep in touch with.
Students with Autism can learn to adapt, even if only a little. Benedict learnt that I was not going to ‘mother’ him, that I expected him to work hard and that I was there to assist and enable his passage through college; not do the thinking or work for him. The main thing that parents, teachers and Support Workers have to provide is consistency, this enables the student to feel comfortable, when he/she feels comfortable in their environment and with those around them, they flourish. At our college, we are very focused on Equality and Diversity, and although many adjustments may be made to enable a student with Autism to access education, this does not mean that expectations are not the same as for mainstream students. Knowing that they are being treated the same is a great lesson to learn, and knowing they have achieved on their own merits at the same level as their classmates is a huge boost to confidence.
*student name has been changed for privacy.
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About the author:
This article was sent into School For Autism Blog by Ms. Alexandra Peel, who is a Learning Support Practitioner at Wirral Metropolitan College, Wirral for the past 12 years. During her career, she has come across multiple students in her college who were at different stages of autism. This story is based on one of those experiences.
As a freelancer writer, Ms. Peel writes short stories, many of which have been published as well on her blog. Visit Ms. Alexandra Peel’s blog.
Want to read more?
- Niam Jain – A Boy With Talent
- How An Autistic Classmate Changed My Life
- Autism – Understanding the Basics
About the School For Autism, Hyderabad
School For Autism is based in Hyderabad and provides therapy to people with autism, irrespective of age. To know more about the school, click here.