Initially I was going to write about PTSD today, about how autistic people can experience trauma. But, since I now actually care about my recovery, I’ve decided against it. It’s not worth my time to rake over things outside of a professional context, particularly while I’m still waiting to start recovery. It’s ok to avoid triggering myself all the time. When I was 21, I used to think that any art that didn’t make me feel like I was dying inside wasn’t very good at all. Not a great approach to take.
Instead, I’m going to talk about different subjects I’ve taught, expanding on what I wrote about last week.
There’s a recurrent view that I’m finding with most other autistics, that the fact of having to go into a school was such a huge hurdle to our capacity to learn. Humans are exhausting and I found myself from an early age trying desperately to do public relations for your own safety. Instead of learning, many of us just had to deal with the exhausting feat of being a human in public. This is particularly evident for autistics assigned female at birth. Laura James writes about this beautifully in her memoir Odd Girl Out. I’ve read it, so should you. Buy it from somewhere that pays their taxes.
Like I said before, I did nearly all of my actual learning at home, following my own interests. Good, says the strawman, you can still do all your learning on your own, right? Ironically, the need to go to school exhausted me so much that I just ended up not learning very much at all, for years. At one point, when I was 15, I considered dropping out of school. I thought I wasn’t learning anything (that was true, I wasn’t). The truth was, I was depressed and quite seriously so. But to admit to that, even to myself, would have been an admission of failure. I would never have asked for help. So, I suffered alone. Well, not totally alone. I had even more meltdowns than usual, which my mother and brother had to deal with – my dog was the only person who actually could.
In the end, I did manage to finish school. By hook and by crook, it has to be said. I somehow managed to pass VWO with a 3.5 averaged up to a 4/10. My maths was poor. Economics also wasn’t a great success. But I did well enough on my other courses to get the grades I needed to go to university.
I still have nightmares of having failed my exams, though, at the time, I was thinking about going to go to drama school and I had a detached attitude to it all. Like I said in the Autistic Coding on Stage blogs, drama school and everything surrounding it was going to be my ticket out of what I’d now call being neurodivergent. I’d no longer just be a weird, fat, traumatised failure; I’d now be a weird, fat, traumatised failure who’s been on TV. If I couldn’t live in a way that actually made me feel happy to be alive, then at least I could use that pain for a paycheck. I bought in.
I was part of the first group of Steiner school educated young people taking general exams in the country. I did mine at 18. There was a huge dip in my capacity to function productively around exams. I didn’t really study. I didn’t really know how. I kind of clocked out. My brain was just over-full and, besides, I was trying to remake my personality from the ground up. It was my one shot at being a human being, rather than, well, this.
Despite people’s best intentions at school, there was no real policy on how to support an autistic young person who has a phobia about the word ‘autism’ being used around him. Sure, my school’s size was manageable and if I’d gone to a large comprehensive, I’d been bullied to death. But I never got (or asked for) extra time or anything that I now say to my students they always deserve.
Steiner school, as valuable as it was in other ways, still exhausted me. I hated a lot of the creative subjects since my dyspraxia meant that I couldn’t get any pleasure from engaging with these courses. My hands weren’t able to I would have gotten a lot more work done (and been a lot happier) had I been allowed to home-educate myself.
Other autistics end up in similar situations. I’ve met no autistic yet whose school career has gone entirely smoothly. If it has, chances are, they’re privileged in other ways.
In order to not totally get you down, I’m going to list off some subjects that I’ve taught and how, as an autistic teacher, I see each of them, starting with the one that gave me the most grief:
Yes. I’m a dyscalculic teaching maths. I’m as surprised as you are. Maths horrified me, and it still does. But here we are. Even on Friday, I really struggled with calculating different time zones, trying to arrange a zoom call with someone in a country that doesn’t use daylight saving time. We ended up having to cancel the session because my brain wasn’t capable of managing the complexities of those very basic calculations. I’ve already frequently spoken about stress surrounding maths in secondary school that stopped me from managing many other things at that time. It was a combination of being genuinely dyscalculic, struggling with depth perception and good-old fashioned fear.
Now, though, I am working with 5 young people with learning disabilities. Some of them are autistic, some not. It has been quite tricky, especially at the start, to work with student who are learning disabled but not otherwise neurodivergent. In October, for a few weeks, I taught NTP maths and English to year 4 students in a general provision primary school in Bristol. That worked, though it was still pretty exhausting – I’ve written about that before. I would have liked to continue if the school building, the neurotypical expectations of me and the commute weren’t prohibitively exhausting. I kept on going with the online work, though. That’s been very successful.
After a while, I got into a great rhythm with the students. They’re actually looking forward to the lessons and their parents are very happy. I no longer feel like I’m having to excuse my lack of mathematical skills. In fact, because I’m focusing on it so much, I’m finding it pretty easy to teach now – more so than the English in fact! There are very specific skills that the students need practice in. I have recently introduced multiplication AND division, which we’ll now need to consolidate. When I was a child, I was so stultified with fear that my usually lightning-fast thinking slowed down so much when it came to maths, that I just couldn’t do it, especially not in front of other 6 year olds who found me obnoxious already, looking for something to tear me down with. Now, for the first time, I feel like I’m grasping maths in the way that I would have had I been allowed to self-educate.
I started teaching Dutch in the Netherlands, in Landsmeer (again, shout out to Petra). At the time, my benzo-addled brain may have made me look pensive and contemplative to the students, rather than just slow. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I remember being ok at it? I think? I at least knew how to help with the vagaries of Dutch spelling.
As I moved to the UK, I didn’t start teaching Dutch language for years, not until 2017. It was strange, I didn’t really feel I could teach it as confidently as I could English, German or French – precisely because it was my native language. I also am only now slowly unpacking my own revulsion at the Dutch language (specifically words for body parts. Vile!) and what that may have meant for me as a younger person.
For a while, in 2020, Dutch oddly became the language I taught most! I was many people’s lockdown project and I’ve been happy to (I continue to provide that service). It was strange. As it, as a language, usually is not an academic or professional necessity, the tuition tends not to be as long-lasting as other languages. I’ve had a few students simply give up when work piles up, though there’s a couple who are still going (shout out to Tom!)
I’ve taught English most of all. I’m not talking here about EFL, or English as a Foreign or Additional Language – that was more of a day-job thing and has a lot more in common with my approach to modern foreign languages. I’m talking here about the teaching of English language and literature. It was the first subject I taught, nearly 10 years ago now, back in Amsterdam. Of course, it’s what I did my degree in, so I’d have a strong connection to it.
Since I started to teach myself English in the 1990s, mostly through films and video games, I have found that English sticks on me like glue. It feels a lot more natural to speak the language than Dutch does – and to write it, too! I had to write an email in Dutch last week, I was struggling, frankly. Written Dutch, coming out of my hands, always seems both overly formal and unpleasantly brusque. But English is smooth and intuitive for me. Always has been.
Now, since I’d basically taught myself the language as a child, most of what I did in school was show off what I already knew. It was my best subject, together with History (obsessed with the past) and Geography (obsessed with the world). In order to share that knowledge, what I needed to learn most of all was to listen. As a teacher teaching English, everything is about the student’s own engagement with language. How does it feel to read this or that? What does a poem or a play mean to them?
It helps to be obvious, too. If KS4 students tell me they struggle with Shakespeare, I tell them that they should. It’s written in a different language. Plus the 9-1 GCSE revisions implemented by Michael Gove during the coalition government have the obvious goal of reducing the number of people qualified to go to university. If you cut off disabled, non-white and non-wealthy students by building your curriculum around dead white men – hey, presto! You’ve just drastically lowered your yearly university intake.
It pays for the student to know that you think the GCSE curriculum is bullshit. Well, maybe not bullshit – I fucking love Shakespeare and Dickens. But the way it is implemented is actually nonsense. Asking students to memorise entire swathes of Shakespeare is enough to put them off it for life. The most cynical part is that private schools, which still have an outsized representation at prestigious universities, can provide the social context, personalised support and rarified environment where students would learn these writers and gain a passing understanding of early modern English. And even if not, they can just throw money at the problem.
My approach is to show that I understand that the GCSE curriculum does not test the student’s actual capacity as a writer or reader, but that it’s a set of hoops to jump through. It has nothing to do with their intelligence or capabilities.
For English Language, even before the pandemic, most students struggled to name what an adverb is. That’s not because teachers in this country are uniquely bad, far from it! It’s that the syllabus leans a lot heavier on literature than on language – I think this a good thing, actually. Far more than in Holland, students learn to love and celebrate reading and writing and motivated to express themselves from a very early age. In Holland, the curriculum is a lot more about the technical construction of the language.
That means that by age 12, you’ll have a damn good idea of what an adjective is and how to pronounce it (the majority of GCSE candidates I tutor still say Adjective). However, the problem is that Modern Foreign Languages are an afterthought in the UK. Understandable, especially in a country with an unhealthy sense of its own linguistic superiority. But not great if you want students to understand how language is used.
English spelling is just dumb. There are no rules, really. The language is a cobbled-together mess. I might be able to make it work for me, but that doesn’t mean that others will. The way to get to the correct spelling is just to try, fail and try again. Reading a lot will help. Continued exposure does a lot of heavy lifting. I once taught an amazing blue-haired French boy when I taught EFL in Oxford, who desperately wanted to know: “Ok, but what are the rules? The rules I do not know!” I had to say: “Sorry! There aren’t any, really. There’s a few, but there’s way more exceptions than anything else.” He groaned in frustration and went back to drawing gemstones in his notebook. Yes, I’m 99% sure he was autistic.
Being autistic and having a natural understanding of language and reading is a luxury. Not all of us do. Some of us really struggle with the written word. I’ve written about dyslexia before, so I won’t go into it again here, but the point is to understand that dyslexia, as we understand it, is a neurodivergence and, therefore, part of what used to be called the autistic spectrum (though this is still highly controversial). I always ask students about their SEND status at the start of their tuition. I never force students to read out loud if they don’t want to. I know what it’s like to be singled out like that and I don’t want to push it onto anyone if I can help it.
Teaching English, whether to someone 7 years old, at GCSE, A-level or in their nineties, what it comes back to is that I have to sit back, listen and learn to speak the student’s language. I don’t have to be liked, but I don’t like being an authority figure either. I don’t want to be a teacher, I want to be a coach. I want to work with the student, rather than impose things onto them.
For something as vital as the English language, my job is to work with what the student gives me. That’s the most rewarding part. You can’t do it halfway – a good English lesson engages the brain, the mind and the heart. The student’s personality is a vital part of a successful English lesson. Especially when a student already struggles with confidence in this particular subject, I always validate the student’s strengths and struggles.
Teaching English autistically is, especially with fellow autistics, to allow their associative brains to make connections and support from the sidelines. The student may think of something ostensibly unrelated and bring it into the conversation. This would lead many neurotypical teachers to break out the behaviour management strategies. Not so. Associations are an autistic student’s method of engaging with the topic. I always follow the student and where their minds lead them. I cannot impose my syllabus onto them, that would ossify their connection-seeking brains. Instead, I link back, associate in return, with the same genuine joy they feel when they bring in the topics that they love. The fact I’m doing so with genuine interest and care, as autistic as they are, has never yet gone awry.
More on subject-specific tactics at a future date!
Jack is an autistic father of one who has recently come off a year-long marathon of daily posts, documenting his and his husband’s lives with their adopted son. Recently, as if he didn’t have enough to do already, he’s starting to do education as well. As he’s better at the internet than I am, he’s doing that on Instagram, rather than a blog. Have a read, swipe and send all the hearts his way.
See you all next week!
Lots of love,