Check it Out! A 3rd Grade Autism Reading List
Good afternoon. My name is James Williams. I have autism.
Who are you?
Some of you are workers in a school. Some of you are occupational therapists. Some of you are speech therapists. Some of you are administrators. Most of you are teachers. But whatever your job is, you are all school professionals.
Some of you are individuals with autism. You must live in a world where the majority of the people you are with are not autistic, and understand the world differently.
Some of you are parents of autistic child. You must raise children who behave differently than most children, and who often act in mysterious ways.
Almost every one of you who is a teacher has chosen your profession. You are not required to be teachers. But you went to school, and got your certification because you chose to be a teacher.
However, your students are required to learn. You can leave teaching whenever you want. But your students cannot leave learning whenever they want.
This double standard is the basis of public education. You can coerce, cajole, coax, persuade—but you have the power. You tell them they’re going to do a report on France, and they have to do it. You assign pairs and announce that they must draw a diagram of the Battle of Yorktown, and they have to work together.
When you were in school getting your certification, you learned “tried and true” methods that enable you to effectively teach your lessons to your students, and to get your students motivated to learn. When you became a teacher, you used those methods that you learned in graduate school. And most of the time, they worked.
And then, the child with autism comes into your class. You learn he has autism, but you don’t necessarily know what autism is. And your “tried and true” methods that worked for most of your other students don’t work with this student.
Consider the following examples.
In the preschool and kindergarten level, it is taken for granted that children enjoy being with each other than being alone. It is also taken for granted that children need to get involved in the lessons you teach them. They cannot be passive listeners or else they will get bored.
At a preschool I observed, the teacher and the preschool assistants would often swoop down on any student who was alone for longer than a few minutes. During circle time, the teacher got the kids involved in her discussions. She asked them questions, and would allow them to talk about how they related to the stories she would tell at story time. She also would introduce a lot of movement games to the kids, which got their bodies moving as they ran in place or danced the Hokey Pokey.
I am now taking a Child Development class, and the child development teacher described why these methods work: “Children have a need to feel like they are special and are individuals.” This same teacher explained to me the assumptions of teaching preschool and kindergarten that I mentioned above.
Ironically, while children have a need to feel they are individuals, a child eventually learns in school that that he cannot be an individual.
While observing at the preschool, I sat next to a group of psychology students who had also come to observe. They had to fill a checklist of questions on a clipboard that they were required to answer about child psychology. One of the questions on that list was, “Do the [preschool] children prefer playing alone or with each other?” The answer the students wrote on their sheets was, “With each other.”
Teachers take these ideas very seriously. They integrate this social desire into their curriculum. Since children like to play with each other, it is argued that they will enjoy completing educational assignments with each other. When the time comes to write a report, children aren’t always allowed to write it alone. Teachers divide their classes into groups of three, four, or five and ask them to write their reports together. Pairs are assigned by teachers. The children sometimes can choose who they work with, but other times they cannot. All of this is done based on three beliefs: children like to work with each other, children learn better when they are working with each other, and children need to learn how to work with each other.
This method is used by teachers all over the world. Yet that approach—that “tried and true” approach—often fails with autistic children. Why is that?
Because while neurotypical children like being with other kids, and know how to interact with their peers, most autistic children do not. This is often because at one time they tried to play with kids their age but were rejected so many times that they stopped trying, and do not want to be rejected any more. Thus, they wish to be left alone.
As a preschool teacher, when you try to use social interaction as a tool to entice an autistic child, by talking to them and addressing them by name, the autistic child does not become motivated to get involved. In preschool, he sees you the way Ginger Rogers initially sees Fred Astaire in “The Gay Divorcee,” and tries to get away from you.
And what do you do? You do what you’re programmed to do—you try to interact with him even more as he tries to get away from you. And what does he do? He tries to get away from you even more. Your tried and true teaching methods add fuel to the fire.
In later grades, the approach of using social interaction to stimulate learning, by asking children to work with each other, adds more fuel to the fire. You assume, as is the case with neurotypical individuals, that an autistic child knows how to interact with other kids without being socially rejected. The fact is, however, is that other children will not accept you because you want them to.
You have to have a specific knowledge of social skills that enable you to interact with kids, and it’s very specific to each group or clique. But there’s rarely a middle ground. You either know “the rules” or you don’t, and some children don’t give you a second chance. If you’re weird now, you’re always weird to them.
So the autistic child in your class does not learn better when he is with other kids. He’s getting teased, and the kids he works with refuse to let him participate. He is learning less.
Then you learn that this is happening. What do you do?
Some teachers would enable the child to work with another group. Other teachers might let the autistic child work alone. But a third group of teachers believe that they should partner the autistic kid with the bullies that tease him. Then there will be opportunities for the autistic child to make up with the bullies.
In reality, that does not always happen. Bullies want to bully. They don’t want to make up. So the autistic child often gets teased even more, since the teacher effectively created more opportunities for the child to get teased. The Isolation Cabin works for the Parent Trap. It does not work for the Autistic Parent Trap.
And sometimes, the teacher claims that the teasing the autistic child is suffering is their misperception. Instead of teasing, it is believed that the children are, in reality, just joking in good humor.
But why is it so hard for autistic individuals to learn social skills and interact with their peers? That’s because those rules are not created by adult logic—the logic that is understood by teachers, who are adults, and who live under that logic. They are created by kid logic—and kid logic is illogical compared to adult logic. Yet it is kid logic, in the social world, that determines who is popular and who is the freak. Autistic kids cannot understand that “kid logic” due to their social delays. And if you cannot understand that logic, you cannot understand social skills. This is also why being prompted by a social worker and scripted often fails—because the scripts are not being written by kids and their logic, but by adults who don’t understand the kid logic of social rules.
I’ve been volunteering at a daycare for over a year. Every Tuesday and Friday four kindergarten-aged girls come at the daycare for an hour. One day, three of them introduced me to their “group hug.”
What is their group hug?
Basically, you say to each other at the same time, “I hate you!” and then you hug.
I assume that in that group, children who did not do the group hug properly would be thought of as weirdos.
Why this sarcasm is essential is beyond me. But its their clique, and not mine.
How many of you in this audience had thought that that was their group hug? I don’t think a single one of you did.
This is what it is like with the autistic child. The rules that social groups have are impossible for the autistic children to figure out, just as it was impossible for some of you to think that that would be the group hug for that little trio of friends.
Another thing that also makes it impossible is that many kids are not forgiving. To a child, either you know the proper social rules, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re weird. And when you are weird, you rarely stop being weird.
You would never expect anyone to figure something like that out, and you’re not autistic. But many teachers expect the same from autistic students. And teachers don’t know why they cannot socialize with other kids.
So what do you do as a teacher? The methods you learned when you studied to become a teacher are not working.
You open your mind to the possibility that what you learned when you studied to become a teacher will not always work for your autistic students. And you try to figure out, or learn from others, what does work. Many times, what works for autistic children is the opposite of what works with neurotypical kids, and vice-versa.
Today, I’m here to teach you about autism. To give you a better understanding of what autism is all about.
The title of my speech is “Check it Out! A 3rd Grade Autism Reading List.” This is based on a web page titled “Check it Out! A 3rd Grade Reading List” which I found on a web page for an elementary school.
As a 3rd grade teacher once told me, “In 3rd grade, you no longer learn to read. You read to learn.”
Now, who in this audience teaches 3rd grade?
As you know, your students can’t just read in this grade. They must give book reports, and verify to you that they comprehended the book.
But when you announce to your students that they need to read, you then have to give them reading lists. Books that are at their grade’s reading level.
Today, I am going to show you what you can learn about autism, and the issues that autistic children deal with, from books that appear on 3rd grade reading lists. To the 3rd grade teachers in this audience, I say this: For years you have assigned these books to your students so they can learn from them. Now I will show you what you can learn about autism from those books.
As surprising as it may seem, in many books written for the 3rd grade reading level, kids are portrayed with autistic symptoms, and many scenarios occur where kids experience things many autistic people often have to deal with. Yet autism isn’t often mentioned in those examples.
Why is this? First, there’s a difference in scale. Many autistic symptoms are issues we all have. They are just magnified in autistic people, and so we notice them much more easily. Second, many autistic behaviors are autistic not because they only appear with autistic kids, but because they only appear with autistic kids in certain contexts. Third, many autistic kids behave in ways that normal kids behave, yet they are now considered too old to behave that way. It’s okay for a baby to have a screaming fit in public. It’s not okay if you’re a fifth-grader.
But since the symptoms are still the same, when we realize that autistic tendencies appear in these other “non-autistic” situations. In this case, it is autism’s appearance in 3rd grade literature.
My first example is from the book “Ramona the Pest,” by Beverly Cleary. It is the second book in an eight-part series about Ramona.
Has anyone here read this book?
This books are about a girl named Ramona as she grows up. In this book, she is five years old. This book was written in 1968, before autism was widely known.
First, let’s look at the title “Ramona the Pest.” The title suggests that she is a pest, so that means that she is constantly bothering people, and getting in trouble. Does Ramona consider herself a pest? No. This is stated on the first page of the book:
“I am not a pest,” Ramona Quimby told her big sister, Beezus.
“Then stop acting like a pest,” said Beezus, whose real name was Beatrice.
“I’m not acting like a pest. I’m singing and skipping,” said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet. Ramona did not think she was a pest. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger, and thus unfair.
Ramona, sure of the fact that she is not a pest, cannot wait for her first day of school. The first day of kindergarten is about to start.
So Ramona finally gets to kindergarten, and meets her teacher, Miss Binney. To continue from the book:
“Hello, Ramona, my name is Miss Binney,” speaking each syllable distinctly as she pinned Ramona’s name to her dress. “I am so glad you have come to kindergarten.” Then she took Ramona by the hand and led her to one of the little tables and chairs. “Sit here for the present,” she said with a smile.
A present! thought Ramona, and she knew at once she was going to like Miss Binney.
Ramona listened carefully while Miss Binney showed another boy, Howie, to a table, but all her teacher said was, “Howie, I would like you to sit here.” Well! thought Ramona. Not everyone is going to get a present so Miss Binney must like me best. Ramona watched and listened as the other kids arrived, but Miss Binney did not tell anyone else he or she was going to get a present if he or she sat in a certain chair. Ramona wondered if her present would be wrapped up in fancy paper and tied with a ribbon like a birthday present. She hoped so.
So see what happens here? The teacher says one word, and Ramona complies. We the readers can see what is going on in Ramona’s mind. The teacher meant one thing, and Ramona thought something else. But Miss Binney does not see this. All she saw was Ramona sitting down for the present, and has no idea that Ramona took her words literally.
This is a hallmark symptom of autism. Many autistic kids take words literally, and then defend them to the death. I once sent some computer software to my cousins. My uncle asked me, “Will this knock the socks off my daughter?” I had no idea how computer software had the power to knock socks off people, and wondered what was going on. Thinking this was a ridiculous concern, I informed him that no, the software will not knock my cousin’s socks off, and that I don’t know what software did have the power to knock socks off.
This is the product of my autism. Yet this is also a common humor tool. Many jokes often use idioms and make fun of them. And other autistic people have thought the same thing.
Yet here we see this autistic tendency in this literary character named Ramona, and no one has mentioned autism. The word does not even appear a single time in the book. I have done Google searches for “Ramona autism,” and have found nothing on the Internet about it.
Then see what Ramona does? She goes on and on about a present that she is never going to have, and takes everything she sees as evidence that she is special and going to get this present, and even wonders what is going to be. This also happens with autistic kids.
The misunderstanding continues. As written in the book:
Ramona wondered how long she would have to sit there to get the present. If only Miss Binney understood how hard waiting was for her!
Miss Binney gave a little talk about the rules of the kindergarten and showed the class the door that led to the bathroom. Next she assigned each person a little cupboard. Then she asked the class to follow her into the cloakroom to find their hooks.
Difficult though waiting was for her, Ramona did not budge. Miss Binney had not told her to get up and go into the cloakroom for her present. She had told her to sit for the present, and Ramona was going to sit until she got it.
Next Miss Binney taught the class the words of a puzzling song called the “dawnzer lee light,” which Ramona did not understand because she did not know what a dawnzer was. “Oh, say, can you see by the dawnzer lee light,” sang Miss Binney, and Ramona decided that a dawnzer was another word for a lamp.
When Miss Binney had gone over the song several times, she asked the class to stand and sing it with her. Ramona did not budge. “Ramona,” said Miss Binney, “aren’t you going to stand like the rest of us?”
Ramona thought quickly. Maybe the question was some kind of test, like a test in a fairy tale. Maybe Miss Binney was testing her to see if she could get her out of her seat. If she failed the test, she would not get the present.
“I can’t,” said Ramona.
So now let’s take a look at what has happened. All Miss Binney has done is teach the way a kindergarten teacher would teach, and she has lost Ramona. She has no theory of mind toward Ramona, just like Ramona has no theory of mind toward her. How many times do autistic people misunderstand what we say? Thinking that what they heard was the truth, they act on that misunderstanding. Look at how adamant Ramona is about sitting for this non-existent present. She won’t get up to the cupboard, and won’t get up to sing the anthem.
And Miss Binney is just acting like a rational kindergarten teacher, and by doing so she is making the situation worse, and feeding the misunderstanding.
This is very important to realize. We might wonder why the autistic person is so stupid, but we have to realize that the autistic person has a way of thinking that is different from ours. But at the same time, this is all the autistic person knows, and this is what he or she resorts to. His responses are logical based on how he thinks. They are only illogical to people who do not understand his logic. No autistic person behaves illogically. If we cannot see an autistic person’s logic, it is because we do not understand his or her logic. But when we understand an autistic person’s way of thinking and the way they perceive the world, then they will seem logical.
Let’s also notice another language delay that Ramona has. She not only takes things literally, but she also has a delay in processing language. Let’s think back to what Beverly Cleary wrote earlier: “She spoke each syllable distinctly.” This suggests that Miss Binney did the same when she taught her class the national anthem. Ramona, however, heard it wrong, and didn’t know what a dawnzer was. She didn’t say anything, so Miss Binney had no idea that Ramona misunderstood her. It flew right by Miss Binney.
I myself have this very problem. It is sometimes difficult for me to process what people say. I learn better by reading, and require closed captioning whenever I watch a movie. There was a Christmas carol I once heard at ten, yet I could not understand the words. I thought it went like this. “E sa yere en desi mal, Gah den singers raven hile!” I did not know what this meant. What was “desi mal?” And also, “hile” came from saluting Hitler—why did this song talk about hailing to Hitler?
What’s the actual song? It’s from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It goes, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconcile!”
But Miss Binney is still clueless. She’s forgotten about the present, and cannot connect the dots as to why Ramona refuses to get up. And Ramona is wondering why Miss Binney is forcing her to wait. Finally, the misunderstanding is revealed.
Ramona did not budge. Only Miss Binney could unstick the imaginary glue that held her there.
“Don’t you want to play Gray Duck, Ramona?” asked Miss Binney.
Ramona nodded. “Yes, but I can’t.”
“Why not?” asked Miss Binney.
“I can’t leave my seat,” said Ramona. When Miss Binney looked blank, Ramona explained. “Because of the present.”
“What present?” Miss Binney seemed so genuinely puzzled that Ramona became uneasy. “Tell me why you can’t play Gray Duck.”
“I want to play Gray Duck, but you—“ she stopped, feeling that she might be about to say the wrong thing.
How many autistic people have been in this situation? They try to say something, but not knowing what to do, they think they are going to do something wrong, so they stop.
Now the truth is coming out. But still, even after the misunderstanding is quite obvious, Ramona and Miss Binney are perceiving it through their worldviews. Miss Binney thinks this is a figment of Ramona’s imagination—she has forgotten what she said. Miss Binney also knows that since she has the authority, she can override any judgment that Ramona makes.
Ramona wonders why Miss Binney is acting puzzled if she genuinely was going to give her a present.
The misunderstanding continues.
“But I what?” asked Miss Binney.
“Well, uh, you said if I sat here I would get a present,” said Ramona at last. “But you didn’t say how long I had to sit here.”
If Miss Binney had looked puzzled before, she now looked baffled. “Ramona, I don’t understand—“ she began.
“Don’t understand?” How narrow-minded is this teacher?
“Yes, you did,” said Ramona. “You told me to sit here for the present, and I have been sitting here ever since school started and you haven’t given me a present.”
Miss Binney’s face turned red and she looked so embarrassed that Ramona felt completely confused. Teachers were not supposed to look that way.
Miss Binney spoke gently. “Ramona, I’m afraid we’ve had a misunderstanding.”
Ramona was blunt. “You mean I don’t get a present?”
“I’m afraid not,” admitted Miss Binney. “You see ‘for the present’ means for now. I meant that I wanted you to sit here for now, because later I may have the children sit at different desks.”
“Oh.” Ramona was so disappointed she had nothing to say. Words were so puzzling. “Present” should mean a present just as “attack” should mean to stick tacks in people.
So see what happens? Miss Binney says something and promptly forgets it. She expected that Ramona could “fill in the blanks.” She thought that Ramona understood that this was the “here and now,” and that later she might have to sit at a different desk. Miss Binney was wrong. But since Ramona behaved properly—that is, she sat when she was asked to sit—Miss Binney didn’t think there was a problem.
This happens a lot of times with autistic kids. The teacher expects them to know something a neurotypical child would know, and then they wonder why the child can’t meet the expectation. Obviously, Ramona has a language problem. This is not how five-year-old children behave.
Equally ironic is that on the back of the book, there is the blurb “The author has a sure instinct for the thought and expression of five-year-olds.” What five-year-olds is that person talking about? Autistic five-year-olds? When my mother heard about that, she laughed and said that normal five-year-olds don’t talk like that.
When you heard this story, you saw how Ramona understood the situation. You also saw that everything Miss Binney did, Ramona got wrong.
With insight into Ramona’s mind, you, the reader, can understand that Ramona’s misunderstanding was not sudden—it was building over that time period. But to Miss Binney, there appeared to be no hint of a problem until she learned what had happened all that time.
In many situations, an autistic person misunderstands, and no one sees this. The way an autistic person misunderstands is often beyond the radar of a neurotypical person. When the misunderstanding is finally revealed, the neurotypical person wonders why the autistic person is so stupid. But remember that while you might think that the misbehavior, or the problem came out of the blue, it likely was building up for a long period of time, and you just didn’t notice it.
What’s the moral of this story? Don’t assume that because you say something to an autistic child, the child will understand you. If the child doesn’t do what you asked, and he misunderstood, then the misunderstanding is obvious. But as you saw, just because the child behaves properly and obeys you doesn’t mean they understood what you meant.
I shall now introduce to you my second example. It is from the book “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” by Betty MacDonald. It’s the first of a series of four books about the title character, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
How many of you have read this book?
It’s the story of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. As the book describes, her friends are children, who lives in an upside-down house, and always seems to know what to do to help incompetent parents.
This book doesn’t really have a plot to it, or an actual story. Rather, it consists of numerous stories of parents who live in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s town. They all have children that they do not know how to raise, and always seem to conclude that they have to call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in order to get advice. And the advice Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle gives is radical, but the parents are so desperate that they follow every word she says and it always seems to work.
Unfortunately for her, parents no longer need her services. She’s been replaced by the advisors on TV. All modern parents have to do is dial Nanny 911.
But before we had Nanny 911, we had Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. In every case, a parent tries to call up her friends and they can’t give her any advice. So their last resort is to call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. As the book says:
“Why don’t you call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? I have heard she is perfectly wonderful. All the children in town adore her and she has a cure for everything. As soon as I spank Susan, I’m going to call her.”
Mrs. O’Toole said, “Oh, thank you so much, Norah. I should have thought about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in the first place. I’ll call her right now.”
“I know. I know just what to do. Just call that Mrs. Wriggle-Spiggle or whatever her name is.
“You mean Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Oh, Herbert, you are so wonderful. I knew you would think of something. I’ll call her right away.”
So, as we can see, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is quite an expert when it comes to raising kids. And those parents are so desperate that they passively listen to everything she says.
Similarly, many parents of autistic kids are so desperate that they will passively listen to everything that a person they deem an “expert” says. Thus, we see that the way parents sometimes behave is not uniquely limited to parents of children with autism.
But what exactly are the problems that these parents are facing? What things won’t the kids do that she is able to cure?
We learn about seven examples in this book, after being introduced to the main character. I have three examples I am going to show you.
In Chapter 3, we are introduced to Hubert.
Hubert was a very lucky little boy whose grandfather always sent him wonderful toys for Christmas. Hubert’s mother said that his grandfather sent him these marvelous presents because Hubert was such a dear little boy.
Hubert liked all of his toys and he was moderately generous about letting other children play with them, but he never put his things away. When his mother made his bed she had to pick her way around and in and out and over the electric train and track.
She would send Hubert up to put his toys away, but all he ever did was to stuff them under the bed or into the closet and in the morning when his mother cleaned his room, there they were for her to pick up.
So, we now know that Hubert naturally keeps a messy room because he keeps getting presents from his grandfather.
Many autistic people are just like this. It is said that autistic people are naturally clean or naturally messy. Autistic people who are naturally messy do not clean up their rooms voluntarily, and will refuse to if asked. Why is this the case? Someone might think it is because they are spoiled, but they are not.
An autistic person, for example, might rely on his messy room to keep track of his things. When his room is clean, he forgets where everything is put, and spends a lot of time looking for where his things are. If it’s strewn around his bed and all over his floor, all he has to do is look down and the thing he needs will be strewn somewhere, rather than searching shelf after shelf after shelf and closet after closet after closet for something that he may not find. Finally, when his room is cleaned, he might find it is impossible for him to find anything, since he doesn’t know where everything is.
Then there are autistic people who are mentally incapable of cleaning up a room because they cannot break down the process into little steps. They don’t know where to start, and don’t know what to do. It’s not that they don’t want to clean their room, or that they are being resistant—it is that they are mentally incapable of cleaning. And as a response to this mental disability, the autistic person tries to adapt by relying on his mess.
To this autistic person, cleaning seems ridiculous. Why must he clean his room if he has no trouble finding everything when it’s all messed up? And even if he might have trouble, it might be easier for him to look when all of his things are strewn around everywhere. And besides, while he is looking for something through his mess, he is more likely to find something else that he gave up finding two months ago.
In other cases, an autistic person can clean up some rooms but not others. I keep a very messy room at home, in part because I prefer having a mess. At the daycare where I volunteer, however, I am often required to clean up the messy room during lunchtime. I know where everything goes, and I am able to make the playroom spotless.
Then, Hubert’s mother thinks that her son is refusing to pick them up and leaving the toys to be picked up by her. This is not always true. But this is important, because it is this where we can determine whether or not a child is spoiled. We need to remember that what determines a spoiled child versus an autistic child is not how they behave but why they behave. In this case, a child who refuses to clean his room expecting his mother to do it for him would be spoiled. But an autistic child who leaves a messy room is not expecting their mother or father to clean their room up. They want it to remain messy because that is how they prefer their room. In fact, they might get very furious that you cleaned up their room for them, when they wanted it to remain messy.
As you can see, there are quite a few reasons why an autistic child, or any child, would not clean their room. Yet in this book, there is no quest to find that reason. However, finding that reason is important in understanding the problem. Behaviors do not come out of a vacuum, ladies and gentlemen. They’re always logical. But you have to be able to understand that logic.
This also applies to a school situation. In the second grade, I kept a very messy desk. I also did not understand why keeping a clean desk was such a big issue.
I would argue the following. If a child is autistic, and he has a messy school desk, only enforce a neat desk if it is affecting his ability to find his books. And in fact, his one complaint about his inability to find his books might result in a motivation to stop complaining. I once asked help from the teacher’s aide in second grade in finding my books in my messy desk. She commented about what a mess I had, and that I should clean my desk up, after I found my book. Knowing I wasn’t going to clean it up, I learned my lesson. Don’t complain about having a hard time finding your books if you want to keep a messy desk.
It’s argued that enforcing the requirement of a neat desk or a neat room is important for future organization or independence skills. The argument fails, however, because such arguments are based on predicted futures that we can never be sure of anyway until they actually come. An autistic person should not have to learn something out of a projected necessity. An autistic person should only be forced to learn something when it is a necessity. If he has to learn how to clean up a room and there’s a necessity, and he is aware of it, he will. Despite my difficulties cleaning my own room, I learned how to tidy up the daycare playroom quickly when I realized I had to learn that as part of my work there. Autistic people will endure miserable, difficult things if they are motivated to, even if they might try to argue against its necessity.
Also, you don’t have to teach independence at the age of eight any more than you would teach a neurotypical nine-year-old how to go to college. An autistic child suited to a messy desk without problems finding their books should not be forced to change. And this is much different from keeping a clean room.
Interestingly, this autistic rationale is in fact the rationale Hubert gives when he explains why he won’t clean his room. As he says in the book:
“My toys are in here and I can play with them any old time I wanna.”
Thus, Hubert might just be autistic, and is trying to simplify the process of finding his toys.
Also, If Hubert cannot clean his room, why hasn’t Hubert’s mother asked his grandfather to stop buying him presents?
What does Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle propose as a solution? She argues the following.
“I think the best thing for you to use is my old-fashioned Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys cure. Starting now, don’t pick up any of Hubert’s toys. Don’t make his bed. In fact, don’t go into his room. When his room becomes so messy that he can’t get out of it, please call me.”
And that, of course, is what the autistic child wanted you to do in the first place. And the autistic person, unless he cannot get out of his room, will keep a messy room if he is naturally messy. And unless you are in that projected future where he has to learn how to clean up to impress his girlfriend or her boyfriend, or if he has to live alone, let him keep a messy room as long as he respects the fact that the rest of the house should be clean. Obviously, Hubert’s messy room is not affecting his ability to play in it.
After Hubert, we are introduced in Chapter 4, to another child, Mary:
At three o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. O’Toole put a peanut-butter sandwich and a nice cool glass of milk on the kitchen table for her little girl when she came home from school. Pretty soon the front door slammed and in bounced Mary, her red braids switching like little pony tails. Her mother said, “How was school, darling?”
Mary said as she gulped her milk and took a large bite of the sandwich, “Well, this afternoon, Miss Crabtree said, ‘Mary O’Toole will stay in at recess and put the paint boxes away,’ and I said, ‘You’re the teacher here, Miss Crabtree, why don’t you put away the paint boxes and let me go out and play?” Everyone in the room laughed but mean old Miss Crabtree.
So what do you think is going to be the response of the mother? It's going to sound something like this: Why could you be so rude?
But does Mary think of herself as rude? No. And in fact, many autistic people would act like that, and not think of themselves as rude. Why would they not be rude? Because when you look at what she said, you will realize that she was not trying to be rude. She was just trying to argue blunt logic. Autistic people often have a tendency to argue such logic, and be thought of as rude.
As I said in the past example, it is not how you behave that determines whether or not you are spoiled or autistic, but why you behave. There’s another thing I can mention to: Autism is not a behavior problem, no matter what a behaviorist might tell you. It’s a disorder that changes the way a person perceives things and understands things. Thus, they behave differently. And the reasons for why they behave are different, and that is what makes a child autistic. When you understand it like this, you can see why treating the behaviors is only looking at one side of the story. Since most autistic behaviors obviously appear in neurotypical children, but for different reasons, the solution is found in understanding those reasons. We don’t treat the behavior. We try to change the environment so the behavior stops occurring. We no longer react to a behavior. We try to prevent future issues from occurring. An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.
In fact, Mary would think of herself as stating an intelligent solution. If Mary wanted to play at recess, she might argue that. Since there is no reason for why Mrs. Crabtree cannot clean up the paint boxes, why should Mary? Interestingly enough, there’s a very skewed portrayal of this incident shown. Mary is right—teachers do not just ask students to stay in for recess unless the child has misbehaved. Yet we do not learn what Mary did in the first place. It is justified for a child to stay in for recess if the child already misbehaved, and that was the child’s punishment. But we never know what caused that misbehavior. So, in a way, Mary is justified to challenge her teacher. But, of course, this cannot be tolerated in the hierarchal world of school. As a teacher, you are right even if you are wrong, because you have the authority.
Or, if Mary was autistic, she would have jumped at the chance to stay in for recess. Many autistic people often are teased in recess, and would love to stay in the school. Some autistic people might deliberately misbehave to get out of recess, or sit alone for lunch. I can think only of one time I was at lunch in school when I was getting relentlessly bullied. The lunch supervisor got our table in trouble for speaking too loud. The kids pinned the blame on me. My punishment? I had to sit alone, which was the antithesis of punishing.
But of course, Mary does not see herself as rude. Here’s how she thought of herself:
Mary took another large bite of her sandwich and looked up her mother expectantly to see if she would appreciate how smart she was.
In one sense, Mary is smart. If we assume that Mary did nothing wrong, then why would she have to be punished for questioning doing something that is unjustified? We have no mention whatsoever of her doing anything wrong.
This shows that in many cases, dismissing something as the product of being spoiled is often an oversimplification. There’s another aspect to the situation that we need to be looking at. And again, while you see and accept the relationship between teacher and student or parent as child as a monarchy, the child does not. You--the person in authority--might think that you do not need to analyze a situation since you have the power over your students, or subjects. But Mary does not see it that way because it is unjustified, no matter how much authority the teacher might have.
Many times, a child will be blamed for something if there is doubt. At the daycare I once played a game of bumper cars with a bunch of toy cars. I chased a group of children on foot, who would periodically bump into me. I did not know that this was prohibited at the daycare. When the staff asked me to stop, they told the child to stop bumping into me. But I was not told to stop, even though I started the game in the first place, and let the kids bump into me. Once again, we see how this assumed infallibility of authority figures can sometimes result in unfair judgments. The problem is here is not that we have these assumptions. The problem is when situations happen when these assumptions don’t work and we cannot adjust our thinking. Adults are often more accurate than children, but not in every single case.
The solution here is not to automatically assume the teacher is right because she is the teacher. Rather, you need to find out whether or not the teacher’s request was a punishment to something else that happened. Otherwise, if Mary was rude, so was the teacher.
But of course, no one sees it like that, and Mary doesn’t get it. The book continues.
However, her mother said, “That was a very rude thing for you to do, Mary, and I am ashamed of you. When you finish your sandwich and milk you had better go up to your room and stay until dinner. You can concentrate on how rude you were to Mrs. Crabtree.”
Mary pulled out her mouth down at the corners, squinted up her pretty brown eyes and said, “Why should I?”
And why should she? Let's assume that Mrs. Crabtree’s request was unprecedented, and Mary had done nothing wrong to justify staying in for recess. Now I'll say this to any teachers in the audience: Do you ask any of your students to stay in for recess if they have not misbehaved or do not have any work that needs to be finished? I’d doubt you would. And if you did, that student would be justified in asking you why. And you should not follow this example and call your student rude, even if you can because you are the teacher.
But this often happens to autistic kids. They will ask why they have to do something, and are thought of as rude. When their answer is “because I said so,” they do not accept that answer.
Which, of course, is the exact answer that Mary receives:
Mrs. O’Toole was dumbfounded. Never had her little Mary acted in this horrid way before. She said quietly, “You should because I tell you to, now scat.”
My response would be: Maybe the reason why she didn’t act horrid before was because her teacher had not given her a crazy request before, and her mother had not misunderstood the situation before.
I have also mentioned earlier that when children obey, they do so because they have a sense of “basic trust” and their passive obedience is due to the fact that they trust adults and want to see them happy I also argued that some autistic people lack this sense of basic trust and thus do not care about whether or not their parents are happy. Thus, “because I said so” is not a justified reason in the mind of the autistic person.
There’s another element to this issue, however. When you see an example like that, you might instinctively wonder why a child is so disobedient. The reality, however, is that the child is not acting strangely. Passive obedience is not something that will occur in most children because you want them to obey. Rather, it occurs if you understand why you must obey. In the case of passive obedience—it is because you trust a person enough that you want to obey them.
Most human minds have a need to understand why they must do what they are doing before they will obey someone. For this reason, discussing why children are obedient or defiant is not an issue of bad child vs. good child. It’s a difference between whether or a not a child understands or does not understand. And if a child does obey in order to “be good,” being good is a form of understanding why you have to do something in of itself.
You might be asking me why there is a basic need to understand. You might argue that you don’t have a need to understand, so why does an autistic child? You might be asking me why this is universal because there are obedient vs. disobedient children. But let’s examine the idea of obedience a little bit further. You might say that you usually do something that someone asks in order to obey him. But why do you obey?
Because that person is your friend, and you like your friend. You want to be nice to your friend.
What if, out of the blue, a policeman were to come in these doors and arrest one of you? Would you obey the policeman passively? Of course you wouldn’t. You would want to know why you were being arrested just like the child wanted to know why she had to do what she had to do.
This is NOT an example of not understanding. When someone you trust and feel connected to tells you to do something, you do it BECAUSE you trust and feel connected to that person, and you want to be dutiful and respectful to that person. And even if you don't have any personal connection to that person, accepting that "you have to do something" for some goal or purpose is a form of understanding in itself. Most of the time that is enough.
But if you don’t understand why you have to do something, like go to jail at the request of a policeman, you would resist. However, a person’s need to understand can be met by fear, especially if disobeying results in a severe punishment. If the policeman sprayed you with tear gas or beat you, you would comply and not care about why he arrested you. Discipline uses this same principle—to threaten something fearful unless a child obeys an adult.
The need to understand can be met three ways—fear, motivation, and trust. But without that need being met, there is almost always fear and resistance.
When the issue of an autistic person’s resistance is not sensory related, then its likely he does not understand why he has to do what he has to do, and thus is asking you why because he has a need to understand that is not being met. The need to understand is being met by the parent, or in the case of a school, the neurotypical teacher and the other neurotypical students.
But since Mary nor her mother understand each other, the problem escalates.
Mary walked slowly out of the kitchen switching her skirt and her braids and managing to look impudent even from the back. When she reached the top of the stairs, she called down to her mother, “I’m going because I want to but not because you tell me to,” and dashed into her room and banged the door.
There’s a need to understand here that has now been met—but a defiant one. There’s a lot of truth to “I’m going because I want to but not because you tell me to.” In this case, the child does not want to argue any more but wants to inflict emotional pain on the mother. So she tries to look as angry as can be, knowing that will hurt her mother, and thus tries to be as open as possible about her anger. This is her motivation for obeying. However, the problem never was being rude or arrogant. The problem is now rudeness, but that was because the issue escalated. The solution is not simply punishing Mary. It’s asking Mary why the teacher asked her to stay in for recess.
Refusal to passively obey is not always rudeness. It depends on each situation. Mary would only have been rude if she had done something bad before her teacher asked her to stay in for recess. The teacher should just have explained her reason. Mary was not having a tantrum. When an autistic person asks why, you should not just call him or her rude. Explain your reason, and the autistic child will likely obey. Just because he asks why does not automatically mean he is going to try to defy you.
We also need to realize that there is a difference between “asking why” and “asking why to refuse.” If there is an actual reason for why we give an autistic child a command, we should tell it. An autistic child is more likely to obey us if he understands us. Carol Gray’s Social Stories are very useful. They are stories that help autistic children meet that need to understand. They work well if that is the issue. Social stories do not help if the issue is sensory-related, but that is another story.
And, of course, the problem goes further.
That night at dinner, Mary was quite normal but after dinner her daddy said, “Scoot the dishes off the table, Mary. Your mommy’s tired,” and Mary, instead of jumping up and doing what she was told, pulled her mouth down until she looked like a sad Jack-O-Lantern, squinted up her eyes and said, “I’ll do it because I want to but not because you tell me to. Anyway, you eat here, why don’t you clear the table?” She blinked her eyes rapidly.
Finally, the missing piece of the puzzle. Now we see the precedent that likely occurred with the teacher. She did something wrong like this, and was punished. In the context of a neurotypical child, that is rudeness.
But this still is not rudeness in the context of an autistic child, even if the child did something wrong that made you justified in asking him to stay in for recess. Why? Because there’s another variable here. Why did the child misbehave initially in the first place? Many autistic people misbehave but not on purpose, because they didn’t know what they did was wrong. When they ask why they are being punished, that is not rudeness. Instead of calling it rudeness, you should explain why he misbehaved, and why he did wrong.
Many autistic people, especially if they are verbal, may not understand why they did wrong when they make a mistake, but understand when their teacher or parent explains why it was wrong. When I messed up, I was able to understand why but not until after my mother explained it to me. If she dismissed me as rude and punished me without explaining why I did wrong, I would never have learned my lesson. Passive punishment does not teach lessons with autistic children—it deprives them of learning why they made a mistake so that they can learn how not to make that mistake in the future.
This later example also teaches us the importance of understanding a situation before we make a judgment. It also shows us that no one way of disciplining or rule system works for every situation. Refusal to obey is often defiance—but not always. Talking back is rude—but not always. In this case at dinner, Mary is not justified in talking back. She likely knows that she should help her family and is being defiant. A punishment is quite justified. But this does not mean that a punishment was justified in the prior situation if the teacher did not have a reason for asking her to stay in after school. Thus, when you are working with an autistic child, you cannot think in terms of rudeness or not rudeness. You need to realize that defiance is sometimes rude but in other cases it isn’t, and to be able to know when an autistic child is misbehaving or when it is a misunderstanding. Otherwise, you’ll either judge the autistic child unfairly or let him get away with things that he is doing on purpose.
If Mary is autistic, however, she is not justified unless she has already been given an explanation as to why she must help her family. Again, before you punish an autistic child, you need to make sure they understand what you are saying, and whether or not there is a sensory component to their resistance. If their resistance is not due to either of that, then they are misbehaving, and they should be punished.
And what is the solution that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle offers?
“Don’t worry, Mrs. O’Toole. Some of the most charming children I know were once Answer-Backers. Fortunately Mary has only just begun so she can be cured in no time at all. You drop by here after lunch and I will give you Penelope Parrot to keep for a while.”
Right after lunch Mrs. O’Toole went down to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s house and got Penelope. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, said, as she handed the cage to Mrs. O’Toole, “Fortunately for you, Penelope will only talk to children.”
Penelope is a parrot who echoes and has been surrounded by rude kids. Thus, when Mary talks back to her mother, the parrot says the same negative words to Mary. And Penelope often talks back to Mary. Mary instantly thinks the parrot is rude, but initially cannot see how she herself acts the same way. Then she realizes the error of her ways and learns how to be nice.
This solution, like all solutions, is appropriate or inappropriate depending on why the child is acting up. The approach involves giving Mary a theory of mind—showing Mary just how rude she really is. If an autistic child truly is talking back, and it is not due to a misunderstanding or a sensory problem, then this would be a good solution. Autistic children often do not understand the impact of their words and what they do long after neurotypical children learn. As I said when discussing Hubert’s example, they need to learn the hard way, and this is a way for Mary to learn like that.
My third and final example is derived from another book series. These books are now considered to be one of the most classic book series ever written. It is the Harry Potter series, written by J.K. Rowling.
How many of you have read these books?
One of the unique aspects of these books is that they transcend grades. Originally, they were not on 3rd grade reading lists. But they are read by smart 3rd graders. They are also read by 4th graders. 5th graders. 6th graders. And so on. Even adults read Harry Potter.
In Harry Potter, there are a lot of parallels to autism. Many things happen to Harry Potter that happen to autistic people, as well as other characters. A few characters, in fact, are sometimes quite autistic. One character in particular is Hermione Granger. Who here does not know Hermione Granger?
What else do we remember about Hermione Granger? She is a workaholic. She’s always studying constantly, spends more time studying than Harry or Ron, and even came to Hogwarts School, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry and Hermione attend, knowing sometimes more than half of a specific class’ curriculum before the teacher even taught her.
Hermione Granger is Harry’s friend, and she is a very good student who studies extremely hard, and often works much harder on her schoolwork than Harry, or his other friend Ron.
As is written in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, during a Herbology class:
When Harry had taken his seat next to Ron and Hermione, Professor Sprout, the Herbology teacher, said, “We’ll be repotting Mandrakes today. Now, who can tell me the properties of the Mandrake?
To nobody’s surprise, Hermione’s hand was first in the air.
“Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative,” she replied. “It is used to turn people who have been transfigured or cursed to their original state.”
“Excellent,” said Professor Sprout. “The Mandrake forms an essential part to most antidotes. It is also, however, dangerous. Who can tell me why?”
Hermione’s hand narrowly missed Harry’s glasses as it shot up again.
“The cry of the Mandrake is fatal to anyone who hears it,” she said promptly.
“Exactly. Now, everyone take a pair of earmuffs. When I tell you to put them on, make sure your ears are completely covered.
As we can see, Professor Sprout admires Hermione’s intelligence. Most of the other teachers admire her as well. But Professor Snape, the Potions teacher, thinks differently. He thinks of her as an insufferable know-it-all and punishes her for it.
How different is this obsession with magic than the obsessions of countless autistic people, who could tell you anything about Iceland, or is completely fixated about spaceships?
Not that much. What is different, though, is that sometimes we are praised when we know a lot about something, and other times, we are thought of as fanatical know-it-alls. Another difference is what an autistic person is obsessed over. What they obsess over is often obscure, and therefore, they are thought of as weird.
At Hogwarts, Hermione is expected to know what she knows, and since she knows more than the should, she is praised. What if Hermione was not obsessed with her magic? What if she obsessed over something else…like, say, the multiple relations between calendar dates?
What if she talked about how January 9th and April 6th were both in common because the sum of their digits equaled the same number? Or how about how the sum of the digits of January 2nd, February 4th, March 6th, April 8th, May 10th, June 12th, July 14th, August 16th, September 18th, October 20th, November 22nd, and December 24th all equal multiples of 3?
She would be a know-it-all, and she might just get an autism diagnosis.
This is a perfect example of what I have said earlier. Autistic people aren’t always that different from neurotypical people. It’s the severity of their issues, and when they behave in a specific way, that determines autism. In the case of obsessions, it is obviously not obsessions that make people autistic. It is what they obsess over. Hermione is not autistic because she obsesses over things that she would be expected to know later, but impresses people because those are respectable subjects to obsess over.
But if Hermione talked about what calendar dates, no one would understand her.
At the same time, autistic individuals are obsessed over calendar dates because they want to, just as Hermione likes her work. The motivation is the same, it’s just the subject matter that makes it problematic.
And then, many of us become know-it-alls and bother people because people with autism don’t know when they’re bothering people about their obsession. Hermione is praised in class; but if Hermione were to go on and on and on about a specific spell to her friends and to an individual person, she’d be bothering everyone. And it’s not bothersome everywhere for an autistic person to talk about calendar dates, there is, after all, mathematical value to that.
But let’s look at the Mandrakes now. What is the trait of the Mandrakes that makes working with them so dangerous?
The fatal cry of them.
As Professor Sprout says, “As our Mandrakes are only seedlings, their cries won’t kill yet. However, they will knock you out for several hours, and as I’m sure none of you want to miss your first day back, make sure your earmuffs are securely in place while you work.”
So what does everyone have to wear before working with the Mandrakes in Herbology class?
In the movie, you hear how loud those plants are. You’re not
killed by the sound, but do you remember how loud the sounds are?
Now, what if, everywhere you went, you heard those Mandrake sounds everywhere? And there was no respite from them, everywhere you went, until you went to sleep at night?
And what if, when you heard those sounds, you were bothered by them, and you fell apart when you heard them?
Many kids with autism have sensitive hearing. To them, they are always hearing baby Mandrakes. And just as the baby Mandrakes cause people to fall apart, they fall apart. They might be under intense stress due to the loud noises. They might even throw up and be sick if they are anticipating a loud noise, such as a school fire drill. They might burst into tears and have to go home. Or they might freeze and be stiff as a board.
In fact, the Mandrakes sound very similar to a fire drill, a sound that terrified me when I was in 5th grade, and continues to terrify autistic individuals at this moment. But the solution is still the same. Either you give them headphones, or you enable them to wear earplugs, as I did for two years to resolve my issues with sensitive hearing. Or you tell them in advance before a fire drill is coming—something that makes all the difference for many autistic individuals.
Yet was I allowed to wear headphones to protect my ears of the fire drill? Are autistic individuals allowed to wear headphones to protect themselves from the Mandrakes of the world? Absolutely not. When they try to cover their ears, they get in trouble.
And so, the baby Mandrakes in the lives of autistic individuals keep causing them to fall apart, and everyone wonders why.
There are many more examples I can give, but I’m out of time now, so I’ll just tell you one by one other examples of autistic parallels in 3rd grade literature.
First, every book in the Ramona series consists of autistic elements. Those books are written by Beverly Cleary.
Second, numerous books from the Goosebumps series, by R.L. Stine. Many of them involve children who are relentlessly teased and made fun of by their friends, as well as their sibligs. This is something that many autistic children have to deal with daily.
Frindle, by Andrew Clements. This book, about a young boy who makes up a word for pen and must defend it in front of everyone, is an excellent portrayal about the endless strange portrayals of autistic logic. Nick Allen, the lead character, constantly compares his life to thing you would never have thought about—chess games, restaurants, and he also gets involved with battles that are quite ridiculous. Why is saying “frindle” so bad after all?
The three books in the Wayside School series, by Louis Sachar. This book consists of a lot of autistic logic. Autistic people often are masters of creating blunt logic, and this is demonstrated by the fact that the setting is a school that consists of one classroom on each of thirty stories instead of thirty classrooms on one story. Then there’s that classic scene in the third book where the principal announces that you are to say “goozack” for “door,” and one student enters the building after the announcement and says door. He promptly gets in trouble and doesn’t understand way. We who read the book know the rule is ridiculous. The principal doesn’t. In real life, autistic people see many rules of neurotypical society as ridiculous. Neurotypical people do not.
Matilda, by Roald Dahl. The portrayal of Miss Trunchbull as a demon, and the terror she brings, produces the same terror that autistic children feel in school. Matilda also exhibits a few autistic symptoms—she’s precocious in certain intellectual abilities, like math. She also has secret powers that, before she knew them, enabled her to get in trouble for things she could not explain. Similarly, autistic people often do things wrong, they don’t know why they did them, and cannot explain what happened.
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. A girl is given a curse of obedience, and thus exhibits the same naivete and willingness to obey everyone she meets by force—the same way gullible autistic people often obey bullies, even if the bullies set them up, get them in trouble with their teachers, and sometimes throw them behind bars.
I shall end here by saying the same thing that you stress to your students. Read. The books your students must read are the same books that you can read to improve your knowledge of this ever-so-mysterious complex disorder, autism.
Thank you. I will now answer your questions.