Neurotribes

I passed the 11+! I liked doing puzzles (intelligence tests.) I had (note the past tense) a good memory and liked writing essays. All that spelled academic success back in the 50s.

I taught in secondary schools in the 60s. I remember spending lots of time (mostly break, admittedly,) making a table sized model of Roman Londinium with one class. I remember taking another class into the garden and picking up flints, bashing them together and trying to make flint tools with the kids. The school was in north London, so on the edge of the old glaciers, and there were lots of flints. Blood happened- luckily, mine.

Among my family, some passed that looming 11+ exam, and some didn’t. Some read whole books at 3 1/2, and some could not talk at that age. One who “failed” the 11+ got a Ph.D. and teaches in University. One who could not speak intelligibly till age 5 or so was most gifted in mathematics according to a family member with a Doctorate in Electronic Engineering. Some are gifted at taking things apart and fixing them while some are complete klutzes.

Is your family like this?

And just  last month we discovered that several of the family have aphantasia– a new word for something that blew my mind. Apparently when most people say they can see something in their mind’s eye, they see it: not just a metaphor. We aphantastics (?) are blind inside our heads and no one ever noticed the difference, because each one of us experiences only our own experience.

Way back, we assumed everyone could be measured on one line, the magic I.Q number. One end good, the other end bad. Are we doing this again with all the school testing, in both my countries (England and the U.S.) even though that one measure is no adequate forecast of, for example, life contentment, job success or usefulness to the people around us, let alone goodness, compassion, humor… need I go on.

I read Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman specifically because one family member – youngest grandson- has been identified as autistic, but it opened up so many doors to understanding different minds that it would have been engrossing even without the immediate relevance. One of my “best books of the year.” The earlier part of the book was often difficult because of the horrible treatments for people who were diagnosed with this “disability” or “mental impairment” or “psychosis” to the extent that I am heartily relieved that some family members who seem to me to be on the autistic spectrum were not diagnosed. My hero in all the research is Dr Lorna Wing, who widened the definition and highlighted typical behaviors observed so that the DSM has a much more comprehensive analysis of what autism involves: she also said though, that she would label a child a zebra if it got that child the educational help they needed!

The best change has been to move away from research trying to cure a disease or disability, though autism can present many difficulties, towards an appreciation that all brains are different and learn differently, and cope with empirical input differently. People need different accommodations to enable learning and communicating, and some may never  be able to live independently. Rain Man, the movie starring Dustin Hoffman, who spent much time getting to know a couple of autistic men, opened many people’s eyes to this. Temple Grandin, diagnosed as brain damaged in childhood, but now successful in University teaching and research and and in design of more humane animal raising and meat production, shows and can explain to us, how her autistic mental processing can do things that “neurotypicals” (= most of us) can’t do.

Most teachers, I imagine know this to some extent from experience. To note an obvious challenge, one student was blind and I had to read onto audio tape whatever texts and notes she needed. Some of my kids would have learned and remembered more from the model-building and flint-chipping than from text books.

Then why, why, are we moving to teach to tests, almost exclusively of grammar, spelling and arithmetic, in years when young minds are most receptive to learning about so many things in so many ways? And why, why do we make some feel like failures when they have not been helped to process the world in ways their minds can do? Why, why have we been so slow to see “the virtues of atypical minds” in Temple Grandin’s words?

Once upon a time, those who didn’t fit the pattern were kept in back rooms at home or institutionalized, or even sterilized or killed. (Yes, it’s in the book.) Just as once upon a time, and still in many places, girls and women are not educated.  My parents were told that my going to University was a waste because I would just get married. And when I got to University, a professor wanted me not to sign up for his philosophy class because “women’s brains aren’t good at that kind of thing.”

Am I neurotypical? Are you? Is anyone? But I am sure that all of us are worth helping to develop our gifts and to make sense of the world- the great human enterprise- in any way we can.

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