My Back Pages, Part One
I was diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder between grades six and seven, and with Asperger’s Syndrome toward the end of grade eight. These are disabilities I’ve had since I was born and- since birth- have always profoundly impacted me, especially in school.
And yet, for most of my elementary school education, nobody knew what was going on. My teachers were, for the most part, seasoned professionals with years of experience. So why didn’t they realize what they were seeing?
Asperger’s is a slippery creature. When people witness an Aspie’s behaviour they are often more confused than anything else. They use phrases like, “they seem normal, but” or “there’s just something off” or “I can’t put my finger on it”.
Even teachers who have been trained to notice and accommodate difference can be thrown off.
I recently found a stash of report cards and other paraphernalia from my childhood and, looking through it, I was able to see how my teachers interpreted me. I was also interested to see how they were able to miss the fact that I’m profoundly disabled.
Below are some excerpts, along with my own commentary.
“David is very much a visual learner, and can only follow a series of instructions initially if they are written for him… As he is able to read so well, he can rely on this skill rather than memory.”
This is from my second report card. Already my teacher was impressed with my reading abilities; I was one of only three kids in the class who could read. My memory was already causing problems for me. I discovered much later in life that my memory deterioriates during times of stress and transition, so it would have been exceptionally bad for the duration of kindergarden.
“David never takes part in singing ‘Oh Canada’ and seldom during our other songs and singing games.”
I still don’t like singing in front of other people. I have no idea what that’s about.
“When tested he could not correctly name all the plane shapes from memory, although he could read the names of them in his Brown Square book with ease!”
Another instance of me using my reading skills as a crutch to overcome memory problems. I was already creating accommodations for myself in a system which was not compatible with my needs. I imagine that most disabled children will automatically, unconsciously do this. They shouldn’t have to.
A sidenote: I found a photocopy of my second report card from kindergarden, with handwritten annotations from my mother in the margins. These notes were critical of many of my teachers’ insights. I’m not sure when my mother did this; if she did it at the time, I’m not sure whether she brought her objections to my teacher’s attention. Personally I think my teacher’s observations were fair and insightful. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but knew she was seeing something.
My teacher evidently adored me. The comments from my report cards this year are repetitive: excellent reading skills, excellent writing skills, good sense of humour, lots of friends. “Tries his best” in phys-ed. “Significant improvements” in math.
My grade one teacher was one of my favourites, but looking at these report cards now I wonder whether she really knew me.
I spent much of grade one in a state of happy satisfaction, but I had a lot of challenges, too. Math in particular was an anxiety-producing nightmare for me, which is something my teacher seems to minimize in my report cards. I remember how at the time she was confident that I would improve with practise, and I remember feeling discouraged by her confidence.
She obviously had no idea I was disabled.
From a handwritten note written by my teacher addressed to my parents:
“[David and I] also spoke about Group 2’s problems + the word Retarded. He said he heard it at the Concert. The point is we don’t tease or call people names as it hurts their feelings. Hope this incident is the last.”
I believe that Group 2 was the retarded group; most of them ended up in the special education class later on. This incident was obviously not the last, although now I’m using the word in a radically different context. I have no idea how my grade one teacher would feel about this.
My teacher missed some vital context when she disciplined me about my use of the word retarded. Most of the time when an adult scolds or lectures a child, they are missing the point. Adults believe in propriety and the importance of maintaining order, but in enforcing simple rules they miss some crucial things. Children have rich inner lives, and a wilderness of interpersonal relationships which are every bit as complicated as the ones that adults maintain.
I knew in grade one that I was different. I was being seen on a regular basis by a speech language pathologist because of my hearing impairment and speech impediment. At my babysitters’ I was teased and excluded every day by other kids. It’s not surprising to me that I picked up the word retarded like it was a shiny stone, and then proceeded to throw it at someone who was worse off than me. It wasn’t right, but it was understandable. Instead of trying to see things from my perspective I was shamed, which is unfortunately unsurprising.
There’s some concerned correspondence between the speech-language pathologist and my parents. For some godforsaken reason, several classrooms in my school were not enclosed. They opened up into the corridor, divided only by a waist-high partition. This posed obvious problems for me, because I get distracted by ambient noise, but it would have also been an issue for students with anxiety disorders or A.D.H.D. My school was an architectural disaster.
“David’s stories are extensive and contain some wonderfully strange characters. David likes to write long conversations in stories but lacks a central plot. He needs to plan his stories to create a beginning, middle and ending.”
This was one of the first writing critiques I ever received. It was accurate then, and remains accurate today. I’d like to think I’ve become better at structuring my writing, but I still believe that plot is overrated. The most interesting part of any story is seeing how characters relate to each other, and my favourite part of writing is still the dialogue. I think the reason these tendencies developed in my work was my early fascination with comic strips, which rely principally on characterization and dialogue and are only very lightly plotted.
In all three report cards in grade two, my teacher devoted most of the space to detailing my great success in reading and writing. My difficulties with math and physical coordination were skimmed over or marginalized. She didn’t seem at all concerned with these areas, choosing to focus only on my strengths.
You’d think that focusing on areas of strength would be a good thing, but it meant that some serious shit was getting overlooked. And these sorts of things can’t be ignored forever.
On my first report card, my teacher’s remarks are similar to those from grades one and two. She says I’m excellent at reading and writing, and making steady progress.
This is the first year that my phys-ed and music teachers commented on my report card, and my music teacher’s remarks are fairly boilerplate. My gym teacher- who would later become my grade six teacher- had more troubling feedback:
“David experiences some motor coordination difficulties in physical education. He has trouble catching a small ball and maintaining his footing for proper soccer kicks.”
His concerns continued in the second term, then seemed to alleviate somewhat by the end of the year.
“He can be very good at independent activities but sometimes settles for less than his best efforts.”
This is from my second report card. I have no idea what it means, but I’m kind of insulted.
Apart from my difficulties in gym, there’s nothing in any of my report cards this year that would suggest deeper issues. I have a hard time believing that I was completely asymptomatic during this period of time. Why didn’t anyone notice? The report card comments were blandly enthusiastic, suggesting good to excellent work.
But in grade four my academic work and the rest of my life completely fell apart.
Were there really no warning signs?