Alfred Hitchcock has something to tell us about educating children—I know that is hard to believe. I learned that during the film-making process he worked off two scripts. He had the normal script, what he called the “blue script”, which included all the parts of an ordinary script: scene locations, dialogue, action, character names. But he also had a “green script”, and this was much different. The green script kept track of the emotional aspects of the film, what he wanted his viewers to feel as they watched the film. The logistics of the blue script—the action, props, setting, lighting and camera angles—could be changed, but the green script was more important. His focus was on how the viewers felt, whether those feelings were excitement, intrigue, fear or relief.
The emotions of a child are always what matters. As parents and teachers, we have to be focussed on the “green script.” Most children are born with a powerful desire to learn, a curiosity about the world, and a need to engage with everything within it. However, even with neurotypical children, our schools mostly fail to foster this natural curiosity. Among regular high school kids, some studies indicate that only 37% of kids are engaged in their subjects. This may seem like a digression from talking about autistic kids, but it isn’t really. Former Dean of the Ontario Institute for studies in Education, Michael Fullen, who advises policymakers and local leaders around the world to provide leadership in education, tells us the solution for education is “to be irresistibly engaging for students…”
If this is the case for a neurotypical child, it is a hundred times more so for one with a learning disability or autism. It makes no difference if a child learns to speak in sentences today or tomorrow, as long as he is progressing. It makes no difference if he learns to clap or sing or point or clap or sing, as long as he is moving toward a goal. But that goal isn’t really about speaking or pointing. It’s about the learning process itself, about influencing how the child with autism feels as a learner.
What matters is that he speaks because he has learned that speaking is fun, useful, and that he can do it. He points because he wants to share something. He repeats all these behaviours and comes back to learn more because he likes to learn and is enamored by the process.
I’m not arguing with anyone who wants to bring their children through all the important developmental milestones. I am not saying that pointing or speaking or counting or reading don’t matter—they do. I remember all too well what it was like to have a non-verbal child who couldn’t point or communicate in any way, screaming on the floor. It was sheer hell.
However, we don’t have to sacrifice the emotional side of learning in order to achieve specific outcomes. We really need to value the green script. It tells us that when we are teaching a behaviour—pointing for example—that the child must feel pleased with this pointing stuff, happy to comply, and enjoy it so much he or she will want to point in the future. Let’s start with pointing for an object he wants but that he cannot reach. Let’s move onto him pointing to share information. This is all good, but only if he feels great about pointing, great about the person who is teaching him, and great about learning.
So, there are really three scripts here. What he learns, how he feels about the people with whom he is learning, and how he feels as a learner.
Every time I work with my son Nick—and this has been going on over a dozen years now—I think about the process of his learning. The process is the most important thing. If he feels confident and curious as a learner, he will carry on learning years after I am gone. This is what matters to me.
I am looking for signs of stress because if he is getting stressed he is not learning. Stressed adults don’t learn well, and for children it is even more profound. If a child feels threatened or worried it affects her ability to learn the thing in front of her, and plowing on regardless will inform her future response to the process of learning, itself. Oh, she will still learn. But she will learn to fear the situation (the people and setting and materials at hand), and not much else.
Not all stress is bad. Writing on the Johns Hopkins School of Education website, Victoria Tennant says, “Stress is positive when the person feels stimulated and able to manage the situation. This positive response prepares the body for action and activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, and excel.”
All of us love a little stress—especially kids. They often like mildly scary movies or short rides at theme parks that whizz them up or spin around. My son loves electronic games which create a world of threat around the player who is trying to survive. I asked him just now why he likes them so much and he said it helps his focus and attention.
I can remember all those years ago when I would ask him a question without a specific rote answer and hope he could say anything, even “I don’t know”, which had to be taught to him like everything else until he fell in love with learning.
But back to stress. Ongoing stress, especially in what is supposed to be a learning environment, creates poor learners of children. For autistic children, stress can switch them off so fast that an entire teaching session is lost. Repeat that stress, and their relationship to learning and to the people who insist upon it will be seriously damaged.
This is why any interaction with children in education has to be positive. Goals have to be attainable; success has to be ensured. There is no place for coercion or intimidation with children—they will only learn to avoid teachers and anything they associate with a soured experience of learning. For children with autism the stakes are higher. They need skills that they cannot access without help, so that help—in the form of parents, teachers or therapists—has to come with positive feelings.
Those who criticise the use of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) do so because they imagine it is coercive or very boring. It can be. So can all teaching. Years ago, I spent a morning in my daughter’s year 2 primary class. The kids were treated as though they were little criminals under gag orders. Their only hope of getting through the day without being criticized or humiliated was to say nothing “out of turn.” One cannot imagine twenty-five adults in a room “being taught” and saying nothing (no movement, no goofing off) for hours on end, yet this was expected of seven-year olds.
It was appalling. I removed her from the school the next day and home-schooled her for a couple of years before starting her again elsewhere. She’s now a very high-achieving young adult, despite a poor start at what amounted to a contemporary example of Victoria schooling.
I couldn’t take such chances with my son. Had I seen ABA being “administered” in a manner that upset him, I would have stopped it immediately. But this wasn’t what happened. Instead, we kept one eye on the blue script—what he really needed to learn—and one eye on the green script—what we wanted him to be feeling while learning.
And now he loves to learn, which is a good thing because it is clear that life-long learning is going to be vital for all of us as our society moves ever more swiftly. And because, even at the age of twenty, he is forever catching up.
I will never forget begging a committee at his high school to let him study at A-level, trying not to cry as I explained that while he wasn’t necessarily A-level “material” he loved his chosen subjects and ought to be allowed to continue. They stubbornly insisted that he couldn’t get an A-C grade and that he wasn’t welcome to continue. I became increasingly exasperated with the notion that the anticipated grade should be the criteria by which they made their decision whether he could continue. Finally, I told the committee that if they won’t allow him to study any longer at his own school, they would have to tell him that news, because I would not.
In the end, they allowed him to study after all. He later achieved a total of two A-levels and four additional GCSEs, some of them A’s, some of them C’s. He loves to learn, and believes he can learn. This is what we need for all kids–especially those with autism, who cannot afford to ever stop learning, and for whom the world of things, people and ideas must be imagined as a place to understand with joy, not a threat to be avoided.