The young autistic child seems captive to another world. Matt’s first teachers assumed this as Matt appeared withdrawn, in another world, and they assumed he wasn’t learning. I was guilty of such thoughts myself about "a world of his own" too for a short while. It’s what one is told and it’s easy to believe. Fortunately, it’s not true. Matt was in the dark, in a fearful place, but he was still in my world and I in his. This story is about the enlightenment that comes when those around you also see that our world and the autistic’s world is one and the same.
Matt learned his alphabet very differently than you or I. First, instead of reciting the alphabet song, Matt shadow danced. He created shadows using his body and the shadows that were cast looked like each letter. He always started with A and could not stop – for anything – until he had reached the letter Z. He only did his dance when he was alone, for the simple pleasure of expressing new knowledge.
At school, no one paid Matt much attention. He hid under tables or walked the perimeter of the classroom, but he never interacted during the lessons. His teachers thought it best to just let him be. But Matt fooled them all. He not only heard each lesson, he was able to express what he learned in a unique, artistic manner. Once I let Matt know how beautiful his shadows were through praise and requests for more, he became confident enough to begin showing them to me upon request. I brought his shadow dance to the attention of his teachers. They observed his creative display of the alphabet and were amazed. It was an eye opening experience for them. They soon realized Matt was not in another world, he was in their world, albeit in the shadows, but he was there - and he was learning. This provided a challenge to the teachers to be creative themselves. They needed to test Matt in order to grade his knowledge level. In order to get an accurate estimate of his ability they would need to think in very creative ways themselves. After viewing the beauty and creativity of the shadow dance his teachers understood that Matt was in essence, throwing down the gauntlet for them to think outside the box. The teachers rose to the occasion and I am very proud of each one for meeting the challenge with such enthusiasm.
The shadow dance began to disappear as Matt began to write. When he finally wrote the alphabet out letter by letter the finished product was perfect. But watching him write it out was the fun part. The rest of us neurotypical individuals learn to read and write left to right on a page. We’re not born knowing which direction to read and write – we learn it. Matt had not practiced much in the writing process but he was learning the alphabet. His first few weeks actually writing the letters showed me quite clearly that we think in an order that is learned. For Matt, learning was an alternate route – a destination that could be arrived at by various roads. Matt decided to start with the letter Z on the right side of the page and wrote each of the letters, in reverse order, right to left. The finished product was identical to the line of consecutive letters of the alphabet. If you hadn’t seen him actually write it you would have no idea that the task had been completed in reverse.
Teaching the autistic child is an adventure in creativity. You get to witness the unique ways in which the human mind can take-in and process new information. In addition, you get to use the creative parts of your own mind to help meet the needs of a child. In doing so, we get to venture down the road less traveled. Our journey allows us to see and experience a greater world - a world that both the autistic individual and the non-autistic individual can share.