In the most desperate of moments we contemplated hiring the local autistic youth in the village to take care of the pre-school children. He’s a good-natured fellow though he dresses in rags and is mostly treated as the village idiot. He’s the only one the ethnic minority students will speak Lao to. If he could just get some clean clothes and take care of the key to open the classroom, he could be the adult presence that these children need. Anyway, we’re not really sure if he’s autistic because he is charmingly social and can remember people’s names even if he’s only met them once eight months ago. He just didn’t seem interested in a job, that’s all.
“Autism is part of who I am.” This is what Temple Grandin has said. She was made famous in a movie about herself and helped the world to know that autism doesn’t prevent people from getting a PhD. In her case, she revolutionized cattle-processing facilities in the US because of her superior spatial reasoning and understanding of animal behavior. She has also reminded us, “Who do you think made the first stone spears? The Asperger guy. If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.”
In Lao classrooms, I don’t know who has special learning needs. I’ve visited hundreds of classrooms and wonder if the children with the more desperate needs are simple left at home. On the few occasions that I did find a child that wouldn’t respond or would be lost in making circles on the floor, their peers would inform me very matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s / she’s different.”
Unfortunately, we just don’t have the resources and capacity to properly offer services for the special needs kids. It seems that everyone has special learning needs. I’ve seen many classrooms with kids struggling very hard to learn. Every child needs special attention and I’ve also seen how a new method or approach can bring children back to their natural inquisitive selves. There is solid evidence of their ability to learn.
The most sophisticated methods have no formula. It just takes a teacher’s interest in the particular unique intelligence of a certain child and their ability to turn on the switch. It takes a certain eye. Temple Grandin had been dismissed as beyond hope by the “experts”. Her mother refused to believe this and worked persistently on language and social skills in hopes her daughter could behave without raising eyebrows. It was her persistent devotion that helped Temple raise eyebrows in admiration in the academic world and prove that everyone’s perspective, no matter how obscure, has value.
It was Temple’s science teacher, however, who recognized her particular talents and could find the switch to her light bulb. His touch came from his own enthusiasm for his trade, not only for his scientific expertise, but his craft as a teacher. He saw that Temple was not a social misfit, but was several steps ahead of the crowd. She saw things that others couldn’t see yet.
A great teacher doesn’t appear to do much more than to throw on the switch, thought that is just about everything. They can either point the light in the right place or help find the sweet spot in the student’s brain. The great teacher is not about stuffing their own knowledge into young heads as if they were turkey carcasses. The great teacher can step back and applaud their students’ efforts without taking ownership. Education doesn’t work as a colonial game.