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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Wong

Scratch the Surface

With permission from the wonderful ‘Diana’ (name changed to Wonder Woman alter ego), I’m sharing this with you all. 

Diana is 7 years old. She had trouble in class: sitting still, focusing, writing, controlling impulses. Her teachers were very supportive, but she was having difficulty adjusting to the school environment and to her peers. Diana’s behaviour could be disruptive, and at times she even had her parents at their wit’s end. 

Fast forward and Diana now has an autism diagnosis. Surrounded by a wonderful community and strength-based supports, life and school are going well. 

Armed with this background information, it’s time to bend your mind, and change the way you look at autism and behaviour. It’s time to scratch the surface. 

I was blessed to have Diana visit recently and have a sleepover. She was delightful, and wanted to turn on and off every piece of equipment in the house. Instead of telling her not to touch, I sat with her and watched as she marveled at the many variations of outcomes when pushing the XBox control buttons. The TV was off, the controller was simply turning on and off the XBox unit, ejecting, etc. She’d try different combinations, exhausting each possible option. This was done systematically with a recurring pattern, allowing her to replicate each step and explain to me what would happen. Was this behaviour defiant? No. Was she breaking anything? No. Was it annoying? Possibly, and this is where a quick “Stop that now” would have immediately ended her exploration, reaffirming to her young mind that her curiosity is not valid. It also would have stopped me gaining insight into her systematic pattern of trial and error, and how quickly she would commit the steps to memory. 

In the morning, while the rest of the house slept, I was lucky enough to spend more one on one time with Diana. Sitting at the kitchen table together, and looking at pictures on the wall, Diana asked, “Michelle, what is Jimmy contemplating in the middle photo?” I looked closely at the picture (included here) and I realised (for the first time), that Jimmy’s body language in the picture certainly did indicate contemplation. His back is to the camera, his arms are folded in front of him, his head is slightly tilted and his weight is on his left leg. This picture has been on my wall for over three years. I look at it regularly and love the aesthetics of the black and white picture of a jetty, with Jimmy looking at the ocean. I have never once recognised the details indicating his state of mind, or wondered what he was thinking. Diana went on to analyse every photograph in the same manner, raising points of observation that I had never once considered. She particularly liked Jimmy’s smile in one photo as she told me that she could tell he was excited and happy at the same time, causing him to smile in a funny way with his eyes wider than his regular smile, and his eyebrows higher than normal.

I remind you, Diana is 7 years old, Year One at school. This level of comprehension is the expectation in secondary school analysis. At her age, students are expected to answer questions specific to the text or picture. For example, imagine an illustration of a black cat running towards a tree. The question might be “What colour was the cat?” Or if we are extending thinking, “Why was the cat running up the tree?” By offering closed questions, would we ever discover if children like Diana are actually thinking about the nervous twitch of the cat’s tail, or that the cat’s owner is distressed because the cat hasn’t appeared for dinner. Year One children would not comprehend on this level, and they certainly wouldn’t be using the word ‘contemplating’ in context as Diana did. 

Diana is a child who is consistently told to stop, sit still, hurry up. All reasonable requests in a classroom of 30 children. But wow, what is the world missing out on when we damper this level of observation and thought? How many teachers throughout her education will scratch the surface to see beyond the behaviour, beyond the curriculum, and nurture this deeper level of thinking? 

If we don’t allow time for curious exploration, room for discussion, and space to observe from a young age, we are systematically conditioning children to curb their natural way of thinking. Is it any wonder that so many autistic adults have spent most of their lives questioning their thought processes, learning to keep their ideas and observations to themselves? 

It is time for us to create space. Space for movement, space for thinking, and space to thrive. Let's all scratch the surface and discover the magic of ‘Diana’ moments in our world.

I would love to hear your stories of discovery and magic. Please post them in the comments below 🤗

Extended strategy for teachers:

Scenario: Student appears to be daydreaming and not doing their work. 

  1. Quietly observe the way the child/adolescent in your class is interacting with their environment. Are their eyes on one spot? Is there any movements (hands, legs, leaning back on chair)? 

  2. Sit or crouch next to them (not in front of them), just be, and pay close attention to the order they are doing things or what they are doing. 

  3. Ask a question around what they're doing and listen. Give space for thinking. Silence is powerful. If no verbal reaction, start working on the task yourself (in a separate text book). If they stay quiet, move on and repeat again next lesson. Be consistent, and the rewards will be immense. 

The outcome of this strategy is powerful, and the response is often not what you were expecting because every autistic student thinks differently and definitely not the same way you think. When autistic students build trust in you through this exercise, they will grow in confidence as you are creating a safe space to thrive. 

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