Asperger’s & Teaching

RAMONESOur winter term is wrapping up, and so is my first experience of teaching a student with Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the first day of class, this student (whom I’ll name Max, although that is not his real name), interrupted me while I went over the syllabus and stammered, “I might have to leave the room if it just becomes too much,” and then added abruptly, “Just so you know.” Now, as a former teacher, being interrupted by a student does not phase me at all, but I wondered what “it” becoming too much might mean. However, I brushed it off. I figured that if his leaving the room became an issue than we’d have a conversation about it later. No need to make anything a big deal until it becomes a big deal, right?

The class I taught was Arts in New York City. I developed the curriculum for this course, and I have a huge personal investment and interest in its success, from a professional and personal standpoint. I am attached to the course in many, many ways and, in one of those beautiful examples of curriculum working, I feel the students became attached to the course, too.

Especially Max.

Max never left the classroom once. He was never absent. He was never late. He did all his work beautifully. He participated every day, sometimes strangely, sometimes abruptly, but he was engaged with me, the material, and the other students quite seamlessly. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have guessed that he had Asperger’s if I hadn’t gone to his Student Success Advocate and inquired lightly, “What’s up with Max?”  But knowing his diagnosis did help, I believe.

As I reflect on teaching him, I realize I didn’t give him any accommodations that I didn’t also give the other students. I’m trying to think about what worked for him in this class, and I came up with this:

This class had a integral experiential component. Each week we experienced the art we talked about. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, had a film screening of the documentary Planet B-boy, visited the 9/11 Memorial, and yesterday our last trip was to a small independent gallery called Station Independent Projects to see my friend Vandana Jain’s exhibit “Shorthand for Luxury” and listen to her talk about her work. We did NOT travel as a pack; the students had to find their way to these places alone which I felt was very important. I met the students at each space, gave them an assignment to complete, and they went through the spaces in in small groups, pairs, or alone. I gave them my cell phone number in case they needed it, and each trip Max texted/called me multiple times for directions and reminders. But this last trip to the gallery, which I might add was in the most elusive space tucked neatly among side streets in the Lower East Side, he found all by himself! No texts, no calls.

Max loves music, and each week in class as we talked about visual art, dance, or memorials he made connections to music that he shared with the class. He brought his guitar (and an amp!) to class once, and I had to remind him not to play it during instructional time, but after class I listened to him rock out. All of his Art on my Mind journal assignments, which were self-guided, explored his love for playing and listening to music. He was given an academic space to explore a personal passion, his passion was validated, and his writing became narrative, analytical, and had a voice full of heart. The ability to guide some of his own assignments to meet his interests kept him engaged. I believe he appreciated this more than many in the class.

And, lastly, it was pretty apparent that Max and I were the only White people in the room and that there were pop culture references that we shared that most other students did not. This was particularly strong because Max loves music from the 70’s and 80’s such as The Ramones, David Bowie, and other bands and I, too, love. When I played the Talking Heads video “Love for Sale” during our discussion on Art & Consumer Culture, Max and I were the only ones in the class who knew the lyrics. I did not hide this connection because I could tell it made him happy; he felt recognized and aligned with someone. I played music the other students loved, too, including Jay-Z (which turned into a class sing along!), but for those few minutes of the young David Byrne singing, Max and I were joined in the common language of geeking out. For a kid whom I sense has felt like an outsider a lot, I could tell this meant something big to him.

One last thing: My teaching, this curriculum, and the trips weren’t the only things that worked for Max. I have to give big recognition to our students. Our community college has a mandatory full-time first year experience program, and the students travel to all their classes in cohorts within houses to forge a sense of community and collective responsibility (and hopefully increase retention). However, for the winter term they got all mixed together. I was amazed and proud to witness the transfer of that sense of community and collegiality into our classroom within a mixed class of students from House 1, 2, 3, and 4. While Max said random comments and made somewhat strange points in class, not a single student ever dismissed his point of view or mocked his stream-of-consciousness way of thinking. They always wove his ideas into the class discussions. That is a true community of learners.

Watching Max progress in this class and really dig into the material has been incredible as an educator. I wish I could call his mom and sing his praises, but this is college and he is 18 so I can’t. Instead I tell him, and he smiles awkwardly and shuffles his feet and fumbles with his papers and notebooks and looks down at the ground, a cascade of curls hiding his eyes as he struggles to take the compliment. I hope he knows what a genuine rock star he is.

I’ll wrap up with words from Max’s final paper on The Ramones:

“Blitzkrieg Bop” makes me wonder if I will have the same love for this song 20 years later in my life. Will that punk rock energy still be inside me, or will it fade away like the bands that played the music? If that happens, I know I am done for because life is not worth living unless I have a perpetual passion to be fast and angry like Punk Rock.

Don’t worry, Max. You’ll be punk rock forever.

[I just realized, in editing this, that Max is the name of the kid with Asperger’s on the TV show Parenthood. No connection intended! Max’s real name reminds me of a relative of my grandpa’s, and my grandpa’s name was Max. This is how I give folks pseudonyms–through random associations in my own crazy head. But, for the record, I do love Parenthood and I want to be a Braverman.]