Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Human Condition

A few days ago, I watched a guy hit 7 straight free throws. There was nothing world shaking about that. What was amazing was that 7 of 7 rebounds after those made shots bounced right back to where he stood. And he was doing it on purpose. He wasn't just practicing making shots, but shots that were so on-target that the rebounds were bouncing right back to where he stood, on two hops, 15 feet from the basket, so consistently that he didn't have to move his feet to secure the ball and take his next shot.

When he missed the eighth shot, clanging the back of the iron, he looked at me and mumbled, "Just getting my autism on," then went back to nail his next two, with the same automatic return rebound. It was a moment of insight for me.

I am autistic, as well.

I have OCD.

I'm a schizophrenic.

I'm bi-polar.

I have social anxiety disorder.

I'm hyperactive.

I have depression.

I'm an addict.


I'm a savant.

I have Tourettes.

I'm whatever you call it when one usually finds language easy and fun, but struggles with mathematical concepts, even sometimes very basic ones, combined with a tendency to procrastinate and a bit of a phone phobia.

To some degree, we all have or are every "condition" known to medical science and every other undiagnosed one as well, because they are all expressions of the human condition. Some aspects of what it means to be human are so pronounced in the personalities of some of us that we can lump those people together under a heading, while others are so prevalent that labels are not particularly useful, so we call that "normal."

I know that everything on my list here doesn't fit neatly into the proper definition of "disorder" as psychologists use it, but the National Institute for Mental Health estimates that more than 26 percent of us suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. That's a number so high that it calls into question the whole concept of "normal." In a world in which 1 in 4 of us, at any given moment, are "abnormal," what does it mean to be normal? And I would assert, as a mere observer of the human condition, that the number comes much closer to 4 in 4, especially when you consider that our times of intense OCD, for instance, might be relatively passing ones of a week or a day or even a late evening of scrubbing the shower tiles well beyond your basic clean. And just as that unknown free throw shooter found value and pleasure in his passing autistic moment, these disorders, indeed often show up as blessings when creativity, problem solving, or self-reflection are called for. I would even argue that they are all adaptive traits, ones the human species needs in some measure in order to survive, even if we don't yet fully understand how or why.

No, we've all experienced the full range of what it means to be human, including all of the officially recognized disorders and beyond. It's the human condition, and it shows up as a problem when it bumps up against our ability to function within society and its institutions. Naturally, in extreme cases, these conditions can cause a person to be a danger to himself or others, but most of the time the problems we face have at least as much to do with the inflexibility of our institutions as it does the individual humans who are showing up as a problem.

As a teacher, I've known students who've shown signs of every condition and disorder on my list and more. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every child at one time or another displays the symptoms of every one of them. And in over a decade in preschool classrooms with an infinitely flexible play-based curriculum, I can honestly say that we've always found a comfortable place for every child within our community without resorting to drugs or some sort of segregation. It isn't always easy. We've had to scramble to figure out new ways of teaching, new ways of reaching out and into children, new ways of organizing our play and our day to suit the whole community. But, then again, we've had to do that in both large and small ways for every child.

Most of them have gone on to more traditional schools after 3 years, ready for the challenges, already becoming experts in the "work arounds" they've needed to develop in order to thrive in a world that doesn't always match their strengths. To my great frustration and even despair, however, too many have gone on to less accommodating classrooms where drugs and segregation enter into the conversation. I can't help but see this as a sign that the institutions themselves have become more important than the individuals they are ostensibly there to serve.

I know, I know, fixing the institutions would be expensive and impractical, which is the argument that is always trotted out in opposition to every progressive reform. And I'm certainly not advocating for parents to ignore the advice of their children's doctors.

In fact, I don't even really know why I'm writing this piece, other than to share my little epiphany. Maybe this insight is already old hat to you. I hope so. I hope I'm the last to know, because part of my own personal "disorder" is that I'm often very slow to learn things that others find natural and easy.

Which, frankly, is everyone's disorder, because every human finds some things hard and some things easy, things that make sense and things that don't, things that we can learn via straight lines and others that require a long and winding road. It's the human condition and the only "cure" is to tap into the store of empathy we've saved up during our lives of being human and learn to fill in the imperfections of others, and trust that others will make up for the imperfections in us.

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Unknown said...

Wow. So good Tom. I always love your perspective.
Love, VERY abnormal, Becky

Unknown said...

What is "normal" these days? Thanks for sharing. it has made me think.

Anonymous said...

I love this. As a high schooler with crippling social anxiety I often get made fun of or glared at because I eat alone at lunch and never take up lunch invitations because i`m afraid to eat with others. I notice other people do it too but no one care because that person is "normal" and i`m apparently not. I`m glad someone shares a view similar to mine.

Floor Pie said...

I get what you're saying here, Tom, and I don't disagree. At the same time, as a parent of a child with Aspergers I have to say it's a lot more complicated than this. Aspergers is not just a little anxiety or quirkiness here and there. It’s not just a label or a manifestation of the human condition. It is real, it is its own thing, and it deserves to be recognized as such.

Like you, I don't consider Aspergers a disorder. I just "unliked" Autism Speaks on Facebook because their focus on finding a "cure" irritates me. It’s not a disease. It’s a different way of being. There are challenges, but it comes with incredible strengths. He's a racehorse. He's phenomenal. I wouldn’t want him any other way.

But he absolutely does need to be in a different school. “Segregated,” as you call it, but I would never characterize that way. Aspergers is counterintuitive and incredibly frustrating at times, even for the parents and especially to overworked teachers with little-to-no experience with Aspergers. Sometimes Aspergers presents as mere rudeness. (Remember how he kept blowing out the jack-o-lantern candles at our preschool’s Halloween party last year?) For better or for worse, most people just don’t know what to do with that. And in spite of their best intentions, they make it worse.

There are a handful of autism inclusion programs in the Seattle school district where students are in a general ed classroom with their peers but with a higher ratio of adults to support them. Everyone in the building knows what Aspergers looks like. They see it every day, every school year. As a result, they have a bigger toolbox to support their students, which helps set a tone for acceptance in the school community. There are other classmates with Aspergers, so he won’t be the only one in his class. (to be continued...)

Floor Pie said...

Part the Second:

The school district is trying to phase these programs out. I suppose they have the best of intentions, kind of like what you’re talking about in your post. “Let’s just support all the kids with all different disabilities under the same roof in every school!” Wouldn’t that be nice? But in reality, it just isn’t working out. All over the city, parents of autistic children have insisted this doesn’t work. Maybe if there were more helpers in every school it could. But that’s not likely to happen.

The Boy was denied services all last year. When we finally got an official diagnosis in December, we had to sit tight while the school did its own evaluation. Now, even with an IEP, the school is only equipped to provide services for two class periods a week. The special ed teacher is amazing, but she’s spread incredibly thin. He needs more support, and he’s simply not going to get it under that roof.

Changing schools was a difficult decision to make. But it was even more difficult to figure out how to actually make it happen. The school district does not want parents shopping around for these programs, and they make it very hard to find even the most basic information about them. In the end, his special ed teacher’s supervisor at the district helped us amend his IEP so that he is now legally entitled to be in a more supportive school. But I won’t know for another month if they’ll actually reassign him, and I have no control over which school he’s reassigned to.

We’re not slinking off in shame because he didn’t fit in. We’re looking for a school where “fitting in” isn’t part of the equation in the first place. I wouldn’t be doing all this if I didn’t absolutely believe that he’ll be better off in a school that handles Aspergers as a matter of routine. This is not what segregation looks like. This is a parent trying like hell to give her amazing child a chance to be successful in his school community.

Time will tell if it actually works. In the meantime, I want to believe that it will...

Teacher Tom said...

@Floor Pie . . . Thanks for taking the time to write this! I love having some quality FP writing on this blog.

And I'm convinced that what you are doing right now will work. Parents with children who do not learn in the "normal" way, as you know, have to become fierce advocates, which you've become. You are doing exactly what you need to do given reality. No question.

I don't think we disagree. I certainly don't mean to minimize any diagnosis or to imply they aren't real. My criticism is of schools that are pretty much uniformly set up to serve only a certain type of learner. We've had two different kids leave Woodland Park as happy, productive members of our learning community only to hit public schools and have their parents told, in one case, that if they don't get their kid on drugs, the child will be expelled, and another required that his mother attend class with him every day or he would be expelled. Seriously. And one of these was one of those "star belly" schools.

My wish, as you know, is for the scales to fall from the eyes of our society, bringing on the epiphany that what we preschool teachers call a "play-based" curriculum, and what others might call "inquiry-based," is the best way to create schools that serve all the kids. One of the things I dislike the most about setting up special programs and special classes for "special" kids is that the rest of us don't get to benefit from what they bring to the table. I love having children on the spectrum (diagnosed or un-diagnosed) in our class because they can single-handedly cause a tide that rises all the boats. The rest of us need them. And they, in turn, need us.

Floor Pie said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Tom.(And thanks for taking the time to read my epic comments. Can you tell I spend a lot of time thinking about this?)

In the autism inclusion programs, there are general ed kids as well, and they do get to benefit from their classmates' differences. (In theory, that is...hopefully in reality, too. We'll see.)Aspergers/autism is hard. These kids really do need the special expertise that these programs provide. Maybe that's stigmatizing, but it doesn't have to be. I see it as empowering.

Play-based/inquiry-based school worked for The Boy to a point in his preschool and quite well in your summer program. But it has its limitations, too. He's a kid who really wants to sit at his desk and do math problems. (He insists that math tests are his favorite part of school.) He thrives on rules and routine.

I have further thoughts, but it's time to get my dad at the airport! Would love to chat in person about this sometime....

Floor Pie said...

PS - Those examples from your former students? Did that happen at JSIS? I've heard they're not the best at dealing with students' differences. Ironic, no?

noah said...

This - all this, comments and post - is brilliance.

rosesmama said...

The years I spent cooking for a residence hotel that housed folks with psychiatric histories gave me a lot of time to think about "normal". And I came to much the same conclusions.

My "normal" but pretty smart and unusual 9 year old just listened to Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine on CD. Aside from the fairy tale ending, the portrayal of an Asperger's child was believable and enables my daughter to get an idea of why one of her friends is so hard to understand.

It helps those of us who are "normal" to recognize the parts of our experience that are on edges, rather than always "drifting toward the center'.

:) said...

Your post resonates so deeply with me. I think I have read it at least 15 times. I wish my son could of started at your preschool. Maybe things would be different now in the 7th grade. I send my overly labeled child to school and on the best days those labels don't matter, he shines. On other days, I can totally relate to Floor PIe who commented above. Keep up the good work Teacher TOM!