I started working with autistic people before I knew that’s what I was doing.
I hadn’t long started tutoring and was introduced to Mark. Mark was 7 years old, on the Autistic spectrum, had just been excluded from a special needs school for aggressive behaviours and was suicidal. When I arrived he would be sitting on his own in the middle of the playroom, refusing to engage with anyone else. Other tutors had been hired and he would scream and bite them as soon as they tried to move him out of his world and into their world.
In line with the theory of Joining (or Mirroring), in which I was later trained by The Options Institute, I adopted a different tack. Instead of trying to wrestle Mark into my world, I made my focus going to sit with him in his. Months passed during which Mark stayed in his own world, refusing to even acknowledge my presence. But after about 7 months, I noticed a slight shift. Mark was expressing more curiosity in what I might be doing with his toys. Mark started to watch me. He started to involve me. He even started to come to the door to wave me off. The breakthrough moment came when he looked at me after one of our games (they were now our games, not just his) and said “you’re really quite weird, aren’t you.” It was true. And it was also the first time he had coherently engaged with someone else and opened up to the possibility of other realities beyond his.
I saw Mark in the street with his mother four years later. He looked well, in the uniform of his new school, which was an inclusive school, taking in pupils of all abilities and needs. Meantime I had progressed to working with more and more young people on the Autistic spectrum. Some of those young people had less language than Mark, or barely any language at all. Yet I knew who they were, what they liked and disliked, and strove to meet them in a place that filled rooms with the sound of their joy. Others were more high-functioning and faced different sets of challenges in getting their needs met; coping with the demands of puberty, exams and the nuances of non-verbal communication.
As I wrote in a column for The Guardian in 2012, “It is often said that autistic people have more needs than the rest of us, whereas in my experience they simply seem a lot more clear about expressing what their needs actually are. It is also said that not many children with Autism live successfully as independent beings after reaching adulthood, when it could be just as softly asked, which one of us does?”
Helping young people on the Autistic spectrum, as well as their families, is a reminder that we are all creatures of society, who need each other and benefit from that need much more than we suffer it. It has been my privilege to work with every pupil I’ve sat with, and some of the finest, most remarkable teachers have been those young people of the Autistic spectrum.
Keone Wales has tutored through Osborne Cawkwell Tuition since 2013 and has taught over 500 students in English and History.