At the beginning of the school year, the counselor handed me my class list and a thick file folder. “You have a student with Asperger’s Syndrome,” he said. “You’ll need to read these.” He pointed out the student that we’ll call Joe and smiled. “I’ll expect you to have all of it read and assimilated by tomorrow morning.”
Opening the folder to find a stack of scholarly articles from respected journals written in tiny print, I answered, “Of course, piece of cake!” Fortunately, I had about ten days before I met Joe to take in the research. I would have a year to get to know him.
I thought about Joe as I read Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird. Although the stack of file folder articles was informative, I would have gained more understanding from her book written from the viewpoint of a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome. Kathy gets into ten-year-old Caitlin’s head and heart as she excels intellectually but makes her way uneasily through the fog of social expectations. My opinion of the book is corroborated with its National Book Award win.
Not a onetime wonder, Kathy has followed up with The Absolute Value of Mike. Mike, struggling with dyscalculia himself, takes on a project of raising $40,000 to bring an adoptive child from Romania. He takes on this venture in a town of people racked with problems – grief, emotional distance, poor judgment, depression, poverty – to name a few. Gladys refers to the Donover town sign with its missing letter to put a perspective on the community, “We’re a town of misfits, not families. I mean, look at the name of our town. Do over. We can’t get it right.”
In both books, Kathy portrays real people who deal with a difficulty rather than a difficulty housed in the body of a person. Her books are for people who want to increase their heart size and understanding with a good read.
As for Joe, we had our moments. One day in the middle of class, he blurted out that I wasn’t teaching right and explained how his last year's teacher did it. (Flashing through my mind from the thick folder: does not like change, has difficulty with empathy, lacks understanding of others’ feelings.) I shared episodes of his challenging behavior with our wonderful school psychologist who worked with him in a small group. Together we saw real progress in his social interactions over the course of the year. The climax came at the end-of-school awards day when I presented Joe with a second place win for his essay that I had submitted to a county contest sponsored and juried by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
I just wish I’d had Mockingbird to help me prepare for him instead of that boring technical file folder!