By Al Friesen, resource teacher, Langley
For most of my life, I didn’t know who I was. I knew that being around people was hard, the world was noisy, and I focused on minutiae that others ignored. I felt broken for a long time, constantly berating myself for my inability to be like everyone else and do what others took for granted.
It wasn’t until I read Steve Silberman’s book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, that I realized there might be a reason why I felt and acted this way. Initially, I read the book to learn more about some of my students, but as I kept reading, I saw myself in people like Henry Cavendish and Asperger’s “little professors,” with circumscribed special interests and unusual patterns of thought. I remember staying up well past midnight to finish the book and the growing feeling of confusion over whether or not this really represented me.
A few more books and some online tests led to multiple sessions with a psychologist, which ultimately resulted in an adult diagnosis of autism. The diagnosis reshaped my understanding of my past and called into question my future as a teacher, as a parent, and as a husband.
My experiences and struggles, both as a teacher and a student, suddenly made sense. When I was a student, I could see the answers to math problems as if they appeared beside the question, but would become frustrated when my teachers repeatedly asked me to show my work. Why? I knew the answer!
I might have benefited from a teacher explaining to me that not everyone could find the solution so quickly, that showing my work was a way of illustrating how I interpreted the question, and, if I got it wrong, the teacher could help me find my mistake.
Embarrassing social interactions made more sense, too: in Grade 11, I had asked a classmate out on a date. She replied that she needed to ask her parents’ permission before she could say yes, and never spoke to me again. I spent weeks wondering when she was going to talk to her parents and get back to me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was letting me know in gentle terms that she wasn’t interested in me.
I still find it difficult to understand idiomatic language, that “soon” doesn’t always mean soon and “later” can be anything from an hour to never. Now that I recognize this about myself, I tell people when I meet them that I prefer they be blunt with me, and if I’m doing something wrong or not doing something they expect, they should feel free to tell me so in no uncertain terms. This isn’t humility, but survival in a world where verbal communication is still a significant challenge for me.
In my ideal world, a teacher colleague would say to me, “Al, there’s this kid who’s struggling in math. Can you give me one strategy to try?” or “Al, the way this kid is acting is bothering me. I’m not asking you to do anything except listen for a bit—is that okay?” Clear expectations and clear boundaries. Alas, it’s not an ideal world, and I continue to muddle through by half-guessing, half-intuiting what others want and, hopefully, stepping on as few toes as possible.
But as a result of my struggle, I have a lot of empathy toward kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and can help some of them navigate this neurotypical world a bit better. Sometimes this means interpreting for them the expression on their teacher’s face. Sometimes this means helping teachers understand their students a bit better by interpreting their behaviour and reactions in class: a child with ASD who continually kicks things isn’t just angry, but might feel frustrated that they can’t communicate what they want with their teacher. Alternatively, the student might be frustrated with how loud it is in the classroom or might just be upset about the fact that their clothes are uncomfortable.
Depending on the metric used, one in about sixty people have autism. That’s a lot of people, especially if by “autism” we only (and incorrectly) think of people who are nonverbal or echolalic (repeating phrases spoken to them or that they’ve heard before), have odd gaits and mannerisms, or need significant help to function in a neurotypical world.
As teachers, we see some students like this who seem locked away from the world, who cannot communicate their needs and desires with us. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we know of quite a few people who have been successful because of their neurodivergence, including Hollywood stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Daryl Hannah. Other notable neurodiverse people include the inventor of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri; John Elder Robison, the genius mechanic behind Kiss’s many pyrotechnic feats; and Dr. Temple Grandin, an expert in animal behaviour.
In between these two extremes, however, are students whose outward mild oddness (or even seeming normalcy!) hides frustration, confusion, and hopelessness. Depression is one of the most common comorbidities in people with autism, with anxiety and sensory processing difficulties close behind. As someone who has depression, social anxiety, and sensitivities to sound, light, touch, and taste, schools can sometimes feel inhospitable, even as a teacher with much more agency than I ever had as a student.
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what it means to have autism, and I wonder how many other teachers are out there like me. Are the number of teachers in BC with exceptionalities similar to the prevalence in the general population? Or is it lower because of the social nature of the job? Unfortunately, the stigma around ASD makes it difficult to know how many other teachers have autism.
Only a few people know that I’m autistic, including perhaps three colleagues and some family members. I worry I would have to go above and beyond to prove my competence, especially at a new school or with new colleagues in the building, if people knew about my diagnosis. Would I face greater scrutiny from district staff? Would it be harder to get a job at a different school? Writing this article, signing my name to a piece of paper that says, “Yes, I’m autistic!” and sharing it with my colleagues has been a difficult process. I don’t know how it will be received. I do know, however, that sharing this diagnosis has resulted in some incredible connections at school, particularly with students and parents.
As a resource teacher, I work with students with many exceptionalities, including autism. In this role, I’ve met more than a few parents who have felt acutely worried about their children. One mother was struggling with her son’s behaviour at school and was in despair over his future. That young man reminded me a lot of myself at his age: impulsive, angry, and generally disinterested in school. There was a moment in one particular conversation where I could have tied everything up and walked away, but I took a chance and shared my story with her. She wrote to me later saying she appreciated my honesty, and that she had started to feel more hopeful over her son’s future as a result of this conversation.
Sharing my diagnosis with more people could help more families like this, and I feel strongly that neurodiverse children should have more people in their lives who share their exceptionality. I met an amazing teacher candidate last year with a learning disability who shared with me their struggle through high school, mostly because of the low expectations of their teachers. This incredible individual made it through a school system that prizes print above other modalities, and despite all the odds against them, is now teaching in a school here in BC. I know they will have an incredibly positive influence on children like them in their classes, and I know our school system will be a better place for having not just this teacher, but other neurodiverse individuals with the courage to share their stories with their students and their peers.
That’s one reason why I’m writing this. If there are other neurodiverse people out there who are considering becoming teachers because they want to help people like them, they should be welcomed into our profession with open arms rather than closed minds. We all know that teaching can be a lonely job. If I can offer support to any teachers, present or future, who are like me, I’d love to help!
Many people prefer person-first language when referring to a diagnosis (e.g., she has autism) to emphasize the individual, rather than the diagnosis. The author of this article prefers identity-first language (e.g., I am autistic) when referring to himself. In situations where an individual has not expressed their preference, BCTF editorial standards use person-first language.