Get to know the person not the label

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 7th April 2014, 6:30 am
Date:22th October 2013.
Jonny Mitchell, head teacher of Thornhill Community Academy, Thornhill, Dewsbury.
Date:22th October 2013. Jonny Mitchell, head teacher of Thornhill Community Academy, Thornhill, Dewsbury.

Now he writes exclusively for the Reporter Series.

It was over 25 years ago now that Rain Man hit cinema screens, providing the world at large probably its first glimpse into the life of an adult with autism.

If you’d have asked me before that film what characterised an autistic person, I would have answered confidently: “Obviously, he’s good at drawing.” I had never heard the word before, and I was officially confused.

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So, 25 or so years ago, autistic children and adults would have been labelled weird, freakish, odd, nuts, idiots, stupid. Who knew that they could count precisely how many cocktail sticks had fallen onto the floor within a matter of seconds? Ignorance is a breeding ground for all sorts of offensive labels about all sorts of things which are just a bit different. We only have to cast our minds back a generation or two to recall some of the readily-used and accepted forms of address for foreigners arriving in the UK to prove that.

And, I suppose, of all the labels which autistic children and adults endure these days, the one that no longer holds any water is “unusual”. And why? Because it just isn’t unusual at all any more. Or are we, as a society, just more aware of it?

I don’t know the answer to that question, nor am I that bothered to. What is important is that society is able to accept that some people just aren’t wired in the same way as others.

By way of example, I thought I’d list a few things you just shouldn’t say to an autistic child and expect results:

- hold your horses (unless the horses look like they want to run away)

- wind your neck in (clearly a physical impossibility)

- take a chill pill (have them desperately looking round for the medicine cabinet)

- have a breather (just nonsense, really)

And don’t tell him you’re pulling his leg, unless you want an argument of some description. You will be met with the same confused face and level of irritation which confronted me when I explained to one of our autistic students that I wasn’t “that important really”, and that I was “just another cog in the wheel.” I could have throttled myself - the poor lad just glazed over, shook his head and walked off. Nice one, sir!

It is claimed that everyone is at least a little bit autistic. And, although I would never claim to be an expert, I know a fair bit about autism and the so-called spectrum. When you read about the difficulties and characteristics associated with autism, it is not too difficult to identify with some of them. “I do that! - I must be autistic.”

At Thornhill, where we have a resourced provision for Autistic Spectrum Disorder, life is never dull. We see behaviours which baffle, bemuse, frustrate and challenge us, every day. But we are beginning to understand what lies behind these behaviours, and finding effective ways to deal with them so that everybody can get on with the business of education.

Autism is not about labels and diagnoses. In my limited experience, it is about celebrating difference, not pressurising children to conform artificially, but to allow them to develop in ways with which they are comfortable.

In National Autism Week, perhaps we could all adapt our thinking and show those dealing with autism that we can support them. I was reminded recently that autism doesn’t define someone. It is part of them, but it is not everything about them.

And if you want to get inside an autistic child’s head, you only have to read the fabulous novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and you’ll be close to getting there.