Out of the rain

Luke Jackson, 13, has Asperger syndrome. He's also a gifted writer. In an edited extract from his forthcoming book about life with AS, he tells teachers why school is a minefield for young people like him

Asperger syndrome comes under the umbrella of autism. That's quite a useful way to think of the autistic spectrum - as an umbrella with lots of people under it all in different places. The trouble with that analogy is that some people are being rained on a lot harder than others and that doesn't really happen with an umbrella...

The problem with school

For any kid, whether they enjoy it or not, school is a whole minefield of challenges and new experiencesI For kids on the autistic spectrum, it seems that we spend our whole time stepping on these mines and the whole school experience becomes a very difficult one.

When I was in junior school I had all sorts of problems with bullying, sound sensitivity (why on earth they have to deafen everyone with a bell, numerous times a day, I will never know!), understanding exactly what I was meant to be doing, forgetting stuff and being too slow at most things. At school everything changes so oftenI going into a classroom to find that we have to join another class because the teacher is off, or move desks for no apparent reason, all adds to the hassle.

Everything is so busy and everyone else, the kids and the teachers, seems to have a purpose and I never have quite fathomed what that is. I know we are there to learn, but there seems to be so much more going on. It is like beginning a game without knowing any of the rules or passwords.

Any classroom assistants, teachers or other professionals reading this, please try to realise that instinctively knowing where to go and who to talk to and what to do next just isn't possible for a kid on the autistic spectrum. If a teacher says "Get out your books and turn to page 10" and doesn't say "Now start answering those questions", then the AS kid is not likely to know; so to tell them off for doing no work that lesson is unfair. I have lost count of the times I have been told to copy a title off the blackboard and then sat patiently waiting for what to do next, whilst everyone else scribbled frantically. Only later, as a teacher wanders around the classroom like a hungry animal, carefully selecting the tastiest morsel, do I usually become the unfortunate prey as I get pounced upon with a barrage of "Jackson, why are you sat doing nothing?" and "Get on with your work".

I used to have a teacher who helped me at school, but at the time I didn't have a clue what she helped me with. Teaching assistants, whatever level of understanding the child you are working with has got, I reckon you should still try to involve the child so that they know what is going on.

I also used to have an occupational therapist come into school and do stuff like making me stand on one leg and lie on the floor and scrunch my toes together and then relax them, and throw beanbags at boards. One minute I was sat in a classroom and the next I was carted off to the hall with a few other kids to do this stuff. No one ever told me why! It was unsettling to get used to what I was doing and then suddenly have to change.

The key to helping a child on the autistic spectrum is to always make sure you tell them very clearly what is going on. I cannot stress this enough. The same applies all through an AS person's life. If you explain to them clearly in terms that you may consider below their intelligence, it really does help. I breathe a sigh of relief when I know exactly what is going on and why.

Not to mention homework

If you are a teacher reading this, then you may not like what I have to say. First of all, what do we go to school to do? DuhI schoolwork, of course! I know a lot of people will go on about teamwork and social skills and organisation skills but generally the main part of school is to do lessons.

At the end of lessons the teachers tell us to get our homework diaries out and write down that we must finish the work we have started in class. If they don't tell us to do that, then we have to do Exercise 7G, questions 1-I9, for example. Yes, you guessed itI all this stuff is out of our "school" textbooks. We are told to look on the internet for stuff when we could easily do that at school. All in all, "homework" is identical to "schoolwork", the only difference being that it is done at home! I think that our time at home should be just that - time at home.

School is hard for anyone. There is a lot to remember, a lot to organise and a lot to learn. That applies to kids without any difficulties. For kids with AS or any kind of difficulty, it is even harder because we have to work at stuff that comes naturally to others. I don't think that anyone would expect someone with one leg to be able to keep up with everything that two-legged people were doing, but yet people with AS are expected to keep up with everything at school and very few allowances are made. I know I sound like a sulky kid, but it's all very unfair.

There are many days when I have great difficulty remembering what I am meant to be doing from one minute to the next. I get distracted very easily and things that are important to others often don't seem so to me, and vice versa.

I cannot keep up with the speed at which the teachers tell us what to write in our homework diaries. I am too busy trying to pack away and worrying about where I am going next to do that kind of stuff too. Sometimes I do write stuff down, but I scribble it so quickly that I cannot read it or it just doesn't make sense.

I suppose I should give advice on how to cope with having homework and how to make it easier to do. This does bug me because I feel as if I am accepting and even contributing to something that I think is wrong. As far as I am concerned, home is home and school is school and never the twain should meet. So, here it comes.

* Try to arrange to do your homework in the library at dinner or stay late after school to do it. This works best for me. It is schoolwork we are doing after all.

* If you can't do the work at school, then maybe you could swap houses with someone and do your work there. I find that doing homework anywhere other than home is best.

* If you have to do it at home, then take a deep breath and tell your parent that they are not to let you do anything else till your homework is done (and be prepared for battle when you don't want them to enforce this).

* Set up your own "homework" area and make sure no one interferes with it.

* Try to incorporate homework into part of your routine rather than sitting and feeling resentful that it has to be done.

* Try to think of it as revising rather than an extension of schoolwork. This makes it more acceptable because, horrible as it is, we have to revise for exams. Teachers can only teach us, not learn for us.

Not much fun and games

If I have succeeded in getting even one games teacher to understand anything at all about the nature of AS and the difficulties we experience in games, then writing this book will have been worthwhile. All AS kids reading this, make sure that you or your parent shows at least this bit to the games teacher.

I have said loads of times that we are not all the same, so there may be exceptions, but I reckon there aren't many. Most AS kids genuinely have a really hard time with games, we are not just being lazy. I have never been any good at football or any team sports. I hate them and will do all I can to avoid playing them. There are quite a few reasons for this. I have poor co-ordination and am not very good at catching, throwing, kicking and controlling a ball. I have enough trouble controlling my arms and legs actually.

I don't hang around in a group and everyone is aware of how bad I am at team sports so no one ever wants me in their team. The familiar hustle and bustle, murmuring and giggling that follow the instruction "Get into teams", are always accompanied by the predictable "Aw Sir, do we have to?"

or "No way are we having him" as the games teacher allocates me to a random team, rather like a spare piece of luggage that no one can be bothered to carry. Their feelings are reciprocated, no way do I want to be in their team either!

Another reason why I hate team sports so much is that everyone seems to be running around and screaming and shouting and it is all so disjointed. I cannot work out where the noise is coming from or who it is directed at and it all becomes very confusing and, sorry to sound wimpish, it is very frightening (though, of course, I am now a cool teenager and so cannot say that!). When I finally work out what I am meant to be doing or where I am meant to be running to, they have started doing something else and everyone is jeering at me for getting it wrong. I have never quite fathomed out what the "it" is, but whatever it is, it's pointless - at least so it seems to me!

Chasing a ball around a pitch seems futile. In basketball or a sport like that, someone jumps for a ball and, even if they don't catch it, everyone cheers. All very strange! It's at these times that I really do feel as if I come from another planet and, to be quite honest, I like mine better.

Games teachers, please don't torture us anymore. If you know someone has AS or dyspraxia, then they genuinely have difficulties (understatement) with your subject. When we leave school we are not going to be footballers, rugby players or any other team players, so is it not possible to find out what we are good at now and find some way to help us in that instead?

AS people are often very good at individual sports such as running (remember Forrest Gump), rock climbingI in fact anything that doesn't involve lots of interaction with others. If the school has a gym, is it not possible for the AS person to go there and work out whilst the others play football or their team sport? This is a recognised disability and these problems are part of it. It is a fundamental part of who we are, so please try to understand and help us in any way.

**************

For some people, school is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. For me at the moment the hole (the school) has changed its shape slightly to accommodate me, and the square peg (me) has tried to soften its edgesI A couple of years ago I would have said that I would never have fitted. At the moment I do my work, go from class to class and look forward to home times and weekends. I think I will be able to do my GCSEs and get along OK, although I can never say I enjoy school. Does anyone? At least I've gone from hating school to not liking it. There is a big difference.

If things get bad again and it can't be sorted, then the option of being taught at home is there. I have got through many a bad day with that knowledge. I think I must be like one of those people who can give up smoking if they have a cigarette on them as back-up, just in case. They never touch it but it is there. At the moment I think I will stay at school, but who knows?

'Freaks, Geeks amp; Asperger Syndrome' by Luke Jackson will be published by Jessica Kingsley on August 22 at pound;12.95. TES readers can order it for pound;11.95 inc pamp;p from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 116 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JB. Tel: 020 7833 2307; fax 020 7837 2917; email post@jkp.com. Cheques should be made payable to Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd

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