In the run up to Autism Week, Eleanor Caldwell visits a special unit in Glasgow where pupils with Asperger's syndrome have displayed a particular aptitude for languages
French is a popular subject in the communication disorder unit at Hillpark Secondary in Glasgow. The pupils rate the language, along with English and maths, as a useful and not too difficult subject.
Initially this may seem surprising. The 11 S1-S4 youngsters attending the CDU, which was the first of its type in Glasgow, all have Asperger's syndrome, a relatively mild autistic disorder characterised by pedantry in speech and awkwardness in social interaction.
The problem sometimes goes undiagnosed in mainstream schools: teachers can misconstrue a pupil's awkward behaviour or facial expression and think his inappropriate comments are cheek. The problem is most acute in subjects where social interaction is important, such as languages. So young people with Asperger's syndrome can end up missing out on these.
However, as more children are properly diagnosed, a fuller understanding of the condition is offering a much broader range of educational opportunity. The CDU pupils at Hillpark are taught the full curriculum and are supported in some mainstream classes by the unit's five subject teachers.
Vivienne Wire is the French teacher. Originally a mainstream teacher, Mrs Wire sees autism as a different way of thinking and learning, not as a deficit. Teaching French to a youngster with Asperger's syndrome, she says, directly addresses the social and communication problems and gives them a chance to overcome these.
Also, the pupils have many strengths in favour of language learning, she says. Good rote memory, for example, is ideal for vocabulary learning. Youngsters are keen on routine and this, coupled with a lower level of self-consciousness about speaking out, works well with greetings and instructions in French classes. This lack of self-consciousness brings an added ability to repeat accurately and mimic speech, so a good French accent can develop naturally.
The barriers to learning are more difficult to overcome in mainstream language classes. Paired speaking work is particularly difficult and a few pupils with Asperger's syndrome may find it difficult to take on different personae in role play work.
In a combined S1S2 CDU French class, the five boys respond well to morning greetings. They offer to write the date on the board and are keen to know the order of work in the lesson. Mrs Wire has written a step-by-step guide for this on the board. "Our pupils can easily feel under pressure. It's important to them to know how long they will be spending on each activity," she explains.
She then introduces the topic of the weather. The boys are vocal as they are taught key phrases. Some excellent French accents highlight their ability to mimic.
The pupils show a broad range of attention spans; while two boys are keen to answer every question, others appear not to be taking part. However, as Mrs Wire invites the group to give different weather conditions for different areas of France, the whole group is animated and shows a good knowledge of French geography. They correctly identify Andorra, for example.
One boy who appears not to have participated asks if he can work on the computer instead. Before he logs on to a French CD-Rom, he offers an almost flawless phrase on the weather in the south-west of France.
The rest of the class then place their own small weather symbols on a worksheet map and describe the weather. This is the type of activity that could cause anxiety for Mrs Wire's pupils without assistance in a mainstream class, but not here.
The small group seem to enjoy the exercise and begin to offer amusing French weather phrases: snowing on the beach in the south and thunder storms over the Eiffel Tower. They are clearly using vocabulary from other lessons.
Mrs Wire uses the same course book as the mainstream classes. She notes some interesting differences in approach. Modern language colleagues say their pupils tend not to enjoy the chapter on public transport. "It's an absolute delight with my group. They enjoy working on the routines of bus routes, timetables and Metro stops. Moving a small bus from stop to stop is the sort of multi-sensory approach which really works."
Asperger himself noted in 1943 in Vienna that people with the syndrome showed extraordinary flair for knowing details of the Viennese tram system.
The two Hillpark girls who have Asperger's syndrome are both in mainstream Standard grade French classes. Their teacher, Joyce Buchan, says they are well accepted by others in the class and one is coping very well with Credit level work. The girls are enthusiastic and are thinking of carrying on French after Standard grade. One says she sees French as important for future job prospects.
Although some pupils in the unit have additional learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, they are generally positive about the value of learning French.
"It's important to be able to communicate with other people," says one boy, who is hoping to become an actor.
Mrs Wire says Access courses form an ideal basis for young people with Asperger's syndrome who generally have a high level of language skills. "In languages a teacher can really relate to the mood of an individual, using versatility and spontaneity."