We should all play detective and learn more about autism

Pupils with the condition present unique challenges for teachers and classmates alike

I had the privilege of teaching a pupil who was obsessed with the TV detective series Columbo. The pupil, whom I will call Joe, watched DVDs of the scruffy detective night after night. For Joe's mother, it was a struggle to get Joe to do homework or get him to go to bed at a reasonable time.

Joe had a vast, highly-detailed knowledge of Inspector Columbo and his cases. And his ability to recall details from the TV series was quite remarkable.

Joe was always courteous and enthusiastic but his obsession with Columbo meant that every conversation came round to the detective and his cases. The class would be discussing the use of child labour in "sweat shops" and Joe's contribution would be about Columbo's trench coat and why it was so important to the detective.

Joe was locked in his own private world and didn't enjoy normal social relationships. In fact, Joe struggled socially and didn't have any friends.

Joe, as you may have guessed, has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism which we are increasingly encountering in our mainstream classrooms. I have taught a small number of pupils with autism but teachers in other schools, particularly those in leafy suburbs, report noticeable increases in the number of autistic pupils.

For me it was a pleasure teaching Joe and meeting his family, who patiently coped with him as best they could. Joe's mother even gave me permission to write about Joe for this piece.

Other autistic pupils offer much greater challenges than those posed by Joe. Some, towards the more severe end of the autism spectrum, find it difficult to sit still and their hands may flap incessantly throughout lessons. Others become anxious and agitated by the smallest thing such as an unexpected noise or a bright light.

Many autistic pupils become socially-isolated and are sometimes ostracised by classmates who are unfamiliar with, and unsympathetic to, their "unusual ways".

A friend of mine, who is a very caring teacher, believes there are now too many autistic children in his classes and is against the inclusion of severely autistic pupils in mainstream schools. "The nature of autism," he says, "precludes many autistic children from being included".

It is also argued that autistic children in mainstream schools are denied the full services of the skilled practitioners who are available in special schools. Increased knowledge of coping strategies now enable autistic pupils to acquire some of the social skills that can help them cope with life and even secure a job.

Progress is being made, but the time is right for pupils to learn more about autism and advance understanding and acceptance of those who are affected by what is the most socially-debilitating of conditions.

John Greenlees is a geography teacher.

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