Sunday, 15 January 2012

The autistic boy who made a friend and the men who stare at goats

In the week before Christmas, children from different schools in Tower Hamlets came to sing in the Town Hall. They sang beautifully, and it was altogether a moving experience.

Sometimes, children can seem hidden away from the general public, kept apart in their nurseries and schools. Equally, staff in office blocks can feel trapped behind phones and screens, and miss any sense of connectedness or belonging.

When the singing ended, a member of the audience asked me if I remembered her – and, unusually for me, I did. Her child had attended the nursery where I worked many years ago as the special needs co-ordinator. He had struck me as having an unusual way of talking and relating to the other children, and the more I observed and spoke to his parents, the more we began to realise that he might have special needs.

The services worked together very well, and he was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder shortly afterwards. During his final year in nursery we worked very hard on supporting his play and friendships.

There was some controversy amongst the professionals about this – some of the team felt that we should concentrate more on his basic communication and early life skills. But his mum, many years later, remembered with great fondness the “special books” about his play, his love of the outdoors, and his early friendship with another boy. It had been just the start he needed, she said.

Earlier that week, I had been helping my daughter with her science homework about solids, liquids and gases. I was honestly amazed by how much of what we think of as a solid material is actually “space”. Richard Dawkins explains it really well in The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true, by means of the story of Major General Albert Stubblebine III and his courageous attempt to walk through a wall, first told in Jon Ronson's book The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Dawkins writes that "you can't help feeling for General Stubblebine. He knew that the wall, and his own body, were made of atoms so spaced out that they were like footballs 15 kilometres apart. Surely, if both the wall and his own body were mostly empty space, he should be able to walk through the wall, slotting his atoms between the wall's atoms? Why couldn't he"

Because when we think of something as solid, what we really mean is that the bonds binding everything together are incredibly strong.

And watching the children as they made their way out of Tower Hamlets Town Hall, and remembering that little autistic boy playing in nursery more than a decade ago, I thought about how the bonds that hold us together can make us really strong in the early years, even when the gaps seem huge.

A version of this article was first published in Nursery World

P.S  - to find out what happened to Stubblebine, have a look at  this short clip from the film: