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Asberger's Syndrome: Breaking Through Impenetrable Barriers
Some students linger long after they have disappeared from view. They are reminders of what could have been done had we just been able to reach them, had they only been able to take advice and understand that college was a serious business, beyond what was accepted and understood in high school. In the weeks after they walk away and land themselves on the front page of the college newspaper, you will wonder what you could have done had you been fully understood what they were fighting against to show up to class each day.
The signs should have been easy to spot. He had this blank, stunned look on his face as he sat with his classmates. This was typical of many first semester college English students who suddenly realized they are in over their heads, but he was different. He never opened the book, and he never took notes. While classmates sometimes furiously scribbled to keep up with my pedantic, meandering lectures about abstract themes in some difficult essays, he sat fixed in his chair, eyes focused on a spot near his book, his face sometimes twitching itself into a smile when the other students laughed.
My first meeting with him came early in the young semester. We sat at a Food Court lunch table and discussed the difficulties of the material we were reading for class. He didn't understand the topics. He didn't like to take notes. He claimed he could always get by with remembering what was said in class. At the end of a later meeting, he walked with me to my train stop and we discussed his high school. It was small, and he liked languages. He didn't like to read, and he enjoyed computers. All along, he never made eye contact with me.
Life soon got in the way for both of us. I had a personal family loss that took me away from work for a week. I communicated with him, through e-mail, that it would be good for us to keep meeting on a regular basis. Pulling a pack of papers from his back pocket, unfolding it, and submitting this as his essay would not be acceptable. He may very well have just wanted to get by with a "C" in my class, but I wanted to see some sense of effort on his part.
Early rumors one day became official news the next class. He was missing. He had taken money from his ATM account and bought a plane ticket to Europe. There he was, the silent boy who had sat among them for seven weeks, on the front page, under the headline "missing for 11 days." This was less a teachable moment as it was an understanding of Asberger's Syndrome, his high-functioning type of autism. I wanted his classmates to understand he did the best he could to stay with us. At the same time, I wish I could have done my best to reach him while he was here.
Christopher J. Stephens is an adjunct college English instructor for Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Western New England College, and Corinthian Colleges, Inc.
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