Wednesday, 12 September 2018

What Roald Dahl reveals to my autistic son

Autistic Boy reading Roald Dahl

I remember reading both the Magic Finger and Fantastic Mr Fox at school.  Honestly I couldn't remember much about the stories except that I was pretty sure they involved some magic.  So I'm not surprised that Anthony has also been reading, or at least listening to these books at school too.  But I am surprised that he learned so much from Roald Dahl himself.

We'd already read the BFG to Anthony in advance of the film. He loved it.  For a few weeks everything was measured in terms of how tall they were in comparison to the BFG.  Would the item reach his ankle or his knee?  Was it merely only as big as the BFG's toe?

The book and film helped Anthony engage his imagination, which for an autistic kid is great.  Many find it difficult to engage their imagination without a lot of help, and books can provide a framework to start with.  Since then he's also engaged The Twits, Fantastic Mr Fox and James and the Giant Peach.  Anthony still calls it a pumpkin, classic cross over from Cinderella! However, it is fair to say his copy of BFG is in tatters due to his constant thumbing through the story to the best parts.

School recently set him some homework that was finding out about the author.  I knew very little about Roald Dahl, and let's just say that Anthony and any kind of homework is difficult.  He finds working outside of school confusing - it's a surprisingly common problem for autistic kids.  But as we settled down to a worksheet and started reading, Anthony stopped moaning about his homework and started to show some other emotions.

"Oh my GOSH!" came the exclamation.

Anthony has never been one of those 'good old days' kind of kids.  For one thing he's really only just accepted that the world was in colour before the 1940's.  Every photo and film he'd ever seen before then had been in black and white, so it made sense to Anthony that this was due to the fact that the world was not yet in colour.  The lack of TVs, playstations, iPads, mobile phones, 'proper' toliets, the Football World Cup, The Formula One Grand Prix are top of the list of reason's he'd rather live now.

But there was a lot that made life harder than had little to do with entertainment devices and sporting events.

Anthony got quite upset when he read that when Dahl was three years old, his older sister Astri, died. Then weeks later, his father died at the age of 57 from pneumonia. Perhaps there is an empathy as Anthony has both felt the loss of his Great Papa and when he was seven years old our family dog died.   Either way, he really felt it.  "That's just completely rubbish," he said.  I agree.

Then Anthony became really angry. According to the information he'd been sent home with, eight year old Roald Dahl and four of his friends were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at the local sweet shop.

"It's disgusting, yuck a dead mouse! But no one... no one should ever be caned," Anthony spat.

Looks like he really was paying attention when he learned about the Victorian's last year.

And then.. a few moments later... I started to cry.

When Anthony was in Year 4, he went on a two-day school residential trip.  He was extremely nervous about it.  He'd never been away from home without us before. This can be hard for many kids, but for Anthony, who is autistic, and has many routines around his day it can be petrifying. He was also very worried that as he is a poor sleeper and scripts in his bed at night that he might not be liked when he was there.

However, we put in a lot of prep, we told him he could come home to sleep or come home any time and this was very reassuring.  He had a great time.  Some of his friends however got homesick and he understood why.

About half way through Anthony's homework sheet, he learned that Roald Dahl had been sent to boarding school. Dahl transferred to a boarding school not too far from where his mum lived.

Dahl's time at the school was 'unpleasant' and he was very homesick.  He wrote to his mother every week but never told her how sad he was.  After she died in 1967, he learned that she had saved all of his letters, in small bundles held together with green tape.

Then when he turned 13, Roald Dahl went to another school far away in Derbyshire called Repton. It was described as full of ritual cruelty and status domination, with younger boys having to act as personal servants for older boys, frequently subject to terrible beatings.

These were described as violent experiences in Dahl's early life. Dahl expresses some of these darker experiences in his writings, which is also marked by his hatred of cruelty and corporal punishment.

"It's like they were slaves.  He missed his mum and he was treated like a slave," said Anthony.

His eyes were all glazed. "I hate the olden days."

And as a tear trickled down his cheek, so did mine.

It's rare to see Anthony so involved in the life and emotions of another.  Many people with autism are thought of as unsympathetic or incapable of empathy.  I think much of the time Anthony is dealing with how he is feeling and his own life, that's it's not easy to see what's happened to others.  Having it written down and him read it out loud (he reads most thing aloud as it helps comprehension) in the calm environment we try to create for him to do his homework means he really did take it in.

I helped him understand that this is not how things should be (at least I don't believe they should). But I was also truthful and we did talk about how there are people around the world who are still  slaves.  I never knew exactly what he understood or felt about this kind of thing before.

He can be very charitable, like his sister, and most of the time doesn't understand why we can't be nice, share things and help others.

I’ll be honest I wish I was writing about how Anthony went on to be inspired by the fact that despite all of his difficulties Roald Dahl became a successful author.  Or that he turned some of the terrible incidents into stories that inspired many.

But instead he learned something more basic. Anthony answered the homework questions about Roald Dahl's life with some help from me, and then went off to play.  But he did so with an extra sense of gratitude for his life.   And that's something that's quite rare and worth learning too.


  1. Oh wow, this is really special. Who knew this simple piece of homework would bring about such a deep and special learning experience for Anthony. I think Roald Dahl himself would love to read this passage Ann xx
    Thanks for linking to #CoolMumClub

  2. This is fantastic. I love how much Anthony has been inspired by Roald Dahl and his life story. And I love how you've found out so much about your son. x

  3. It's always wonderful seeing kids so engaged with what they're learning, but this sounds even more special as such powerful lessons were learned. I'm glad Anthony's enjoyed his books so much x Thanks for sharing with #WotW

  4. It's great to hear that Anthony engaged so much with learning about Roald Dahl's life. It sounds like it really captured his imagination that must have been really special to watch. #wotw

  5. Ahh! Wonderful to hear how Anthony got so into learning about Roald Dahl...It sounds like you found a lot out about his life.
    I knew some of this from reading "Boy" by Roald Dahl which is such a fantastic book x #WotW

  6. What an interesting post. I love how Anthony got so much out of this homework. I agree, gratitude is a good outcome. Reading really does open the world up. #wotw

  7. I love how you connected all of the topics together. I love the flow of your writing.

    I came from a school where children gets physical punishment for say not doing any assignment. I hate it! I hate school. But I have to do it because then I will get more punishment. I am so happy that my son is being given a chance to learn differently from me. Schools here are amazing.

    Again I love your writing! Its so lovely to learn so much from the people before us. One of the best thing about reading for me =)


  8. It's great that both of you learnt from the experience. #coolmumclub

  9. Roald Dahl certainly had a very interesting life with a lot of very difficult and sad moments. I don't think I would have wanted to live in the "olden days" either - there were a lot of good things but some of the things that people had to endure were just horrific. It's great that Anthony is learning a lot from reading about Roald Dahl's life and from reading his books. Gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing to learn. #WotW

  10. What a great post, and Anthony sounds totally enraptured with Dahl. I too believe that everyone should be nice, share things and help others. He is aligning with these books in such a healthy, great way. <3 Beautiful! xoxo #coolmumsclub xoxo


I read all your comments and appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me and our readers. I welcome any feedback on my posts and you can always contact me directly. Thank you.

What is Autism?
It's so much I couldn't possibly try and explain. For us it's wonderful and heart-breaking. Joyous and truthful. But as far as diagnosis is concerned, why not have a look at the National Autistic Society for their definition of Autism.
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