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.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

34 comments:

  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

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  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
    #Wotw

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  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

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  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

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  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

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  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

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  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 =)

    #wotw

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

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  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

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  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

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  11. Ronald Dahl has an amazing ability to connect with kids, sounds like he certainly did with Anthony. #KCACOLS

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  12. Nice post - it's interesting how strong these small things in stories can impact people. And nice for you to see in your son #KCACOLS

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  13. I am a big fan of Ronald Dahl and I think it's wonderful that he has inspired Anthony.

    #kcacols

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  14. This was beautiful. I loved Matilda as a kid, got me through some tough times. #kcacols

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  15. Ah what an emotional post, we love Roald Dahl books as well (who doesn't?) but I am so glad it touched your son like that. #KCACOLS

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  16. We love Roald Dahl books here too. It sounds like this really resonated with Anthony and it's probably more in his thoughts than we realise. as in even though he'd done his homework and went off to play -you might find it comes up in convo again. #KCACOLS

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  17. That's so lovely to read. It's hard enough engaging kids with homework at the best of times. I've learnt things about Roald Dahl from this as well #KCACOLS

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  18. Bless him (and bless poor old Roald too! Never heard his backstory before). #KCACOLS

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  19. My daughter loves a few books from Roald Dahl. :D We have; Magic Finger, Matilda & George's marvellous medicine. :D She really loves them.
    #KCACOLS

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  20. This post was captivating to read. The way you describe your son makes me love him too! My youngest daughter had a lot of trouble in school and was ADHD and ODD. She was often accused of not listening. Truth is, she may have been listening more than anyone in the room. She didn't fit into the "box" created by our schools and did very little to allow her to be outside that box.

    So, to a degree, I can understand what you are talking about in this post. My daughter has often been accused of not caring or not having empathy. But if you really look, she listened better and cares more than you could ever imagine.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    #KCACOLS

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  21. I love Roald Dahl! I remember reading so many of his books as a kid. My oldest loves James and the Giant Peach. I did not know this about his life, though. I am so glad your son was able to make such a strong connection. It is amazing to see. Thanks for sharing this. #KCACOLS

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  22. So lovely to see he was so engaged in his homework on Roald Dahl and to see young children have so much empathy is amazing #KCACOLS

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  23. It's lovely to hear how engaged he was (how you both were) and that raw emotion it drew too. #kcacols

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  24. Lovely to hear about this great moment. Roald Dahl has a fantastic ability to inspire in many ways and I am so glad your son got something valuable from his homework xx

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  25. A brilliant post and lovely to read how a seemingly normal homework inspired such emotion in your son - and for you, too. I love Roald Dahl's books and can't wait to start reading them to my daughter when she's old enough. #kcacols

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  26. This is so lovely to read! Roald Dahl is my favourite author and he has some really interesting stories about his early life too. #KCACOLS

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  27. It is great that your son learned more than facts from this homework.
    #KCACOLS

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  28. This is such a lovely post, Ann, although deeply sad in many ways too. Dahl had a lot of sadness in his life it seems, and then his daughter died at a young age as well :,-(
    How great that Anthony took it all in so well, despite it being homework. I don’t think there is a lack of empathy as such, in autistic people in general. It’s probably more like you say, that they are often so busy coping with themselves, they may seem like they don’t take notice of others very much.
    I’m not diagnosed myself, but I can identify with sometimes seeming cold. The thing is, I think I feel too much empathy, maybe? When I really allow myself take on board someone elses feelings, I feel them almost as if they’re my own. And a lot of the time, I feel that I need to protect myself from taking others feelings on board like that, as it makes me less functional, less able to cope okay with my own daily life. So I think it’s often a self-preservation kind of thing, when a person seems ‘uncaring’. If that makes sense..? xx #KCACOLS

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  29. Oh bless your son - Roald Dahl really does seemed to have touched him in some way. I never knew this about Dahl either - it was a really interesting read #KCACOLS

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  30. What a lovely post. I adored Roald Dahl books as a child, I’d get lost in them for hours. I can’t wait to start sharing them with my children, I hope they bring them just as much joy. #KCACOLS

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  31. Oh this is so sad. I didn't realise any of this happened to Roald Dahl. This is a lovely post about your son's understanding too.

    #KCACOLS

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  32. Good old Roald Dahl - we have a lot to thank him for! #KCACOLS

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  33. I've always loved Roald Dahl's books and can't wait to read them with my kids. One of my twins, who is almost 4, was just diagnosed with Autism so it is very heartwarming to read about your son. Thank you for sharing this. #KCACOLS

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  34. Yes and that is probably the most valuable lesson of all - to truly appreciate what we have.

    It's wonderful when you find something that really captivates your child and fires their interest. And I can definitely understand why Anthony likes the Roald Dahl books - Fantastic Mr Fox is one of my all-time favourites!

    And someone else really enjoyed this post because they chose to add it to the BlogCrush linky for you. Hurray! Feel free to pop over and grab your "I've been featured" blog badge :) #blogcrush

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