Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curious Incidents, Autism and Murder

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many murder mysteries have narrators with interesting quirks (Columbo and Monk come to mind immediately). Perhaps one of the most original narrators is the star of Mark Haddon’s bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Christopher Boone. Christopher is a highly functioning autistic 15 year-old boy with a passion for animals and a desire to solve the mystery of the murder of his neighbor’s dog Wellington. Encouraged by his teacher, Shibboleth, Christopher decides to write a novel with a hat tip toward his favorite mystery hero, Sherlock Holmes. The book describes Christopher’s life in methodic detail as he tries to uncover the mystery of the murdered dog.
At first, the narration of the book is a bit jarring: non-sequential chapter numbers, run on sentences, absent punctuation and irrelevant tangential information. Once you realize that you are reading through the eyes of an autistic who prefers structure and logical methodology, the reading becomes easier. Later you discover that the chapter numbers are prime numbers, which, like all “maths”, Christopher has an affinity for. Though Christopher exhibits exceptional aptitudes in science and math, his development is hindered by a complete lack of emotion and social skills. Ironically, this is quite a touching book where the emotion comes through other characters, though Christopher seems oblivious to it.
Christopher shows many characteristics of Asperger’s, such as:
• Deficiencies in social skills. Christopher has tremendous difficulty showing emotion, accepting it in other people and even recognizing other people’s emotions, particularly when he is the cause. His relationships with other people are strained and people find him difficult. This is apparent when Mr. Shears decides to leave his mother after she decided to take Christopher in. Christopher doesn’t appear to have any friends or interpersonal relationships beyond the small circle of people in his life.
• Inflexible to a changing environment: Christopher has a defined schedule and gets overwhelmed when things change (ie, he has to “do moaning) or have too much new stimulation. When difficulties with his living situation arise, Christopher’s primary preoccupation is whether he will be able to do his “A level maths” in his new school.
• Preferences for certain foods, tastes, colours or sounds: Christopher has an aversion to the colors yellow and brown and only eats food of other colours. He gives a multitude of reasons for disliking yellow and brown foods, drawing on his photographic memory for random facts.
• High cognitive ability, interest and talent in a specific area: Christopher is exceptional at mathematics and science and aspires to be an astronaut. He has also an extraordinary photographic memory and often creates maps or symbolic representations.
• Behavioural problems: Christopher creates a lengthy list of all his behavioural problems he knows of in one scene (Often children with autism are not as self aware as Christopher, but likely this is a plot devise as much as brining the readers into Christopher’s mind.):

“A. Not talking to people for a long time.
B. Not eating or drinking anything for a long time.
C. Not liking being touched.
D. Screaming when I am angry or confused.
E. Not liking being in really small places with other people.
F. Smashing things when I am angry or confused.
G. Groaning.
H. Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things.” (Etc.)

Though I suspect most readers figured out who killed Wellington before Christopher, the story continued to entrance me and became yet another example of how Christopher’s lack of social skills hurt his ability to function in the world. The book is less of the mystery we were expecting and takes on more of a story of life about building trust, challenges in family life and growing up. That is a story theme we can all empathize with, regardless of our situations.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Joey Pigza, Can I Get Back To You On That?

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Joey Pigza Books)Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joey Pigza tries to be a good kid and please the adults in his life but he can’t stop getting into trouble. Like his estranged father and the grandmother who took care of him when his parents left, Joey was born “wired”. He can’t get control of his behavior, which he blames on his “dud meds”. This book shows what life is like through the eyes of a 9 year old kid whose life is challenged not only by apparent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but also from a tumultuous home life, and a host of teachers and administrators who don’t seem to know how to deal with him. Joey is an enduring yet flawed character and though he occasionally makes the wrong decisions, it’s easy to sympathize with a character capable of such heart-wrenching self-reflection. In the end, I cheered with Joey when he was able to successfully regulate his meds and return to his regular classroom after a particularly capable teacher “’Special’ Ed” at the Special Education school was able to get through to him about his personal ownership for his behavior challenges.
Although the book is intended for younger readers (grades 5-8), the book has universal appeal to anyone seeking to understand ADHD. As a parent or a teacher it’s easy to see how Joey’s destructive actions, though largely unintentional, could be misunderstood as hostile. Even Joey’s mother describes him as “hard to handle”. Children (and adults) who suffer from this disability may be thought lazy, careless and irresponsible, unable or unwilling to act with a conscience because of their behavior. Joey describes quite opposite motivations in one self-reflecting monologue how much he would like to be a normal kid:
I can have good days. Entire days when I wake up and I’m calm inside like water when it’s not boiling, and I just plant my feet on the floor like every kid in America and do a sleepy walk down to the bathroom and take a nice hot shower and wash my hair and dry off and get dressed and eat breakfast and all the while thinking about what I’d like to do with my day. And then the most amazing thing to me is after I think about what I want to do, like read, or see a friend, or say something nice to Mrs. Howard, or write a poem, I actually do all that stuff. That is *amazing* to me. I think it, then I do it. This may be how everyone else operates, but this is not how I usually operate. Usually I wake up with springs popping in my head, like I’m in the middle of a pinball game where I’m the ball, and I shoot out of bed and directly to the kitchen where I ricochet around after food until by chance I snatch some toast off the counter, then go slamming off the padded stool tops like they were lighted bumpers and zing up the hall into the bathroom where I try to brush my teeth, but I brush mostly my lips and chin and I explode back out the door and across the living room and carom off the furniture until Mom gets a grip on me a wipes the toothpaste off my face and works a pill down my throat. (pg. 51-52)
Although ADHD is the most often studied disability, in the current regulatory statutes of IDEA 04 it receives only cursory mention and is listed in the “other health impairments” special education category. Furthermore, children with ADHD are not explicitly covered by IDEA 04, even with medical diagnoses or prescriptions. The rationale behind this slight is that a large portion of ADHD suffers also have coexisting learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders. IDEA will cover children with ADHD and provide special services to them only if the condition “adversely affects educational performance.” (Smith & Tyler, 2009) However, it can be challenging to define what an adverse impact to education actually means. We saw this in the story with Joey. Several incidents (sharpening his fingernails, swallowing a key, running away on a field trip and finally seriously injuring another student) occurred before Joey received help, even though administration and the school nurse was aware that he was receiving medication for his condition.
Though largely inaccurate, media often sensationalizes ADHD and further confuses public perception of the disorder. This negative portrayal can overshadow possible benefits of the disorder, including some famous people who attribute some of their success to positive traits of ADHD. For example, Olympic medalist Michael Phelps and CEO Navid Neeleman are both outspoken advocates for ADHD. Though teaching children with ADHD may be seen as a significant challenge, the truth is that many effective teaching techniques used for differentiating learning, particularly for learning disabilities, are also useful for students with ADHD. Providing interesting and appropriate instruction, peer coaches, immediate feedback and clear directions are benefits to all students and characteristics of good teaching. Additionally, classroom management and organizational strategies can have a positive effect on the entire classroom, not just the ADHD student. Intervening for problem behaviors can be as simple as providing a desk in proximity to the teacher and away from typical distractions like the pencil sharpener.
My biggest criticism of the book is that it strongly promotes drugs as the answer to ADHD. Joey claims – and the story even supports – that he has “dud meds” which wear off after lunch. Joey is successful and able to return to his regular school once he gets different medication. The book gives cursory mention to non-medical intervention and techniques for self regulation. This may be due in part to the narrator’s naivety to his own treatment (he is 9, after all), but I also feel it was a promotion of the author’s agenda of getting students to fit into society rather than adjusting to their needs. Though medical treatment has had some success, there is rising concern over the prevalence of prescribed medication and its side effects.
All criticism aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to teachers and parents who interact with students with ADHD. It would also be beneficial in a classroom setting as a book club or read along option to promote inclusion and acceptance, provided it doesn’t single out a child who has ADHD. As far as the medical treatment goes and what challenges Joey will face in upcoming books, can I get back to you on that?

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