Monday, November 23, 2009

Solving Mysteries

I recently read a book for the International Children’s Literature course I teach at the University of Utah. We try to find well-written books that are published in another country prior to finding their way to the shelves of libraries in the United States. The book I read was called, The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd. Ms. Dowd is English and resided in England when the book was written and published in 2007. The London Eye is a world-renowned ferris wheel and people come from all over to ride it. In this book, a young boy named Ted, whose brain is ‘wired differently,’ tries to find out what happened to his cousin. His cousin disappears while riding the London Eye. Because his brain is ‘wired differently,’ Ted is able to analyze the situation and with thorough reasoning determine where his cousin, Salim, has gone.

The reason I was so taken with this book is that no one in Ted’s life would listen to his suggestions about where to find the missing boy. His parents, his sister, his aunt and even the police, dismiss Ted’s reasoning because he is a ‘special child.’ The book subtly suggests that Ted has a form of autism, but never gives a diagnosis within the pages. I think ‘typically developing’ people always make the assumption that a child with exceptionalities cannot make a valuable contribution to the daily life of those around him. I have worked with enough special needs children over the years that I am acutely aware of the fact they usually possess skills that I do not. Because a child’s thinking patterns may differ from what we call the ‘norm,’ some have a tendency to dismiss his efforts as useless or unimportant. In The London Eye Mystery, Ted not only comes up with valuable suggestions and theories, but he eventually helps the police find his lost cousin. This happy conclusion is a result of the fact that one police officer finally listens to Ted. He followed his instincts that told him this ‘special’ boy had insight that had eluded the rest of the search party.

I think we need to always be aware of the fact that the term, ‘a child with special needs,’ refers to the fact that this child is indeed special. Different approaches to learning and discovery may be needed to help this child develop basic skills. But, in ways we sometimes don’t understand, this child is special. When I was a manager for Head Start, we had a lab classroom to model good teaching practices and train new teachers. We routinely had 2-4 mildly autistic children in our care. What became a marvel to me was how much capacity each one of these children had for learning. If we could channel their energy to focus on one thing, the results were incredible. Many of our autistic children left Head Start as readers and writers, well ahead of the typically developing children in the group. Our challenge each year was to find the magic method that would help each of these special children focus on learning a skill. Sometimes, it was just a matter of listening to them for clues of how to solve the riddle in their brain.

Reading The London Eye Mystery reminded me never to take for granted the thinking of a child with special needs. In many ways, he becomes the teacher.

This post was submitted by John Funk. Mr. Funk is an early childhood, reading, and literacy consultant, Manager of Educational Programs for Excelligence Learning Corporation and he teaches courses in children's literature and early reading at the University of Utah.


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