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My 'Little Professor'

Publication Date: 2008-03-24

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 29, 2008.

Ohanian Comment: I admit to awe and applause at this second grader speaking in the voice of the turkey. But I understand a smidgen of the agony that travels along with this precocity.

The pre-Thanksgiving assignment my son's second-grade teacher gave her students was to write an appeal for clemency from the perspective of a turkey. While the other children wrote emotional testimonials based on the turkey's love of life and family, my son wrote the following: "Don't eat me. Eat the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Have wild rice, black walnuts, aloe yucca. Do you want fish? Greater amberjack, rainbow runner, bullet mackerel, red, yellowfin tuna. You can have white-tailed deer and Canadian geese, wild peccary. You can't catch me. I run 20 miles per hour. I also taste raw when cooked. I spoil when salted. I can rip apart snare traps."

As I read his response, posted along with other children's on the classroom bulletin board, I felt what has now become a familiar mixture of wonder and fear ΓΆ€" wonder at the vivid specificity of diction gleaned from his countless hours of reading Audubon guides and American-history picture books, and fear that the emotional appeal of the turkey's desperation hadn't registered with him like it had with the other children.

My 7-year-old son has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, the "little professor" syndrome. If left to himself, he would spend most of his days reading alone in his room. Above all other excursions, going to the library is a treat ΓΆ€" a singularly motivating reward when the offer of going out for ice cream, a movie, or pizza fails. In the past two years, his reading skills have become extraordinary, even as his ability to socialize with his peers stagnates. The phenomenon, my husband and I discovered, is considered by some psychologists to be a diagnostic criterion of AS called hyperlexia. The same child who marvels at the transition of Buck in Jack London's The Call of the Wild circles the school playground alone, telling himself stories, which he can't or won't share with his peers.

After a new experience, my son almost reflexively retreats into the world of his imaginary friend, Alligator Snapping Turtle, who is both an extension of himself and a more accomplished parent. Fiercer and apparently more resourceful than other turtles, he is the hero of household repairs, outdoor travails, and the most harrowing of adventures. When our hot-water heater burst, Alligator Snapping Turtle, unlike my son's hapless parents, didn't need to call a plumber but could repair the heater and the adjoining pipes himself. Even as I know that within this imaginary world lies much of my son's inner life, I grow impatient with the stories, anxious about the need for toughness, mastery, and retreat that they signify. I shrug off the irony that, as an English professor, I have spent my life immersed in stories and have assiduously worked to build a mini-library of children's literature in our home, yet now, when my son has discovered the power of fiction to help him understand and cope with his reality, I flinch.

But then I marvel again. When he makes the same mistake repeatedly during a piano lesson I am giving him, he declares that he feels like a dandelion stuck in hot tar. In the midst of the same lesson, he dictates a poem to me: I am like a pinball/batted around/sometimes lost/great journeys/chewed upon by monk parakeets/and never have a warm home. At first my husband and I wonder about the value of piano lessons, given how difficult they are for my son. But when I look in the Audubon guide and discover that the monk parakeet is a particularly vocal bird, we chuckle at his artful critique of my musical direction.

With his peers, however, he is far less circumspect. Walking up to a group of girls on the playground, he declares that Barbies are stupid. When one of the girls responds with a kick to his shins, he seems perplexed.

His combination of verbal gifts and social immaturity continually throws us. How could second grade be such a trial when he fits seamlessly into academic life? As I do my research, scanning microfilm for hours, he happily roams the library reading science books, natural history, art history, whatever catches his eye. Virtually any topic ΓΆ€" from dung beetles to Art Deco ΓΆ€" excites his interest. With bemusement, patience, and some weariness, his father, who has a Ph.D. in history, fields his run of questions: Why did the Mississippi mound builders' civilization decline? Who invented the escalator and the disco ball?

He insists on time alone to read after school, where the stresses of unstructured social settings ΓΆ€" playground, lunchroom, gym ΓΆ€" threaten to overwhelm him. Even as his younger brother cries out in disappointment, my eldest rushes to his bedroom, locks the door, and reads with an intensity of focus that belies the distractedness with which he meets most other tasks. After an hour, we insist that he play with his 6-year-old brother. When reading becomes less a means of enrichment and more a vehicle of retreat, my husband and I are oddly knocked off balance. What we have built our lives around may be a fortress that our son is only too happy not to leave.

To help him better understand his classmates, his teacher suggested that he watch SpongeBob SquarePants. Dutifully we rented it; he seemed to enjoy it, but when next at the library, he asked to get not SpongeBob or Star Wars, but Sister Wendy's history of Renaissance art. I checked it out, along with a copy of H.W. and Anthony F. Janson's History of Art, and he retreated to his room book-laden and happy.

As academics, of course, we delight in his precociousness. Instead of wasting hours watching Gilligan's Island and Happy Days like we did, he has the educational direction, depth, and retention that we lacked at his age. But although he seems singularly well suited to academe, I worry about how he will fare in the increasingly service-oriented, people-pleasing profession of higher education. Much of my job depends less on what I know than on how well I can manage students' personal crises, motivate sullen nonmajors, and navigate the personality conflicts of colleagues. While my son grows excited by the prospect of talking to professors at university functions, we pray that at least two of his peers will show up at his birthday party.

We try to help him. Along with the social worker and speech therapist at school, we're attempting to teach our son communication skills through social stories, verbal prompts, and group activities, but his inclination, especially after he meets looks of incomprehension from his peers when he tries to explain how the Black Death spread through Europe by rats hidden in trading vessels, quickly turns him back to himself or to adults.

His "difficulty with executive function," the business-inflected euphemism for messiness and dawdling, we tackle with charts and timers. His teacher has Velcroed his pencil to his desk, which features a checklist of daily "to do" tasks. We set the timer to see if he can complete his homework in 20 minutes rather than two hours of daydreaming and fidgeting. Even as I feel like Frederick Winslow Taylor attempting to choreograph my son's actions as part of a time-motion study, I know that an awareness of time and an ability to organize are crucial.

But as we worry about him and wrestle with the question of how much to try to shape him or let him be, we recall the sheer pleasure of reading to and with him ΓΆ€" his giggles over Mister Toad's mishaps in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, his fascination with the rise and fall of civilizations in E.H. Gombrich's Little History of the World, his identification with Bastian Balthazar Bux in Michael Ende's Neverending Story. Metaphor, with all of its power to help us transform the most painful and baffling of experiences, might just rescue us yet.

M. Patterson is an associate professor of English at McKendree University.

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