Alex was a fact collector. He collected many things over the six years I worked with him: marbles, containers, floor plans from model homes, but by sixth grade, his largest collection was a wide variety of facts.
Alex has autism and he’s brilliant. In the sixth grade, he aced all his math tests; in fact, he was one of the top math students in the school. He was also great with computers and could navigate the Internet to discover any bit of information you might want to find. He knew the make and model of every car in the school parking lot and the Blue Book value. More than once he recommended I get rid of my old Toyota and move up to a BMW. (I didn’t.)
But Alex had his struggles with social language and reading comprehension. He could read fluently at a high school level but, if the subject didn’t interest him, the information didn’t stick.
He had failed every comprehension test of his sixth grade year when his teacher asked if I might be able to help him prepare for his next exam. I had him bring his novel, My Side of the Mountain, to speech the next day. If you know the story, you know the main character, Sam, ran away from home to live in the wilderness where he trained a peregrine falcon.
I asked Alex, “What did you think of Sam’s bird?”
“There isn’t a bird in the book.”
“Yes there is. You know, the peregrine falcon.”
Alex scowled. “There’s no falcon.”
“How far have you read?” I asked.
“I finished the book yesterday.”
“Alex, take a look at the cover. What do you see?”
“A boy and a bird.” Alex said.
“A book cover usually gives you some idea of what the story will be about. That bird is a peregrine falcon.”
I then suggested we research falcons on the Internet. Alex loved the idea. After we read a few facts about the bird and looked at several pictures, Alex read portions of the story with new interest. Then we expanded our research, read another section of the novel and soon he was hooked. We didn’t have time to reread the entire book before his next exam, but his scores improved substantially after a few sessions.
I think about Alex often, especially with the growing emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core Standards. I imagine students like Alex will benefit from this shift. Of course, not all students are like Alex. Some seem to need a story to help the facts come alive and lodge in their memory. A blend of the two will likely be good for all students. I remember wishing my high school history teacher would find a good novel about World War I instead of insisting we memorize a list of facts and dates.
I have a new kindergarten student this year who has autism. He’s not interested in books yet, but I imagine that will change. He is just beginning to discover that language is powerful and he has started making requests for objects he wants. Before long, I’m hoping, books will be one of those objects. I’m not sure if he’ll prefer fiction or nonfiction, but I’ll be armed and ready for him with a good supply of both.
It has been several years since I last saw Alex but he is one student I’ll never forget. And from the way things are going with my new kindergarten student, I think I’ll be saying the same thing about him in years to come.