How to Read at Breakfast

Pazzie is reading. He is nearly 10. He has been able to read for years but that is under duress. I mean duress. I mean if we want him to practice reading he will writhe over every, single word. He arches his back and waves his arms about like he is being bitten. It is agony. He won’t read a road sign. He won’t read his name on the inside of his school jumper. He will not read because he doesn’t get it. Why read?

You can’t teach why. Not to a kid who does not learn by example. You can only try to find material that he might like to read. We try books on sharks, trains, bees and ladybirds, recipes for cakes, instructions for model aeroplanes… I swear – we try everything.

Mint, who is 7, will read the side of a cereal box. He gets it. This makes my job easy. He gets it in the same way I do. I read the back of my tube ticket. I read terms and conditions. He reads washing instructions and then he turns to CS Lewis.

Pazzie is reading. He finishes his story and (how can I tell you how incredible this is?) says to his brother:

‘Jimmy, do you want to read a story?’

(Look at Pazzie wearing his biggest smile. He has never asked to read you a story before. Please please say yes.)

‘I don’t want to read a stupid story.’

‘Why don’t you like stories?’

‘I only like fast trains.’

Actually Pazzie has not waited for an answer, he has wandered away to look at something else. It’s ok. Sometimes the world likes fast trains more than stories.

How can I explain this? This morning his reading age has leapt about two years. This is why mainstream education has such trouble with him. He is not retarded – he is autistic. Learning disabled is not a nice way of saying: “a bit slow…” it means he learns in a way that makes no sense to us. He learns in enormous, unpredictable leaps. He is motivated to learn by things that we might find odd.

He does not learn in the way that we have been hard-wired to teach. I don’t just mean our education system – I also mean as human beings.

We have seen him effortlessly perform ridiculous feats of mental arithmetic – when he needed to – but at his new school they are still trying to persuade him to add 2 + 3 cakes, to count in fives. He lies his head on his arm and says in an exhausted voice: ‘…you do it.’

At home we know this trick and we make him sit up.

But this morning – for some reason – he picked up a Thomas book (one of the ones with not enough illustration and a lot of pretty stagnant text) and read it out loud. For over thirty minutes. With obvious and slightly shy pleasure.

At first we didn’t believe he was reading but thought he was reciting and looking at the book at the same time. But he used that reading voice children have in which one word is not quite connected to the next. There is a song in the voice. He used his finger. He took a while to add up the words that were split from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. He stopped occasionally and frowned, trying out a confusing word.

We have never, never seen him do any of this before.

It might be limited to Thomas books for a while. He may not suddenly become interested in the back of a tube ticket – but we are on our way.

I try very hard to understand that he is autistic, the terminology is that he is a child with autism. It is not a disease, it is who he is. There is no autism standing between me and him. There is only him and then there is my lack of imagination.

It’s just that this morning there’s one more small thing we almost have in common and it fell – as these things do – out of a blue sky.