What a pleasure it was to read your article “In praise of misfits” in the 2nd June edition of The Economist. For too long the world of autism and those who inhabit it have been considered to be disabled, disenfranchised and generally marginalised from society. We have spent so long considering how the challenges of autism can be managed, ameliorated and overcome in the very challenging world that is our everyday community, there has been little – if any – emphasis on the very positive aspects that an autistic spectrum condition can bring.
Given the clear successes identified in the article for those high-profile individuals in the corporate world, it could be argued that these accomplishments have transpired not in spite of the autism but as a direct result of it. Considerations given to the strategies that these people have used to effectively overcome the challenges of Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome et al should be replaced by reflections focused on the traits of the latter that have ensured success.
Riverston School is a non-selective independent school in south-east London that boasts a significant number of students with autistic spectrum conditions. Avoiding the more traditional examinations and assessments to determine entrance, prospective students spend a few assessment days in class as the staff focus on the school’s ability to meet individual needs as the determining factor for a place to be offered. With a focus on “bespoke learning for life”¹, the curriculum is designed, as far as practicably possible, around the individual, creating opportunities for personalised learning plans and an individually-modified weekly programme. Of course, the non-selective nature of Riverston means that it hosts a significant number of individuals who are exactly that – individuals – and it is all the better for it.
Students at Riverston do not feel they need to fit in with the crowd, to go with the flow, to join the flock and, in fact, swimming against the stream is actively encouraged. As I was writing this letter, one of our year nine students came into the office and informed me that he had seen the film Jaws III at the weekend, elucidating me further with its release date and that of its two prequels. He revels in a fountain of knowledge not possessed by anyone else in the school, student and staff member alike. As an aspect of comedic opportunity, it is unsurpassed as he requests that we, yet again, watch on YouTube the 1975 Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special with Des O’Connor. “That is the best record Des has ever made…you mean there’s nothing on it at all,” he will reference as he falls into Morecombesque-feigned laughter, “did you hear that?”
Knowledge, tolerance and acceptance create the foundation for the development of a respectful community. To actively embrace autism, to celebrate it and everything that it brings underpins the inclusive community, a community that not only accepts or even includes the geeks and misfits but genuinely believes it is a better place because of them. Michael Barton, author of It’s Raining Cats and Dogs², visited the school in November to speak to the school about his Asperger’s, his life, his schooling and his second year at University studying Physics. He returned a few days later to simply spend time talking to students at lunchtime and we are delighted that he will be returning once again to perform some musical pieces at the school’s annual prize giving.
In and around the school, the qualities of individuality, determination, uniqueness and originality are celebrated, encouraged and actively promoted. Geeky individualism is championed and popularised, upheld for the uniquely positive brilliance that it brings. There are no square pegs in the classrooms at Riverston School and the round-holed playground has been re-surfaced!
James D Allen
Director, Riverston Plus
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012