Sam and Aspergers Syndrome
by Hilary Papworth

Deputy Headteacher at Barley Lane Primary School, Redbridge

Looking back, I feel I should have recognised some signs.

Sam was a pre-school child who used Duplo (big Lego) to build intricate symmetrical models and got upset if the 'correct' colour brick wasn't available. He could follow detailed instructions to make a model but never chose to make his own design. When it came to bedtime he would arrange his cuddly toys in a certain way but didn't play imaginatively.

My second child would play for hours making up stories between his toys but Sam thought this was stupid.

When I collected him from his first day at school I remember being surprised at how cross he got when I asked what he had done that day.

I was beginning to think something was wrong but each year at parents' evenings throughout primary school the teachers praised his achievements although said he was a quiet member of the class.

I knew he didn't play football at playtime but he seemed to have friends and invited other children to play at home. I was aware that boys who came home to play started off being with Sam but soon ended up playing with his younger brother, Ben. Sam seemed not to be bothered by this.

Up to the age of seven years, Sam and Ben shared a bedroom. This was not a good plan but I thought it was just brothers trying to live alongside each other. When we moved and they had a bedroom each, it quickly became clear that Ben enjoyed living in a mess while Sam had a place for everything - his organisational skills were impressive.

Like many mothers, I enrolled the boys in various activities, swimming being one of them. Sam is an excellent swimmer and he passed each stage with ease. But Sam became very agitated each time he started a new class. It usually meant that he had a new teacher and often a new set of pupils. Once the first lesson was over he was fine but the pattern repeated itself again and again after each swimming test.

I knew Sam was a very able runner but it was years later that he explained that he deliberately came second or third in a race in case he was chosen to represent his school.

Occasionally, Sam lost his school spellings, which had to be learnt for the test on Monday morning. My suggestion of phoning a friend to ask for the spellings was met with an explosion of anger. At the time I didn't understand this reaction.

We began to become concerned when Sam started at secondary school. He never got lost - he could follow a map of the school; in fact he memorised it. He never took the wrong books or equipment and he seemed to make new friends. But homework was becoming a battle, and he was showing signs of anger and distress.

I could help him with most homework although it was extremely frustrating. He had left primary school with three level 5s but even the simplest written work took hours to complete.

He just couldn't get started. He spent longer fussing than the time the work took to complete. I remember one piece of homework that turned out to be impossible. Sam was asked to write about the video he had seen at school. He couldn't understand why I was unable to help him.

The SENCO at the school where I taught spoke to me about a pupil she thought had Aspergers Syndrome. It had rung some bells at the time and now I asked her if she had any more information. I remember my surprise when I completed a self-evaluation exercise in the book she lent me. Sam had scored quite highly and it suggested he had Aspergers Syndrome. After discussion with my husband we decided to ask Sam if he wanted to answer the questions. Surprisingly, he showed interest and so having rephrased some of the statements into language an eleven year-old would understand, he answered the questions.

Most of the questions I had answered on his behalf he agreed with. What was astounding were those I was unable to answer. These were questions about his thought processes and this resulted in his score at the end being much higher than my original estimate.

Now, three years later, having seen a very sympathetic GP who referred us to child psychiatrist and having read many books on the subject, we have a greater understanding of this syndrome.

We still have problems and misunderstandings.

The boys arrived home before me one day. I phoned home to check they were OK and Sam answered the phone. He still finds speaking on the phone very difficult so, after a few quick questions, I asked him to pass the phone to Ben. This was the mistake because Sam did exactly what I asked him. Ben didn't know the phone had rung so when Sam passed it to him, he put it on the table. I arrived home to find the phone still where Ben had put it, having no idea that I wanted to speak to him.

I have learnt that Sam takes things literally. Years ago he became confused when I told him he wasn't going to school because 'it had broken up' and trying to explain the meaning of 'booby trap' gave everyone giggles. We are coping and Sam has gifts far beyond his years in maths and ICT although he finds new situations tricky and will often send Ben into shops on the way home from school because he finds this hard.

What concerns me is that, all through school, he has been able to mask his problems and his very able and experienced teachers have been unaware of Sam's difficulties. It makes me wonder how many shy, unresponsive pupils I've taught throughout the years may have had unrecognised problems.

I know that there are pupils in my school now who display behaviour that makes me treat them differently because of my experience with Sam but what about all the other syndromes I don't even know exist?

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