Special Needs

English novelist Mark Haddon has written two of my favorite novels: A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The latter novel is frequently included on lists of the best novels of the 21st century, and it is one I teach in both my high school and university-level English literature courses.

One reason I include it is that it makes for great discussion regarding reliable vs. unreliable narration as, Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old with Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis placing him on the autism spectrum, provides the point-of-view from which the story is told. Another reason for teaching the novel is that, thematically, it addresses the issue of “othering” or humans’ seemingly irresistible need to identify “We” vs. “They” on life’s scoreboard.

However, what I like best about The Curious Incident, is that Christopher himself never identifies himself as “suffering” from Asperger’s. In fact, he never mentions that word or autism. Instead, he shares that he possesses “behavioral problems” and at one point conducts and shares a brutally-honest self-inventory of his own, which range from the minor to the quite serious. I openly share with my students a few of my many behavioral problems (a quick temper, an inattention to detail, rashness in decision making, a reluctance towards emotional intimacy, the list goes on and on and on), and I encourage them to conduct a similarly-frank inventory of their own as a first step towards admitting them and, hopefully, ameliorating them.

Christopher also balks at being assigned the description as possessing “special needs,” for as he points out, everyone has special needs be it for eyeglasses, hearing aids, or something as innocuous as cream in their coffee. From his perspective, special needs, like autism itself, occur on a spectrum; therefore, it should not be a matter of separating ourselves into camps of those who suffer from them and those who do not but a realization that we all appear somewhere on the gamut of so-called special needs, and we are only differentiated by degree.

On the micro level, the novel, like Christopher, asks us to reconsider our attitudes toward folks with clinically-diagnosed special needs. On the macro level, it wants us to reconsider the many ways we needlessly seek to label and to build divisive walls between ourselves based on other identifiers as well, including race, ethnicity, political party, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

My final thematic reason for reading the novel with my students is for how it illustrates the work of developmental psychologist Howard Gardener and his famous identification of Multiple Intelligences through which he champions the notion that there are many different kinds of intelligence beyond that which is obtained and demonstrated through formal education, and, perhaps, we, as a society, overemphasize and overvalue such “learned” intelligence. Here’s a simplified listing of those Multiple Intelligences:

  • Naturalist Intelligence = Understanding living things and reading nature
  • Musical Intelligence = Discerning sounds, their pitch, tone, rhythm, and timbre
  • Logical-Mathematical = Quantifying things, making hypotheses and proving them
  • Existential = Tackling the questions of why we live and why we die
  • Interpersonal = Sensing people’s feelings and motives
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic = Coordinating your mind with your body
  • Linguistic = Finding the right words to express what you mean
  • Intra-personal = Understanding yourself, what you feel, and what you want
  • Spatial = Visualizing the world in 3-D

I ask my students to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the least proficiency and 5 the most. The purpose of which is twofold: one, to show them that we are all intelligent in our own ways, and two, to try to convince them to match their areas of intellectual strength with future college majors and/or career choices. As the character Spur says in the movie The Man from Snowy River (for my money one of the greatest PG-rated, romantic films ever made), “Don’t throw effort after foolishness.” By way of example, it would have been foolish for me, a person who ranks his Mathematical Intelligence as average or below, to pursue a career in engineering or accounting. Conversely, I rank my Existential Intelligence quite highly, which made forging a living and career from reading and teaching literature a fitting and endlessly-rewarding choice.

Oh! One more reason we read The Curious Incident is that it is a fun and fast read, especially compared to the stuffy 19th century English novels of Austen, Dickens, Hardy, etc. All of which are typical fare in English lit. courses and that I love, but I’m an English major. Such novels are not the most effective means for turning Twitter-loving teens into page turning readers.

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Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

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