Picture shows model © FreeImages|Wendy Pastorius
Nathan’s time in education didn’t follow a traditional path, although when you hear about his experiences, he obviously learnt a lot – just not always in a conventional way.
But one of the most difficult lessons, and also the most important for finding his way in life, was how to relate to other people. Thanks to the patient and practical support of one of Surrey Care Trust’s volunteer mentors, he has come a long way in developing that essential skill.
Nathan has Asperger’s – a condition that means he is very good at maths for instance, but he finds it hard to understand other people’s behaviour and intentions and also to express how he feels to them.
The acute anxiety he experiences when he feels hemmed in, upset or threatened by people, and which in an instant can turn to anger and aggression, is the biggest problem that Nathan had to learn to overcome. It makes him unhappy and can frighten other people.
It left teachers at the succession of schools he attended at a loss to help him – he was also affected by attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), which in the past added to the volatility of his behaviour.
Nathan and Surrey Care Trust volunteer mentor Deena met most weeks over a year and a half. To start with, he wouldn’t look her in the eye and would flinch if she touched his shoulder. He gradually became comfortable shaking hands when they met, and with strangers, too, if he was in a situation where he felt safe.
Deena encouraged Nathan to explain why he gets angry. “First of all it would be panic but then I get angry very quickly,” explained Nathan, “It never starts off slow. I could be really like calm and then the next moment I could go mad but this year it hasn’t happened so much.”
One of the things that Deena talked to him about was the human flight or fight response to perceived threats. It helped to understand there is a rational reason why he reacts as he does, so he can learn a more moderate way to respond – deep breathing, counting to ten, removing himself from the situation immediately before the anger takes hold.
Deena and Nathan covered the same ground again and again because it is by repetition, rather than by observation, that someone with Asperger’s gradually takes on board what are socially-expected ways to behave.
Deena introduced Nathan to a simple mantra she asked him to repeat at every meeting to help himto think and react in positive ways. “Before you speak THINK. Is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind?”
She broadened Nathan’s knowledge and enthused him with visits to local museums and setting him a project to create a family history linking the lives of his relations to world events. In 1997, the year Nathan was born, notable milestones included the launch of Plasma television (in the US), the death of Princess Diana, the introduction of GPS and the South African presidency of Nelson Mandela.
To increase his skills for everyday life, Deena taught him to tell the time by the hands of a conventional clock and increased his sketchy understanding of the seasons and the calendar year.
By explaining the intended meaning of well-known sayings, Deena helped Nathan to grasp almost another language.
Someone with Asperger’s will naturally understand sayings like “a fly in the ointment”, “a storm in a teacup”, or “a mountain out of a molehill” literally. Deena’s explanation that these were figures of speech, rather than realistic descriptions, made conversations much less confusing. It was Nathan learning to make allowances for people not always being completely logical!
You might think Deena has a professional teaching background with her imaginative ways of coaxing this young man out of his defensive shell but she explains that she simply brought to mentoring the empathy that comes from her own experience of life and particularly as a mum. When her own sons were young, their home was the sort that was an open house, so it was often full of young people. Deena now has grandchildren Nathan’s age.
Nathan found it hard to put into words what meeting up with Deena meant to him but he was at their regular coffee shop meeting most weeks; punctual, polite, usually smiling and communicative.
Nathan started attending an alternative education programme but it didn’t always go smoothly at the beginning, so when he was struggling, Deena was someone independent to turn to. Someone who wasn’t a parent or a teacher.
“I told him at the start, I wasn’t a person in authority, I wasn’t here to tell him what to do but that we were here to learn from each other,” Deena explained.
Despite finding it hard to fit in with other people, Nathan had shown an ability to learn and apply himself in varying situations. During stints of work experience, for example, he had demonstrated flair in the skills of shabby-chic-ing furniture and a way with animals, too. He loved training with Surrey Care Trust’s environmental conservation volunteers based on our Swingbridge2 workboat and achieved a lot, including a crewing qualification.
Participating in an extended outdoors activities course in all weathers where his physical stamina courage was put to the test brought out personal qualities. Abseiling was the scariest. “I nearly didn’t do that, my legs were shaking but when my feet touched the ground I was so pleased,” he said.
For everything he accomplished Deena gave him a certificate, giving him a tangible reminder of his achievements.
As he increased the amount of time he was spending in education and became a full-time student mentoring came to a natural end. The latest news is that he is doing “brilliantly” and managing even the most challenging lessons.
Thinking practically about the future, he has completed part of the work needed to gain a Construction Skills Certification Scheme certificate that would enable him to work in the building trade.
“I am so pleased for him and hope that the work I did with him has helped him go forward,” said Deena.