What becomes an English teacher?

Diamond Sharp -- Professional Learning

As I have been working with pre-service teachers at the Faculty of Education at Monash University, I have had many occasions to think about how one becomes an English teacher — and keeps on becoming throughout a career. With all the talk about ‘professional standards’, measurable skills, and accountability on key performance indicators, it is easy to lose sight of the deeply personal process of making a commitment to a teaching career.

‘Becoming’ has a neat double meaning that is pertinent to these thoughts. There is the process of becoming; this implies an emergence or an ongoingness, in which the one who becomes is also an active collaborator in this coming into being. There is a curious combination of agency and shaping of what was nonetheless incipient.

There is the other meaning of ‘becoming’, which means fitting, apt, correct, suitable, appropriate and, hence, attractive or flattering.

Plenty of commentators, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists…

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Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

The two readings for the Summer meeting of the Monash Literacy and Teaching Reading Group (a descriptive rather than ‘official’ title) were from Germany in 1930. One was an excerpt from Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. The other was an essay from Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”. They made an odd pair and, as I am not an expert on Marxist theory or dialectical materialism, they were at times dense. These reflections treat the two articles as provocations or openings for considering the place of ‘cultural producers’ such as writers and teachers.


The excerpt we looked at from Kracauer was “A short break for ventilation” which documented the author’s visits to newly modernised factories and workplaces in Weimar Germany. Kracauer treats his visits as excursions into what the modern workplace extols as ‘efficiency’ – a god that we still worship. The application of scientific rigour to human resources and work practices has, since the advent of industrialisation, had two contradictory effects: one has been to dehumanise workers into units of production who can be rationalised to create just the right kind of output in a series of actions in a tightly designed and monitored workflow. The other effect has been to look at modern work as a locus of meaning and identity for the individual worker. However, as the first effect suggests, what happens when we emphasise function, efficiency and predictability over individual personality, is that it is very difficult for a worker to see their work as a source of meaning. This was very evident from the beginning in the piecework of the factory worker. Mass production created a huge rise in living standards for many as goods previously made by artisans (at considerable expense) were now churned our cheaply from factories. However, the effect was the worker who once learned an intricate trade or craft was transformed into a single, repetitive unit in a production line.

Kracauer’s essay seems particularly interested in the category of worker who sits between the labourer on the factory floor and the management – the legions of clerical workers and minor functionaries. He devotes some attention to describing the work patterns of young women who come to work after a short stint at secretarial school:

“A number of girls are evenly distributed about the room at Powers machines, punching cards and writing. … I ask the office manager about the machine-girls’ work routine.

‘The girls,’ he replies, ‘punch for only six hours and during the remaining two hours are employed as office clerks. In this way we avoid overtaxing them. All this takes place in a predetermined cycle, so that each employee encounters all tasks. For hygienic reasons, moreover, from time to time we slip in short breaks for ventilation.’

What a scheme – even ventilation outlets are not forgotten.”

Kracauer’s essay suggests that such human touches as “short breaks” are only added insofar as they assist with the mechanics of smooth production. The individuality of each girl is immaterial to the process, and the general aesthetic ugliness of the environment and the ideas it embodies is summed up by the observation, “many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through études at home on the pianoforte.” In other words, they need to be educated and genteel just enough to enter into this workplace and perform their function well – but not so much that a creativity or critical intellect is nurtured that is in excess of requirements.

This is the other face of standardised work and it points up a paradox. On the one hand, standards imply a certain level of proficiency and learning is required to meet the criteria for performance of a work role. This, when applied to domains of work such as teaching, nursing, accountancy, financial planning, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, and so on, is supposed to have the effect of reassuring the public that members of this profession have reached standards and can be trusted to do their job and serve their clients well. The idea is that this also ‘weeds out’ the shonky operators and hence raises the esteem in which that professional is held by the community. However, in applying standards, the unintended effect can be akin to the world described by Kracauer at the birth of the modern clerical workplace – not just ‘standards’ but ‘standardisation’, wherein the professional judgement of the worker is replaced by a standardised routine which bypasses individual knowledge and creativity and replaces it with compliance. In other words, this worker, too, like the labourer on the factory floor before her, becomes a unit in a process that makes a standard, mass-produced product. By the logic of this world, the people involved in this process become themselves, standardised, mass-produced products. This paradox is summed up in a little verse inserted into Kracauer’s essay:

And after all it’s just the same

If it’s you or if it’s me.

Kracauer goes on to analyse this effect of the modern white-collar workplace being a domain of rationalisation and work-function. The effort poured into calibrating and quantifying the exact content of each task in the process has the effect of making it ‘individual-proof’:

“Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at commercial college were not compulsory, they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm too are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures.”

The Salaried Masses goes to the heart of one of the tensions of modernity – the same forces that revolutionised society out of stable, feudal relations into a rapidly changing, socially mobile world in which commercial goods were more freely accessible, is the same world that wrenches meaning from work and slots people into narrow, alienated, standardised roles in which mere compliance to routine and standardised processes is required. We are still living with the ongoing permutations and complexities of that tension – not least in the profession of teaching.


The place of artists, intellectuals and other ‘cultural producers’ in modernity is examined by Benjamin. Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” is, if I read it right, an attempt to address a major problem for left-wing intellectuals of his place and time: if you are an intellectual, you are, by definition, bourgeois. But, if you are left-wing, you are sympathetic to the interests and cause of the proletariat, which means you are against the bourgeois. At this point, I am scrabbling around in my memory of courses in Political Theory and Theory of Revolutions that I took back in the early 1990s. If memory serves me right, one of the key insights I derived from those courses is that the bourgeois classes are actually responsible for as much social change and upheaval as they are for conservatism and oppression of the proletariat. Perhaps this is the dilemma that Benjamin addresses – that the class that is identified as the ‘owners of the means of production’ is the same class that gives rise to new social forms. On one side, the burghers of the city, and on the other the revolutionary writers, and both are from the same economic class.

Benjamin charges the left-wing intellectual with a special but obscure task: “His mission is not to report but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively.” This bears a family resemblance to the ideal of the French existentialist intellectuals of engagé. However, the latter idea, or the methods used by writers such as Carolyn Steedman in Landscape for a Good Woman, are much more appealing to me than Benjamin’s formulation that a left-wing writer must show “solidarity” with the “proletariat”. What does this really entail? Benjamin argues that this consists of a kind of collectivisation of intellectual production, a process that changes cultural production from something that merely reiterates bourgeois values to an “apparatus” that is adapted to “the purposes of the proletarian revolution.”

Perhaps because of my no doubt bourgeois distaste for roping any intellectual or artistic endeavour to an ideological program imposed from the outside, not to mention what actually happened to intellectuals and artists in Stalin’s Russia, I cannot enthuse about this aspect of Benjamin’s article. I may have misunderstood it, but his program for artistic revolutionary work sounds very similar in its control and rationalisation of action to function, to the streamlined functionalism of the Weimar era workplace documented by Kracauer. Why have cultivated individuals when all you need are Socialist Realist artists fulfilling work orders like colour-by-numbers hacks?

There are some other ideas here: the notion of how new technologies transform cultural production and bring in the reader as collaborator, breaking down the distinction between an ‘elite’ cultural producer and a deskilled consumer. This was a thread in Benjamin’s essay that seemed positively prescient for what modern print production, telecommunications, media and ICTs have done for collaborative cultural practice and decentred notions of intellectual and literary value.

As to how it relates to teaching literature … Perhaps we can take from these two articles an illumination of our odd and awkward position as English teachers, as we are a form of cultural producer and/or intellectual. We are charged with multiple and often contradictory tasks that promote both cultural conservatism and social change. We teach ‘standard Australian English’ and yet also engage with new, collaborative and digital tools for reading and writing. We teach ‘classic’ literature, and yet we also want students to create new types of texts. We want to be professionals and recognised as such by our communities, and yet we may be wary of ‘standards’ becoming ‘standardisation’. Does who we are and what kinds of intellectual and social engagement we represent to our students matter – or does it not matter, as long as we implement the mandated strategies and ‘teach to the test’? Is Kracauer’s verse true: “And after all it’s just the same/If it’s you or if it’s me”?

Under the various pressures of high-stakes testing and exams, it is easy to feel a little like one of those girls at the punch-card machines. And yet, teacher’s work is qualitatively different, not the least being we do not have to toil at dehumanising, clattering machines and the necessity for some professional judgement and knowledge is recognised. And yet … my prickly reaction to Benjamin’s essay is in part a feeling that programmatic interventions such as those envisioned by thinkers like him have to guard against dismantling the very qualities that make people happily invest identity in their work – such as freedom to make professional judgements and to be recognised as expert interpreters of their world and how to respond to it.

2014 Reading Highlights – Memoir and YA

2014 Reading Highlights – Memoir and YA

At our house, we are all bunkered down inside, hiding from yet another Melbourne heatwave … and I am taking the opportunity to catch up on a bit of book blogging.

Reading took me in many directions during 2014. Today’s blog is about a moving memoir about reading and the work of a YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

end of your life book club

Will Schwalbe (2012). The End of Your Life Book Club.

Schwalbe lives in New York and works in publishing. This memoir is about many ideas, but it starts from the author’s love of two things – reading and books, and his mother. Will Schwalbe’s mother is undergoing treatment for cancer and Schwalbe takes to sitting with her through the long hours of waiting and treatment at the clinic. Over their time together they take the opportunity to talk about the books they have read, are reading, and are planning to read. Hence, over the course of Mary Anne Schwalbe’s struggle with illness, they create an informal ‘book club’ of two. And, like any good book club, talking about the books ends up being the prompt for their talking about life.

By choosing to focus on a distinct span of time and event, but flesh it out through the books he and his mother read, Schwalbe re-creates for his readers how reading deeply and well, and sharing it with others, in turn deepens and expands our own horizon of experience. As a portrayal of a son’s grief and joy at his mother’s life, and their shared devotion to the power of the written word, The End of Your Life Book Club uses the pair’s reading program to ponder all the big questions of human existence: love and fate; choices and decisions; the ‘roads not taken’; moral purpose in career; family; death. Reading Schwalbe’s memoir also has the effect of sending the reader back to their shelves to revisit old friends, or off to the bookshop to purchase a few of the titles the two of them discuss with such tantalising grace. So many times, while reading this, I found myself re-reading passages for their insight into how reading and thinking about books helps us navigate those other ‘passages’ in our lives. Handily, Schwalbe finishes the volume with a reading list of all the books he and his mother talk about.

Eleanor and Park

Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor and Park. (2013).

Switching between one character’s point of view and another can be risky business in fiction writing, and it does not always work. However, Rowell’s Eleanor and Park pulls this device off perfectly. A romance between an overweight, red-haired misfit girl and a half-Korean boy in a white-bread town sounds like it could be mawkish, lopsided, or just implausible. But it is magic.

Eleanor is a new girl in a small suburban town. She comes from a deeply dysfunctional and poor family. Her mother has remarried and the new step-dad is a no-hoper, abusive demon. She has no friends at her new school, and, on the dreaded bus ride to and from school, must sit in the only available space – next to a remote, Eurasian boy who, initially, shows no signs of wanting to know her. Park, it turns out, has more genuine guts than his father gives him credit for and eventually braves the high-school threat of social annihilation to connect with this strange new girl. He shares his love of indie music and graphic novels and the two of them start their own world apart; however, despite her joy in Park’s company, Eleanor’s bruised self-esteem means she finds it hard to believe in the viability of their love. I thought this was an intelligently written YA novel about first love, social exclusion and family hurt. I really liked the way Rowell made the point of Eleanor and Park’s allegiance to each other being an allegiance to themselves and their difference; together, they resist forces that would diminish them to create the ‘universe of two’ that is part of the power of first love.

fangirl book cover

Rainbow Rowell Fangirl. (2013).

Identical twins Cather and Wren (say both the names aloud quickly and you’ll get it) head off to college in Nebraska. Wren is the more extraverted of the two, has no interest in rooming with her quieter twin Cath, and is quick to dive into all the social scene that college has to offer. Cath, by contrast, hides out in her dorm room, subsisting on peanut butter and protein bars because she is too intimidated by the task of finding the dining hall. She has taken on a more senior class in fiction writing that she is dead keen on doing well in, but is utterly overwhelmed by the seeming sophistication of her older classmates. And, she is desperately trying to complete her fanfic opus, Carry On, Simon, before the eighth and final volume of the canon series comes out later that autumn.

Rowell’s Fangirl was pressed upon me by a veteran reader friend who works as a Teacher Librarian and has been round the block plenty of times when it comes to YA fiction. When she tells me a YA novel really stands out from the pack in terms of quality, I take notice. She raved about Fangirl, and with good reason.

Cath is plagued with crippling, you-would-not-believe-it anxiety. The experience of being cut loose by her more outgoing twin, having to room with a senior called Reagan who is all sharp edges, and dealing with her worries about her bi-polar single dad, who has been left behind in their Nebraska hometown of Omaha, just about capsizes Cath in her first semester. She is also haunted by the fact that her and Wren’s mother abandoned them when they were in third grade, and that Cath has never seen her since. What keeps her hanging on is her immersion in the fan fiction world developed from a fictive urban fantasy series about a character called Simon Snow.

For the purposes of her novel, Rowell has invented an inter-text of a fantasy series about Snow, a teen attending wizard school, not unlike Harry Potter at Hogwarts. Rowell has added a dash of other well-known fixtures of YA fantasy, as Snow has a roommate nemesis Baz, who is a vampire. Cath’s fanfic is ‘slash’, meaning her narrative has re-created the fictional universe of the original text, but she has made Simon and Baz have a swoony gay romance. Cath’s fanfic is wildly successful, and she is ‘huge’ in the online Simon Snow fanfic world, with tens of thousands of ‘hits’ on her daily instalments. There is even a T-shirt for her fans that says, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On, Simon.’ The irony is, that she is unable to translate this online belonging and confidence to anything resembling it in her offline, ‘real’ life.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who studies agricultural science with electives in literature, is hanging around the dorm. It is clear to the reader, way before it dawns on Cath, that Levi has more than a passing interest in Cath. Levi’s struggle is that while he can read short chunks of text, he has trouble following longer reading assignments. In a moving sequence, Cath reads to him from her fanfic, then reads S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him all night long, in preparation for an upcoming pop quiz he needs to do well in. Levi is gentlemanly and old-fashioned, and falls in love with Cath’s love of the written word. Their romance is partly about the power of stories to bridge gaps in understanding between people.

Fangirl is cleverly constructed, as the narrative moves between passages of the fictive Simon Snow canon, Cath’s additions to her Simon Snow slash fanfic, and the narrative of her struggles to overcome her anxiety, find her place in the world of college, and navigate her first love. The novel also treats the issues of family dysfunction and mental illness deftly, as well as exploring Cath’s emergence from fanfic into grappling with her most difficult personal experiences in fiction she develops from scratch.

Review – The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York: Harper. 2008.


book cover price of privilegeMadeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.


It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with in Overwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community. Levine suggests that too many of them are ill-equipped for the expectations and roles that await them.


Levine commenced her project on a hunch that her practice was seeing ever-greater rates of depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, bad behaviour, selfishness, fragility, self-destructive habits and all-round unhappiness in her wealthy Marin County community than in the previous quarter-century she had been a psychologist. Her initial calls to colleagues around the U.S. confirmed that her observations were not merely local, but seen in affluent communities around her country. Further research she has since carried out paints a disturbing and surprising picture – affluent teens now exhibit greater levels of psychological ill-health than their peers on the next tier down the social scale, in the middle classes. This was a mystery and counter-intuitive to Levine, as it would be for most of us. Surely, young people who have so many opportunities, who have the best education, extra-curricular activities, the nicest neighbourhoods, the most conscientious parents with the resources to support their every endeavour, would be far better off than any other group of teens in the country? These are not, after all, the kinds of teens that feature in the usual accounts of educational failure, dysfunctional families and chronic, entrenched disadvantage that, sadly, still tell a tale of wasted talent in our communities.


"Full Moon at Wildwood" -- Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/
“Full Moon at Wildwood” — Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/

Levine’s book points out that although we know the saying that money cannot buy happiness, we still act as if it does. Therefore, we think that more money always = more happiness. We also know that parental involvement in a child’s education is positively correlated to that child doing well. However, Levine argues, we have made a fundamental error here, too. Some parents have misread this to mean that over-involvement in a child’s education, in which a child is constantly coached and shaped, scheduled and pushed, is necessarily better than some involvement. Worse yet, the developmental “tasks” of adolescence, which include, crucially, the development of an independent, autonomous sense of self, and a growing ability to manage one’s own life and solve one’s own problems, are interfered with when parents prematurely solve problems for their children, particularly those of the child’s own making (like not studying for assessment and then not doing very well.) Levine argues that:


“Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self. Autonomy, what we commonly call independence, along with competence and interpersonal relationships, are considered to be inborn human needs. Their development is central to psychological health. In a supportive, respectful family, children go about the business of forging a ‘sense of self’ by being exposed to, and learning to manage, increasingly complex personal and interpersonal challenges.”


Levine argues that over-involvement leaves her young clients feeling passive and empty, “the kind of anxious, overprotective, oversolicitous, intrusive parenting that has become commonplace in affluent communities actually diminishes a child’s sense of efficacy and autonomy.” In a neat analogy, Levine argues that while the parent of a three year old would never forbid their child from learning to climb small stairs, and then expect them to know how to climb seven flights, parents of adolescents, out of an instinct to protect their children from hardship or unpleasantness, can intervene at times when their children are making the mistakes that are necessary to learn about consequences and prepare for the steeper challenges later on as they take on full adulthood. Not having learned to climb the stairs, Levine’s teenage clients fall to pieces when they are expected to climb several floors up.


However, Levine is compassionate and attuned to the very real challenges and dilemmas of parenting in communities where adolescence seems so high-stakes and there is a relentless emphasis on the external signs of success and achievement.

Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self. Image credit: Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/
Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self.  Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/

Levine argues that while high grades and success at extra-curricular options are well and good, if they happen, they should happen as a natural outgrowth of a fundamentally more important task that faces young people – – to develop an authentic sense of self. Levine calls this an ‘internal home’: “the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world. It is where kids – -where all of us – – retreat to when we need to ‘pull it together’, ‘think it over’, or just take care of ourselves.” It is the basis of moral action and the ability to respond to situations effectively and with integrity, as well as personal wellbeing. This is the result of children feeling like they “own” their lives, who have grown a sense of self-efficacy by having developmentally-appropriate experiences, thereby seeing that they can “have an impact on [their] world.” This is distinguished from ‘self-esteem’; Levine argues that self-efficacy is more important, as it stems from real experiences of the child acting “appropriately in [their] best interest”.

Levine is not against high academic achievement and the self-discipline necessary to learn well. On the contrary, she is advocating for a shift in values and parenting that genuinely cultivates a commitment to deep learning. If high grades are the result of the young person pursuing learning out of increasing levels of engagement, curiosity, passion, and skill, if, in short, the young person wants to pursue this learning out of a genuine, internal motivation, then they have achieved an important milestone in their growth into competent adults. As she observes, “Ultimately, motivation for any venture needs to feel like it comes from inside. When it does, it feels ‘true’”. If, however, the achievement of high grades is pursued just for the status and to please others (usually anxious parents) and that there is no genuine love of learning, if, in fact, the teenager will take any shortcut they can to get the grade, even having their essays professionally written, hacking into the school’s grade database to change their marks, or having their parents apply pressure to their teachers, then something has gone seriously awry. In these cases, the grade, once taken as an indicator of learning, has come adrift of the activity it was meant to report on, and has become, instead, a kind of fetish.

Levine dissects the values of communities where this is happening and encourages her readers to resist unhealthy cultural pressures in their own parenting – something which she acknowledges is extremely hard to do. After all, adults are also encouraged to assess their self-worth according to a narrow range of materialistic and performance-based criteria.

Levine is clear that the task of parenting teenagers is daunting and complex. Her tone is never accusatory, judgemental or dismissive. Instead, she challenges her readers to examine their priorities and values, and to critically examine the toxic aspects of the “culture of affluence”. She also encourages her readers to put their own genuine self-development high on their list of priorities, so that they can model a reflective self who acts with integrity and kindness, and responds to life’s set-backs appropriately.

Read an excerpt from The Price of Privilege.

Read an overview of research into psychological ill-health in teens from affluent communities.

Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/
Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/

You and me and ASD: On the Question of Labels

One of the things I have taken time to reflect on over the summer period is the six months that have elapsed since our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder (take your pick). Last year proved to be a big one in many unexpected ways for us, but the ASD diagnosis was definitely the biggest change we saw.

Twelve months ago we sought help from health professionals thinking our son had an anxiety disorder. Six months after that, in June, we were told that the consensus among a psychologist, speech pathologist and a paediatrician was that the best explanation for his difficulties was ASD. I remember my concern about ‘labels’ during the initial phase of diagnosis. However, this concern very quickly melted into the background once it became apparent that a diagnosis could set a whole lot of things moving that would ultimately help everyone.

The questions are:

Are we better off since the diagnosis? Are we parenting our son with more clues? Is he happier? Are we?

Yes to all of the above.

Do we think of him as only his diagnosis?

No, of course not.

So what has changed, and how is it for the better?

Firstly, we are parenting him differently and the changes in our son are very evident. He is happier, more relaxed and more able to make sense of each day. He still has trouble with some things but we have much more of an insight into why that is and what we can do about it. The specialists we have been working with – psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and a paediatrician – have provided us with lots of useful strategies to support our son and make our family life run more smoothly. It is not perfect, but no family is. We use visual schedules and social stories to help our son plan his time and organise himself. We use prompts and questions to help him learn the reciprocity that underlies conversation, and we have done lots of work on his motor organisation and skills for pre-writing to prepare him for school. What’s more, the school he is going to knows of his particular needs and will take extra care of him because of this.

In short, we do things slightly differently and it works. He is happier because he feels better understood and we are no longer trying to parent him as if he is someone else. Instead, we have got a better idea about the ‘operating system’ or ‘frequency’ his brain runs on and so we no longer experience the mutual frustration that comes from behaving as if the more common rules apply.

Which brings me to the main insight that this experience has given me. This concerns the issue of ‘labels’ and the reservations we and others have had about the whole issue of ‘labelling’ a child.  Six months into this new version of normal life I have come to the conclusion that concerns about ‘labelling’ might actually be a bit of a furphy.

I have learnt that the decision to go for a diagnosis in and of itself does not necessarily mean you are ‘labelling’ your child. People tend to use this idea of labelling to signal a concern that a diagnosis means that you are stigmatising your child, or putting an arbitrary limit on who they are, or reducing their human liveliness and complexity to a blurb in a diagnostic manual. These concerns would be valid – if they were true.

In our experience, a diagnosis has had the opposite effect – it has opened up our child to us as we can now understand him better and, in his case, his flourishing and growth has only increased since we decided to have him formally assessed for ASD.

To be sure, medical labels have been used to disempower and limit people. They can be terribly reductive when misused or used to replace actual engagement with the person and life’s irreducible complexity.

I see this mirrored in my life as an English teacher. My heart always sinks when students decide to diagnose a character, as if that explains them. As if a diagnosis, once made, means there is nothing more that needs to be said and no further thinking is required.

Yeah, Hamlet, he was like, a depressive, right? He just needed to get over it? Or Emma Bovary? You know, she was like a shopping addict? What she needed was a divorce and a good SSRI. Imagine if all of literature treated human experience in this way. Macbeth? Neurotic pride in achievement and power. Anti-social personality. Emily Dickinson? Agoraphobic. Social anxiety disorder. And don’t even get us started on those Brontë sisters.

The image purveyed by the popular media is of gung-ho psychologists busily diagnosing every socially awkward and brainy kid as ‘on the spectrum’ and press-ganging parents into pursuing expensive treatment. From the waiting times for each appointment it was clear to us that the last thing some of these clinics need is more patients.

Our experience contrasted this popular image. At every stage in the diagnostic process the professionals we were dealing with left it entirely up to us whether or not we proceeded with a formal assessment. At several junctures we were given explicit feedback that we did not have to proceed. The entire process was very respectful and we were assured repeatedly that we should continue to value our son in all his complexity and brilliance and quirks and that he is still an individual. Yes. Of course.

Years ago, I was one of the ‘don’t label him’ people. Back when our son was 2 going on 3, the staff at the early learning centre he was enrolled in expressed ‘concerns’ about his development. I had many meetings and conversations with them about his ‘progress’ and it was clear to me that they were dissatisfied.

At the time, and at the request of the early learning centre, we took our son to a paediatrician. This guy said he saw nothing amiss and it was probably ‘just temperament’. We, of course, were delighted to hear this and the whole episode was buried in my consciousness; that is, until we were part-way through the diagnostic process this second time around. During the diagnostic process those memories surfaced again – and this time I had a different take on my then-resistance to what I saw as normative standards being used to construe my son as a ‘concern’. He only wants to play with one type of toy? So what? Focus is good. He doesn’t draw representations of people? Well, neither do a whole bunch of adult artists. He has not moved beyond parallel play? Well, he comes from a family of people who like solitude. And that hand-flapping gesture he does? It’s just excitement.

I did not understand what the childhood educators were getting at. But I knew that I was always going to bristle at any hint of people trying to funnel him into a narrow, normative box.

I feel the same now about norms that are cultural rather than medical as I did then. But I feel differently about worrying about ‘labelling’.

The litmus test is this – he and we were having a hard time. Now, we are having a better time. What have we told him? That he had a lot of worries and that we are helping him with that. He seems satisfied with this explanation and it has the added benefit of being true.

Japanese ASD expert Yuko Yoshida in her delightful book Raising Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Championing the Individual, says it all in her title. Her argument about the ‘don’t label’ view is that to not diagnose and recognise your child’s distinct reality and difficulties is also, in a way, a failure to respect them as individuals. To simply avoid dealing with a child’s difference, to not engage with their specific needs and learn what best supports them is to abandon them. The ‘don’t label’ stance can inadvertently throw a child back on their own limited resources for trying to make their way in what is for them a confusing world. Done right, diagnosis is actually recognising difference.

For us, undergoing the quite arduous process of a formal diagnosis engaged our minds and focus. We were prompted to learn about ASD and our son’s particular ‘presentation’ and his particular needs. And it is the particularity that counts. A diagnosis is not a person, any more than a map is a place. But, if you want to know a place, in all is glorious particularity, you are going to need a map to get there.

Yuko Yoshida ASD book

Weird Snacks

Capitalism throws up some bizarre products in the never-ending search for the killer niche market. Enter from stage left … the weird snack food.

It is as if the public cried out, ‘We need a sweet snack that tastes like wedding cake and looks like unwashed potatoes!’

The food designers at German company Zentis heard our cry and produced this.

marzipan potatoes


Thank-you to a dear family friend who gave me these. I don’t actually like the taste of marzipan, but the rest of my household have been wolfing them down.

marzipan potatoes


When 40 does not mean slow

There is a sign in the street outside our house. It is a speed limit sign for ’40’ zone. Every time I look at it I feel a stab of irony. I have turned 40 and life does not feel slow. Instead, it feels compressed at hyper-speed. The stars look smeared as we hurtle forward, dropping hobbies, reading time, even exercise — and the pressure just keeps getting hotter.