Two summers ago, I accompanied my goddaughter's twin brother, B, then-9, to a class at Brooklyn Poly/NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, where he would be learning to build a website.
The college offers regular weeklong sessions to kids on the Autism Spectrum who are interested in learning how to do cool things on computers (which, in my experience here in America, would be most kids on the Autism Spectrum... and also most kids who are not autistic, and most teens, and most adults, because we have become a computer-dependent society which I'm totally okay with). B is no exception. He loves computers, technology, music, movies, and combining his love of these things into cool stop-motion videos he then posts on his YouTube channel until his teachers say, "Sorry, that's not appropriate" and make him take them down. (He's a very cool kid, but perhaps a little ahead of his time... and age.)
I sat in the class for several reasons, all related to helping B in case he needed me, but I thought it would be cool for personal reasons too (who doesn't want to learn how to build a website?! Spoiler Alert - turns out, it's me.).
Sometimes B hated that I was there - I was right there if he decided to deviate from their task at hand to watching a clip of somebody getting murdered in a 1970s horror flick or checking out a music video featuring Marilyn Manson, neither of which were permitted in class, and would quickly remind him that he needed to follow the rules if he wanted to stay. Sometimes he liked that I was there - when he needed someone to find just the right picture for his homepage and I already had it saved on my Macbook, or when he was trying to ask a teacher a question but his speech difficulties meant that he needed a little help in the form of interpretation. Mostly, he ignored the fact that I was there, which was good - I sat in the back, took notes, and tried to learn along with the class, and he was able to do most of the work independently thanks to the teachers' instructions.
By the end of that week, B was a budding website building master. Kids got to pick their own themes and content to teach people whatever they wanted using their site and the skills learned, so B made his about heavy metal music. He covered various artists, instruments, the importance of screaming lyrics when the song should sound angry, etc. He worked on basic coding, gif creation, embedding videos, adding sound, changing backgrounds, etc. He did an awesome job and learned a lot.
As I said, I sat in the back of the room, took notes, and paid attention (or tried to) during the entire weeklong full day classes too. And I learned... not a whole lot. Most of the coding stuff just confused and annoyed me, trying to navigate the templates frustrated and angered me, and my notes might as well have been written in Greek because I understood words here and there but not enough to make sense of the sentences.
It therefore took me AGES to create this simply little website, and that was after my friend built the bare bones for me and with help from another friend and feedback from my agent and yet another friend, and also despite having a template and being able to Google "How to Add a Picture to Wix Site." It took me FOREVER just to figure out how to delete a tiny text box and another two weeks to figure out that the reason my edits weren't saving was because I needed to hit "publish" to make them go live. Tonight, I told B's aunt (adoptive mother) that I should have let HIM build my site from the beginning, even though it would likely mean instead of info about my book there'd be at least as page about why Tool is the greatest band ever.
Anyway, this got me thinking about how differently different people learn. Not just autistic people, but people in general. Autistic kids often learn differently from Neurotypical kids, but autistic kids also learn differently from each other, as do Neurotypical kids.
For example, I have always been the type who learns better by reading information from a book than by listening to a teacher or staring at a screen. Class lectures were tough for me because I struggled to keep my focus on the class, as literally everything is distracting, not least of which is my overactive imagination. (I spent half of my high school years just thinking about the wizarding world of Harry Potter, which is probably why I know Severus Snape's birthday and can name everyone on Andromeda Black Tonks' family tree but can't remember anything algebra-related beyond Y=MX+B... an equation I also probably can't solve.) I am good at all Mario games that can be played on a Super Nintendo and I know how to navigate Facebook like it's my job, but beyond that, both social media and basic coding completely overwhelm me, sometimes resulting in total shutdown.
B, on the other hand, struggles with reading comprehension and, like me, can't always focus during a lecture-style lesson, but show him how to do anything on a computer - or even just give him the general gist before letting him try on his own - and he can master it pretty quickly, as long as it's interesting enough to hold his attention. Interesting side note, he saw me putting in a password during that class and went on to steal my identity, because back then I had the same password for everything (big mistake). It was about a month before I noticed he'd taken over my email, iTunes, and Amazon accounts, and created a YouTube channel in my name. I caught him after he changed my email signature to his name... I hadn't even known I could have an email signature!
It's fascinating to me how differently different people learn. For some, reading from a book is the way to go. For others, that's the absolute worst way. For some, computer coding is like an awesome puzzle they enjoy solving in as many ways as possible until they've built a whole website. For others, the only decent puzzles are actual puzzles (but not with too many pieces because some of us can only focus on a puzzle for so long before we start daydreaming about what the Malfoys' lives were like after the Final Battle... or is that just me?).
But now I'm drifting. The point was that I should have either paid far better attention in that class, or I should have had B build my website with a heavy metal vibe. But now that I've managed as much of it as I have on my own, I can't help feeling a little proud. I learned to delete text boxes. I learned how to add a background image. I learned how to upload this blog post.
Now I just need to figure out how to embed a cool music video!
Well... maybe someday.