The story I have to tell is one that profoundly touched me. It not only changed the course of my studies but also led me to pursue quite a different track in how I developed my career in Neuroscience. But that can come later, first let me share the story with you. It is about a boy, still in the early years of schooling, who came to our English language school in a predicament: would we accept him?
Cainã (not his real name, but we all know why) was six and lonely when I met him. A scrawny boy with intelligent eyes that searched high and low, but to judge his bearings; never focusing on my eyes.
He had not been at a regular school for some time. The last school had forced him to quit on the premise of maladjustment. The moment he and his mother entered the doors of our school, his manner was clear: everything seemed to frighten or anger him.
His mother later told me that he had been diagnosed early as being on the autism spectrum, but later the diagnosis had changed to synesthesia, a “neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision)” [for reference and more on that check here].
However, there was no definitive diagnosis of his condition. His mother expressly asked us not to touch him and not to force him into doing things, as this would inevitably trigger a violent reaction on his part. But conditions notwithstanding, anyone could clearly see that his was a deeply moving case of school scare: at his former school he had been labeled and cast aside. He became violent and hit teachers and classmates, getting an invitation to leave the school.
Child and mother were so traumatized that school had been ruled out for a semester. But Cainã needed company. He was an only child, and his mother was on a solitary crusade: she did not know who to turn to when Education, even that which private money could afford, did not offer them a very friendly face. And he wanted to learn–socially, from peers, from a teacher, in a school. After being on his own for six months, he had asked his mother to search for a place where he could fit into.
That was the state of mind and soul that both were in when I met them at the school where I was serving as director. Ours had been the umpteenth school door she had knocked at on the flimsy chance that we would accept him. When I got to know him and listened to the story the mother had to tell me, how could I (or anyone for that matter) say no?!?
So, there started our journey together. For the next days, I met with different teachers who could potentially have him in their groups. First we had to find a good placement, and the teacher had to be aligned with the purpose of incorporating this new, and very special, student, into our context. This teacher would have the hard task of mediating his learning process to break the restraints imposed by genes and environment.
It soon became clear that his learning relied much more on finding the appropriate psychological balance than getting his behavior in check. We rolled up our sleeves and devised many mindful activities, those that would focus on his great capacity to pay attention and get engrossed in the moment. Simultaneously, we worked with the other students in the group to make the necessary accommodations clear and comprehensible. They had to join our efforts for a successful adaptation.
The semester was rough, but full of lessons for all of us. We had many bumps along the way, instances where Cainã would have to stay apart (with me in tandem) so that the fragile strings that were connecting him to the group would not snap. A moment of celebration came when, during our Halloween festivities, he came fully dressed in a suitable costume and expressly asked his mother to provide him with a bag full of treats for his classmates. That day his mother cried–tears of joy this time round–at being able to cater to his needs.
At the end of the school year, we had a surprise: he was going to leave us. Unfortunately, the professionals responsible for his well-being (a pediatrician and psychologist) thought that it was high time he joined a regular school instead of an English school. Their recommendation was that going to two schools would be overwhelming and could push Cainã towards another round of maladaptive behaviors.
But Cainã was not lonely, nor angry. anymore. He had learned how good it felt to belong to a place of learning: his life had changed, for the better, and we–as a learning community–had the privilege of partaking in this redemption.
In retrospect, I see that it was a pivotal moment for me. It made me realize how close we may all get to labelling what we do not understand and, in doing so, refrain from making the right choice among between “us” and “them.”
Some time after that experience, I went on a deep dive into the neurobiology of learning differences. Not only did Cainã’s trajectory become much clearer to me, but also the many missteps that our Education stakeholders took in preventing him from following an adequate–a minimally successful-academic development path. That made me go to Japan. But that is a totally different story – perhaps one for a future issue…
Mirela Ramacciotti is a former lawyer, teacher, and translator, turned to education consultancy and materials writing in the area of TESOL and MBE; MSc in Interdisciplinary Studies from Johns Hopkins University and PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at the University of São Paulo; author of Aprender: Entendendo o Cérebro; her website is www.neuroeducamente.com.br