(2021 Editor’s note: After graduation, we kept in touch with Jun. He had a hard time finding a job he was comfortable in or accepted at. We wrote him again after Simon Baron Cohen came out with an amazing theory on autistics, interviewed here, but alas, we could not contact Jun.)
Part 1) A foreword
Part 2) A liberal translation of Jun’s message
Part 3) Jun’s message as he wrote it in Japanese
Part 4) A short, but important, closing message
Asperger Syndrome is one of the many forms Autism takes. It often stays undiagnosed until a child or adult has problems at school or work, as was the case for Jun Kuwabara. The wonderful An Educator’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome identifies these characteristics (2016, p.7):
Considering its prevalence, it is likely you will encounter someone like Jun in class (or maybe the teachers’ room), and yet few of us are trained in dealing with such learners. So, we asked Jun to give us advice from his perspective. He has written the letter below for us in Japanese. We are including a slightly loose translation into English.
Before that, however, let me give you a little background on Jun Kuwabara’s story. He was a student in the Faculty of Commerce at Kansai University. He took my Business English class in his first year. I noticed that he was serious and attentive, sitting in the front row and paying attention to everything. He seemed quite smart, but I was surprised that his weekly quiz scores were only average. Part way through the course, we began to talk, and he explained that he was having trouble in his other classes. He told me he thought he might have chosen the wrong major. As time went on, I thought so too. He was passionate about how ships and aircraft worked.
I never had him in a class after that, but he sometimes came to my office looking for support and understanding. He told me he was failing about a third of his classes even though he attended each lesson and did the assignments. He had trouble if the teachers did not give clear instructions on what to study. I arranged for him to talk to other professors on campus who had disabilities, but it was not until I introduced him to Professor Keiko Kanoh, in his fourth year, that he could find real support. Professor Kanoh, in the Faculty of Sociology, gave Jun much of her time and talked him into meeting the school counselors. In the second half of his fourth year, they tested him for Asperger Syndrome and he finally found out he really had it. So now let us see what Jun has to tell us. – Curtis Kelly
My message to teachers about learners like me
A big problem that students with Asperger’s have in college classes is figuring out which things are important to learn for scoring well on the test. In my own experience, I have never experienced a university class where the teacher makes an effort to show students which points are the main ones. Teachers seem to go on and on in an unchanging tone and I have no idea which information is the most important. To me, it sounds just like they are reading aloud from the telephone book. What I would like to have is lessons where at least the key information is so clear that everyone can do well on the test.
By comparison, cram school lessons are completely different from university lessons. Cram school teachers always keep in mind that their goal is to help students score well on a test. They talk about the kind of problems that will come up on the test. They show us how to solve them. They explain clearly what knowledge is necessary, so it is very easy to follow them.
In my opinion, good teaching is all about how well you convey information to others. Talking on and on without communicating anything meaningful to others is not teaching; it is just something done for the pleasure of the person standing behind the podium. To avoid this situation, I would like teachers to think of a way of teaching that gets the information to each student effectively.
I personally have asked the following direct question to teachers: “In your lessons, what are the main points that I need to understand to get credit for this course?”
I was given only meaningless answers like, “If you, yourself, don’t know what the important points are, you are not going to pass this course, are you?” or “Everything is important.” So, for example, if you were told that all the information in a telephone book was important, would you be able to remember all if it? Ordinarily, this would be quite impossible. In my experience, though, most university teachers teach their lessons in this way.
It is extremely hard for people with Asperger’s to become curious and engaged in things that do not fit their personal interests. In fact, I think it is impossible. Most of the things I do, I do in an unthinking, mechanical way. From the teachers’ point of view, it may be that they want students to show intellectual curiosity by themselves, but I do not think this is possible. However, it is possible for us to master things if they are explained in a way we can understand and we are given help on how to learn them.
For example, the way that a manual teaches one how to maintain a machine is very easy to understand. It explains clearly which parts are to be installed in which positions. It gives perfect instructions on what degree of force to use when tightening a screw. This is easy for us to understand.
Unfortunately, even if a teacher wants to explain things clearly to students, long-held Japanese values, based on a culture of obscurity, do not allow them to do so. This cultural orientation too, makes it difficult to understand the main points of a lesson.
Teachers, I want you to understand that you should clearly convey to students which points are important. – Jun Kuwabara
Jun’s Message as He Wrote It
A final note from the editors:
How did you react to Jun’s message? An interesting thing happened in this regard while we were editing. We showed his Japanese message to some Japanese teachers. Most reacted with compassion, but a couple were put off, saying he was self-centered and asking for too much.
Our response is, well, that is the point! Jun was doing what was natural to him, not what is natural to you or me. Read the characteristics of Asperger’s’ at the top again. And if you were put off too, even just a little, keep in mind that accommodating neurodiversity means accepting everyone for who they are, because that is the only possible starting point. Think of meeting challenging students like Jun as a gift. They recruit us to practice Carl Roger’s principle, “absolute positive regard.” So, Jun, thank you.
Jun Kuwabara was a student in the Commerce Faculty of Kansai University. He worked his way through many difficulties during his college years, as he writes above. Now, too, at work, he has difficulty “talking merrily” with his co-workers, a common problem for people with Asperger syndrome. He tells us that people like him can’t easily get a job.