Saturday, 6 February 2016

Photic sneezing and Sunderland AFC

Dear Reader,

Do you sneeze when you look at a bright light?

Most people have an interestingly extreme reaction to this question. It's a good example of something we tend to take for granted others share - if you do, you assume everyone does.  If you don't, you find the whole concept utterly bizarre. (If you're wondering, it's true of around 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 people and is called photic sneezing).

The principle of expecting others to share your reactions to the world is highly applicable to teaching. As teachers, we work on the premise that we understand people because we are a person, we understand children because we were a child.  We broadly expect pupils to react in a way that we would react.  But, of course, we are wrong.

There was a story in the news this week of an autistic lad who loved football but found visits to his local stadium overwhelming and frightening.  The roar of the crowd, the press of the throng, the screech and thrust of powerful collective emotions proved too much to bear and he became so upset that his parents wisely took him home.  But this story has a happy ending. The football ground in question, Sunderland AFC, have built him a dedicated, soundproof  'sensory room' box where he can watch the match happily, and have made it available to those similarly suffering as a way of conceding that some people need quiet and isolation to prevent anxiety in such a setting.

My first reaction to this story was the photic sneeze feeling: why doesn't everyone feel like this?  It seems utterly reasonable to me that this child reacts in this way.  Indeed, I wonder why others don't. Not just at a sports match, but in the cinema, the concert, the conference and the street I feel a sensory overload after a period of time that leaves me longing for silence and solitude - and I'm an adult.

What can we take from this?  That we are wrong to assume everyone is like us.  This is easy when we consider physical characteristics that we can see, or extreme behavioural ones, but much more subtle when it comes to inner states that may be disguised or suppressed.  I'm an introvert, but I often don't look like one. (Others have often remarked I am confident, articulate, or forthright in person). This doesn't change the fact that I feel a certain way about the world and only privately can acknowledge and deal with those feelings.  Is it partly my duty to directly discuss the way I feel with others so that they can better understand our differences?

In teaching, the best way forward - after becoming aware that we make these simplified assumptions about pupils and peers - is to talk to each other.  If we are to best serve the children we teach, we must be able to explore the plethora of other viewpoints, paradigms and experiences that exist in the world by looking through each others' eyes.  That means open, honest connections with others that humanely allow them to be different to us and validate their perspectives, knowing that it will make us better teachers.

 Isolation is bad for teachers in so many ways.

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