The Education of Adam

By Janet Nicol


Vancouver filmmaker Marianne Kaplan delivers an intimate portrait of her son Adam’s Grade 7 experience in a one-hour documentary The Boy Inside. A groundbreaking story, Marianne reveals Adam’s daily struggles with Asperger Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Since the documentary was first aired on the CBC last October, the network’s Internet blog has been jam-packed with viewer reaction and Marianne has received more than a hundred letters, most from parents in similar situations.

“Parents who watch the film say ‘I’m seeing my story for the first time.’” Marianne says in a recent interview with her and Adam at the family’s Vancouver home. “I hope the use of resources about autism can make a difference.”

Marianne believes the whole community “needs to get the skills to be accepting and tolerant.” And with one in 260 children born with autism in North America, educators need to learn more.

Mother/filmmaker Marianne Kaplan narrates the film and son, Adam, talks openly about his feelings and challenges. We also hear from Adam’s father and classmates and glimpse his Grade 7 teacher and older sister.

The various forms of bullying Adam endures, coupled with his special needs, contribute to his growing depression and inappropriate behavior. Many strategies are used to help Adam and when all ideas seem spent, his mother and teacher bring in a special needs expert to help classmates change some of their behaviors.

The film ends on a hopeful note. Adam is delighted to learn he is accepted into a Vancouver secondary mini-school computer program and believes his years of bullying are over, because he says, teenagers in high school will be “more mature.”

So how has Adam been doing since Grade 7?

“I’m really liking high school,” he says. “It’s much different from elementary school. I have more friends to hang out with.”

Adam says his course work was never a problem. It was the social part of school that always challenged him.

He likes having more independence in high school. “You have more freedom to go out and do what you want,” he says.

Adam’s mother adds, “He has learned the social skills to fit in.”

Having friends at school has really made a difference for Adam.

“Grade 8 was weird,” he says. “I have a habit of wanting to hang out with the popular kids.” That hasn’t worked for Adam. But in Grade 9 he hung out with “nerdy” friends. “They are the best friends,” Adam says, “because they have a personality. They are cool.”

To look at Adam, you would barely recognize the boy in the film. He has grown into a handsome, young teen with curly dark hair, who politely stands to shake hands before and after this interview.

High school summers have been fun for Adam, too. Following Grade 9, he traveled to South Africa and visited relatives on his mother’s side. Adam notes apartheid may be gone, but ‘snobby’ behaviour and segregation between racial groups still exist. And last summer Adam enjoyed great baseball games and card-collecting in Chicago, while his dad was on a working holiday.

How did former classmates react to the film The Boy Inside?

“Some really liked it,” Adam says. “One classmate became a friend when he realized what I went through.”

Marianne adds this classmate also happened to be “the number one bully—the ringleader.”

Adam says that last year of elementary school sucked. One principal did not treat him well, he remembers. “He told me I gave the school a bad image.”

Marianne says bullying is rampant in schools and sometimes the victims end up getting punished. Autistic children are much more likely to be targets of aggressive students, she says.

So what do schools need to do?

Marianne observes an irony: teachers are in the business of education but resist learning. “Families are the experts,” she says. “We need to work as a team with teachers and teaching aids.”

“The language at home and school can be re-enforced,” Marianne suggests, “if a team approach is used.”

She thinks teacher aides should be required to take courses about autism and have experience and a sense of commitment.

Ultimately, Marianne believes the entire system needs to be overhauled. “Schools need integration (of students with special needs) with support,” she says, “and this means class-size reductions and more staff education and training.”

“Teachers should be less demanding,” Adam believes, as he discusses school life in general. “Our workload at school is too big. And school needs to be more fun. There needs to be more time to communicate,” he says.

And based on his past school experiences, Adam asks teachers to be “more accepting and willing to learn.”

For more information about the film, access the CBC Internet web site: http://tinyurl.com/28la2e.

Reprinted from BC Teacher magazine, 2007.

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