Excerpted from Part IV, Chapter 3: Jess
|Summary: This excerpt occurs after one of my 8th grade students, diagnosed with an Oppositional Defiant Disorder, comes into my room in an early
morning huff. It took awhile, but eventually I figured out that this student, Jess, was upset because a teacher had jokingly told him to “burn that Bronco
jacket” he was wearing the night after the Broncos had lost a big game. I hadn’t known Jess long, but I had been having suspicions that he actually
was an individual with Asperger's Syndrome—not an Oppositional Defiant Disorder. This is part of the first conversation I had with Jess where this
possibility was broached.
Jess was very literal, and he navigated through life by following a strict set of governing rules that he had somehow
gathered together. In his mind, when you support a team, it’s rather like having taken marriage vows—through sickness
and through health, through good times and through bad. It’s not right to make fun of your team and say you don’t like
them anymore, just because they lost the major game of the season.
Mr. C. had told him to burn an important and costly piece of clothing, and teachers are supposed to know better than to
tell students to burn their clothes. Therefore, Mr. C should be fired because he did not follow the rules, and students
needed to be punished for saying bad things about the team they support.
This was all very clear in Jess’s mind, and it allowed a very confusing world to make sense and have some
predictability. When rules like these are violated, it would affect Jess in a way very similar to how the rest of us might
react upon finding out that our spouse lied or cheated, turning our predictable and safe worlds upside down.
“Jess,” I said to him later that day, “tell me about you and your sense of humor. What kinds of things do you find funny?”
Because they are so literal, and because they miss the subtle inflections in tone and voice, individuals with Asperger’s
almost always miss the humor in the things others find funny.
“I don’t,” said Jess. “I don’t have a sense of humor.”
“Really? You don’t ever laugh?”
“Yeah, I do. But not when other people do. I never laugh when other people do. I don’t get why they’re laughing.”
“Well, that must be frustrating,” I said, thinking about how hard that must be, especially in the world of peer-driven middle
“Well, yeah…but I’ve never had one. That’s why kids don’t like me.” Jess was quiet for a minute before adding, “Kids
“I know they can be, Jess. They certainly can be.” Kids with Asperger's are often the target of painful bullying, and I
suspected Jess was no exception.
“Let me ask you something, Jess.…do you ever feel like you’re trying your very, very best to fit in with those kids…I
mean, really trying hard…like here at school or over at the Youth Center, but no matter what you do, it just comes out all
Jess brightened, his face registering complete understanding of what I was talking about, and I asked, “Jess, what do
you think other kids your age like to talk about?”
He was silent, an absolutely blank look on his face.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, those expressive eyebrows rising high this time. He looked a bit surprised—as if it had
never before occurred to him to wonder what other kids thought or talked about.
“That’s okay, that’s why I’m asking. It’s good to know what you know and don’t know. How about this: What do you think
your face looks like when you’re tense or angry? Can you describe it to me?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea.” Clearly he was thinking about this and trying to figure out what his face did look like.
“How about your mom? Can you tell me what hers looks like when she’s mad?”
“No. But I know when she’s mad!” he said. “She screams.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Jess….did you know that people use their faces and their bodies a lot to communicate information to others, without
ever saying anything at all?”
We looked at each other for a moment while I contemplated the enormity of what needed to be taught directly to this boy.
“You know what, Jess? I think we forgot to teach you how to read people. Reading people is every bit as important as
reading books. You’re a great book reader…but I think maybe it’s time to teach you how to read people.”