The Little Class with the Big Personality – Fran Hunnisett
A biography (of sorts) telling about the experiences of a teacher within what appears to be an autism resource provision unit or equivalent. It is set out in a chapter by chapter style, dedicating a chapter to each of the seven children and the experiences, both good and challenging that Hunnisett had during her time as their teacher.
Each shared the same diagnosis, a diagnosis that suggested a standardised absence of character, yet each was so different from the other that their vibrant personalities were of far more significance in defining who they were than their shared diagnosis of autism.
The book starts, quite logically, on Hunnisett’s first day. This was also the first day of one of the students in the class – Joss. Hunnisett is refreshingly honest about her misconceptions and ignorance concerning autism – looking back from a position of experience at how naive and misinformed she was then. Then the tone takes on a “oh woe is them”, “aren’t they such sorry souls”, “autistic children can’t do this”, and unfortunately that tone remains in place throughout the book. It crops up fairly regularly and after a while it becomes a bit grating.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the books chapters are set out so they dedicate a whole chapter to each child, ending with extracts from interviews with the parents. I’ll be honest, I would have enjoyed the book more without the parent’s interviews, although other parents might find them more interesting to read. Some of the parents have no expectations for what their children might be able to achieve, one wants her son to get fat so he can’t run away as much, and one is quite clearly against the idea of her child being in a mainstream school and would much prefer him to remain in an autism unit/resource provision.
I used to compare him to what everybody else was like and what they were doing, and if one of them took a tantrum, I used to think ‘yes, he’s just like little Joss’…he’s not the only one. He’s not the worst, after all. Because that’s what it sometimes felt like, that he was the absolute worst. Well, he is still sometimes, the worse out of any person who’s ever been autistic.
Joss’s mum interview excerpt
The anecdotes about the children are fascinating for the most part, with only the occasional section that isn’t so enjoyable to read. Joss and his love for running and climbing is probably familiar to any parents or education professionals of autistic children, the princess-loving Alice of the second chapter is also the illustrator for the book, then there’s Lotti and her love of water and swimming pools…but who can’t actually swim. Liam is the kind of wind-up merchant that many educators will recall having taught and struggled to keep a straight face around, and Sam is a good-natured young man who is being taught that sometimes it’s okay to stand up for what you want.
Liam starts butting his head against Erin’s shoulder. No response. Time for a new tactic. Twisting his head under Erin’s chin, he looks up with his innocent blue eyes and, on failing to achieve eye contact, shouts ‘Sit up Liam!’ and grins. It is too much. The very faintest glimmer of a smile of amusement from Erin is all it takes.
Toby’s chapter came with it the tale of how an attempt at part-time inclusion failed miserably because staff were unable to accommodate his sensory processing needs. Whether further information would have clarified their position, I don’t know, but unfortunately there isn’t any indication that they actually tried to do much apart from expect him to cope. That might be an unfair assessment, but it’s the only one that can be made based on what is written. A similar theme of not knowing what to do permeates Nathan’s chapter – except in that chapter it involves Nathan engaging in self-injurious behaviour. Again, perhaps clarifying information would have painted the staff in a better light, but what is available suggests that the staff had no idea what they were doing when it came to dealing with self-injurious behaviour.
The students are interesting and engaging and their stories are thankfully the bulk of this book, they are perfect examples of how different autistic people are and how stereotypes and expectations can be destroyed when you actually meet someone with autism. The big problem with this book is the “poor, unfortunate souls” tone that appears regularly throughout. Autism can absolutely be difficult, be the way the message is put across in this book takes it a bit too far down the ‘tragedy’ route.
Is it worth reading?
Whilst part of me remains undecided due to the off-putting theme of woe that crops up frequently, I’m inclined to lean more towards yes just because the children are so engaging to read about. Autistic people may get less out of it than parents or professionals though.