The Child Can’t Spell

Elaine Park

My son can’t spell. At all. I like to joke about it, because in my culture (Anglo-Canadian) making wry, self deprecating comments is how you get through things while keeping your dignity intact. For example, my favorite line is “My son spells phonetically. I’m just not sure what language it is. Maybe, Latvian? Estonian?”

But it’s true. The child cannot spell. He attends a pretty good public school and participates in a program designed to include children with Asperger’s syndrome into the general education stream. He’s in seventh grade, and after six years of me whining at six years of IEP meetings that the child cannot spell, the child cannot spell.

Solutions are presented and possibly applied. While the people who work in the program are great when it comes to dealing with behavior and social skills, they are not so impressive at follow through on things like help with spelling. Our newest inclusion specialist has read an article about using song lyrics to help with spelling and reading comprehension, but is a bit vague on when and how she will implement it. I push for details, a schedule! She is hopeful, but evasive.

Oh yes, reading comprehension. Another few years of me complaining, nothing happening. The child can read reasonably well, but not when it comes to math word problems. About these: math word problems are devious little traps overflowing with red herrings, arcane sports references, and complex sentences developed by people who hate children. They are designed, as far as I can tell, to ensure that kids who are good at math, but not reading, are not good at anything.

To be fair, most of my son’s school career until recently has been concentrated on helping him survive the school day without mortifying meltdowns and classroom escapes. He’s slowing down with age a bit though, and middle school life seems to suit him better than the elementary years did. For the most part he seems to be able to endure his classes and even has friends to hang out with at lunch and recess. Feeling inspired by this evidence of neurological progression, I decided last summer to have him tested at our local Lindamood-Bell center. Maybe now we were ready to tackle some of the academic deficiencies that keep him from being as brilliant on paper as he is in life.

Why can’t the child spell, I asked, again. Back came a hefty red folder with many test results. It seems he is weak in all areas: phonemic awareness, symbol imagery, contextual reading. The solution is a six to eight week program, four hours per day, at cost of $2,000 per week.

I don’t doubt for a second that it’s effective. In fact shortly after our assessment, I met an acquaintance with the same-aged son who was in the midst of the program and could now spell “furniture” just like that. Should we do it too? Or should we use the money and go to Australia? Really, what is more important? Being able to spell “dingo” or seeing one in real life? Not to mention the fact that sending my child to spend four hours a day learning to spell instead of having a summer vacation wouldn’t work anyway. There would be great anger, bitterness, and resentment. Heels would be dug in, and I just can’t see him tolerating being cooped up inside when summer, Lego, the pool, friends with free time, and more would be out there calling to him. Everyone thinks they can deal with my son. He seems so normal and cheerful. Until you hit the wall of opposition and resistance, and then watch out! Maybe if they promised us a refund.

So now, here I am wondering again what to do about the fact my child can’t spell. My dream is to locate some sort of tutor who can both teach him spelling and understand his Asperger Brain. For those of you who don’t know about the Asperger Brain, let me explain. This is a Brain that takes in the world and outputs responses in a way that is unpredictably different than the way the rest of do it. It is a Brain that can work very well if the right motivation and incentives are discovered and offered, in the right way. You can’t take the Brain’s output personally; if the Brain decides to short circuit for a while in a quick, intense electrical storm, there’s not much you can do but wait it out and figure out for next time how to keep the wires from crossing and sparking.

Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the Brain. I am just not willing to entrust it to anyone who doesn’t get it and will consequently cause distress and sadness for the boy who owns it.

One of the editors who is responsible for The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism suggested I put all this out there to see if anyone who reads these pieces has a solution for me and my child who cannot spell. Please feel free to add your comments and share your wisdom.

In the meantime, my son and I will continue plugging through this, with the help of spell check, and me, the scribe, and of course that way we have of finding humor in the underlying absurdity of life, school, and words with “ght” in them.