Category Archives: special education

Book Review: Plankton Dreams

I belatedly heard about Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay’s newest book, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special-Ed, which he wrote in 2015, so my review here is two years late. In my opinion, that’s no sin. We authors get lots of reviews in the beginning, but few later on. Since this book deserves your attention, it’s good to write about it later on too.

For those who have not heard of Tito, he is Soma’s son, the first recipient of RPM, or however she referred to teaching her son how to communicate at the time. While everyone else with autism got 1+1 and play-doh, he got physics and Socrates and a true classical education. This is home-schooling Soma style. When scientists heard about Tito and his erudition and independent skills typing in a very autistic looking exterior, they wanted to study him, test him, and so on. I first heard of him just before I learned to type. My experts said he was “one in a million,” and my ABA supervisor said he wasn’t really autistic because his typing proved he had been misdiagnosed. In other words, he has been knocking down their doors for a long time and each book pushes a bit harder.

This memoir “novella,” (it is a short book), is sad, funny and biting satire. When Soma and Tito moved to Austin, Texas from India so she could teach communication to autistic kids, Tito had to go someplace during the day while she worked. The system being what it is, this brilliant, educated young man who moved autistically, got sent to a special day low expectation autism class. He used this time to analyze, like an anthropologist or social scientist, the absurdity of his situation. He studies “scientifically,” how people react to him sniffing their heads, rummaging in their purses and spinning their chairs. All for the sake of science! He savages the system.

“I created my own learning goals…” he writes. “I analyzed the responses of people to these situations—what I call my social experiments. I became an empiricist. Why shouldn’t the autist study the neurotypical?”

Here he conducts a head sniffing experiment on his teacher, among others.“Mr. Gardener…did not want me to sniff his head. He would rather dodge my approaching nose or stand on his toes so that my nose could not do what it longed to do. Mr. Gardener was bending over his desk, providing a rather complete view of his head.” And like a scientist, he collected data. “He jumped higher than the bus attendant—I could tell. It was a perfect jump, his star like head antigravitating away from Planet Earth.”

He describes the people in his world in special-ed: the students, the teacher, the aide, the teaching assistant, the administrators, the bus driver, the do-gooders (“Mr. Goodness Gracious”), and also his own boredom in this environment. Tito conveys his surreal existence, bored and analyzing his boredom through his sensory lens of highly educated philosophy. Sometimes the book is laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it is tragic-comedy. This book is unique because Tito is fully into Autismland perspective as he writes.


Opening of my Remarks at CSUN Department of Special Education Commencement

It is a great honor to speak to future teachers in special education. I began my life in special education of the most restrictive sort. My early years had to be my hardest because I had no voice at all. I want to challenge you to be open to teaching those who may currently lack the ability to show their intelligence, but who still deserve the opportunity to learn.
  It is hard to be a teacher of kids who don’t communicate. The kids don’t have writing, or gestures, or speech, or facial expressions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t think. Lack of communication isn’t only a sign of cognitive delay.
I’ll give you an idea of my early life in my low, remedial autism class. My teacher was warm, but there was no instruction of any kind beyond the weather, 1+1, and ABC. Forever. I think it is pretty boring, don’t you? It is worse when people treat you like you’re not intelligent. Baby talk and high fives and “good jobs” instead of normal communication.
I think the idea that all non-verbal people with autism have receptive language processing delay is not accurate. I don’t have receptive language issues but I sat in this classroom for years, unable to show my true capacity.
It is important to not be overly confident or certain when you deal with people who can’t communicate. In fact, it is essential to have an open-mind, because more kids than you imagine are like me. How people escape this prison varies, but we must have the opportunity.
I feel that you, who are embarking on new careers in special education, need to know that a kid like me will be in your class – that is, a kid like me before letter board or iPad – who just can’t get his ideas out.  To be a great teacher you can’t be his prison guard. To be a great teacher you must find intelligence and give the hope of freedom in communication. To be a great teacher you must give a real education to those kids who may look stupid in the eyes of many, but who think, and feel, and pray every day for the chance to show who they are inside.