Ian and Elizabeth discuss humanism



Although this blog is intended to promote Iris Johansson’s book A different childhood, I am again posting a transcript of Ian’s lessons with RPM instead because I want to spread the word about this wonderful  teaching method to everyone who has loved ones with autism. You and see more transcripts on my blog www.adifferentchildhood.com, as well as more information about the book, including reading a chapter from it. Here is the transcript of Ian’s lesson on Humanism. Elizabeth, the teacher is in italics, Ian in CAPS

Humanism refers to any philosophical, moral, political, artistic or scientific system with a human, not religious, frame of reference.  In humanism, some believe that the ideals of human existence can be fulfilled without regard to religion. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 took the position that the universe was “self-created;” that mankind was a part of nature.  A manifesto is a written or verbal declaration of intentions, motives or views of the author.

  • Name two systems that humanism refers to. ART AND SCIENCE
  • What did the humanists believe?  BELIEVES SCIENCE NOT GOD DEFINES MAN
  • Why would a manifesto be helpful to talk about a controversial topic? ALLOWS A TOPIC TO BE CLEARLY DEFINED

Renaissance humanism refers to a revival of classical literature and philosophy that began at the end of the Middle Ages, or middle of the 14th century.  Renaissance humanism features several important intellectual figures, including Nicolaus Copernicus and Leonardo daVinci. Nicolaus Copernicus was a mathematician, economist and astronomer who declared that the earth orbited around the sun.  Though Copernicus wrote “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere” several decades earlier, it was not published until his death in 1543 as his theory was in direct conflict with teachings of the Catholic Church.  Leonardo daVinci worked as an artist, musician, architect, inventor, engineer, anatomist and geometer.  In his drawing Vitruvian Man, daVinci superimposed two views of a nude man in a circle to illustrate mathematical proportions of the human body as described by Roman architect Vitruvius.  Vitruvian Man was said to reconcile the main two parts of our being; the physical and the intellectual.

  • What period of time does the 14th century refer to? 1500s (Ian used the number board to respond to this question)
  • Tell me one thing you learned about Copernicus.  HE HAD TROUBLE WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
  • What was one of Leonardo daVinici’s occupations? PAINTER…..what is his famous painting?…MONA LISA
  • What was significant about the Vitruvian Man?  BLENDED BODY AND MIND
  • I showed Ian the picture (below) of the Vitruvian man and asked, “what impresses you about this picture?”….SYMMETRY OF THE BODY

The difference between humanist and religious theories are their understanding of what constitutes truth. The humanist regards truth as something constantly evolving.  Religious theory identifies a static, unchanging revelation from God as truth. A humanist is generally skeptical and open minded.  Religious theorists are often unwavering and live according to theological dogma.  Dogma is a principle or set of principles provided by any authority as incontrovertibly true.

  • What is the difference between humanism and religious theorists?  HUMANISTS DEFINE TRUTH VIA SCIENCE, RELIGIONISTS DEFINE TRUTH VIA GOD
  • Now that we have talked about both sides of the spectrum – where do you fall in terms of humanism and religious theory?  I CAN SEE MERIT IN BOTH SIDES

Creative Writing: The basic difference between humanism and religious theories is weather something can change or evolve over time.  In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue to prove that the world was not flat.  In 1543, Copernicus declared that the earth revolved around the sun; the planets did not revolve around our round world.  Each declaration required education, hypotheses, experiment and declaration to be introduced to an apprehensive audience.  

  1. Define a topic that you know a lot about.  
  2. Do you have a hypothesis or “new take” on that topic?  
  3. Given the chance, how would you research or experiment to determine if your hypothesis is correct?  
  4. In the event that your experiment yields proof of a breakthrough or new perspective, can you think of an audience that would be apprehensive about your findings? 


Ok, Ian, now you need to create a manifesto to go along with your findings.  Be sure to name your manifesto!









Ian and Elizabeth discuss Emily Dickinson

ian screen 24

Ian continues to astonish us with his incredible knowledge.  Here are his thoughts on Emily Dickinson and poetry!

*I read the poem to Ian in it’s entirety  ONCE, and then asked him questions.  Ian, we are going to read a poem by Emily Dickinson.  Before I read it to you, do you know anything about Emily Dickinson?  SHE WAS A RECLUSE

I started out with some biographical  information about Dickinson.  I talked about the fact the she corresponded with friends and asked what correspondence means…..WRITING LETTERS…..I asked him if he was interested in correspondence…YES…..who would you like to correspond with?…..OTHER KIDS WHO USE RPM

A Bird came down the Walk

by Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk/He did not know I saw/He bit an Angleworm in halves/And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew/From a convenient Grass/And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes/That hurried all around/They looked like frightened Beads, I thought/He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,/I offered him a Crumb/And he unrolled his feathers/And rowed him softer home/Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam/Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon/Leap, splashless as they swim.

  1. What is your impression of this poem?  I LIKE IT A LOT….why?….IT MADE ME THINK OF NATURE AND HOW FRAGILE IT IS
  2.  A point of view is the way an author lets a reader “see” or “hear” what is happening.  What point of view does Dickinson give the reader? OBSERVER
  3. If you were with Emily Dickinson when she was observing this bird, what would you want to tell her.    I WOULD TELL HER NOT TO BE SAD THAT THE BIRD FLEW AWAY
  4. What message does this poem tell us about nature? THAT MAN CAN NOT CONTROL NATURE
  5. What emotion would you assign to this poem?  I WOULD BUST OUT IN TEARS IF THIS HAPPENED TO ME….why?…BECAUSE IT WOULD MAKE ME SAD

Ian, poets are very precise in their use of language.  Let’s work on precision.  Give me one word to describe 

Give me one word to describe  Emily Dickinson….LONELY

Give me one word to describe  Dad…STRONG

Give me one word to describe  Karl(brother)…FUNNY

Give me one word to describe  Mom…UNWAVERING

Give me one word to describe  Deborah…TALKATIVE

Give me one word to describe  Yourself…CONTEMPLATIVE

Give me one word to describe  the process of learning RPM….TRANSFORMATIVE

Ian, I do believe that you are quite contemplative and a keen observer.  Tell me what you have observed and how it might inspire your poetry.


Tell me some random things that you wonder about:



Elizabeth and Ian discuss Damon and Pythias

(Ian’s words are in CAPS)

According to the Greek story, Damon and Pythias grew up in Sicily, and they were always best friends. One day when the two of them were visiting the city of Syracuse Pythias made some remarks that were considered to be insults to the king of Syracuse, and the king got very angry. The king had Pythias arrested and sentenced him to death.

What country is this story from?  GREEK

What is it a story about?  FRIENDSHIP

Where did Damon and Pythias go?  SYRACUSE

What happened while the friends were in Syracuse?  KING OF SYRACUSE WAS INSULTED AND SENTENCED PYTHES TO DEATH  (I pointed out the correct spelling -Pythias- to Ian.  This was a great phonetic attempt of such a hard name!)

What does ins ult mean? NOT NICE WORDS

How does an insult make someone feel? ANGRY

What do you think of the King’s reaction to Pythias’ insult?  A LITTLE EXTREME

What do you think would be an appropriate punishment?  NO DESERVE DEATH….

what punishment would you give instead?….TIME OUT (love it!)

Pythias said, “Couldn’t I just go home and tell my  family what happened and say goodbye?” But the king said, “Why should I trust that you would come back to face your punishment?” Damon said, “I will stay with you while Pythias goes home to say goodbye. If he doesn’t come back, I will accept his punishment.” The king couldn’t believe anyone would trust their friend so much. But he agreed to let Pythias go. He was supposed to be back in one month. If he wasn’t back by the end of the month, the king would kill Damon instead.

What did the friends feel for each other?  TRUST

What does trust mean? HAVE FAITH

Pythias went home, and said goodbye and set out to return to face his punishment. But on the way back, his ship was attacked by pirates. Pythias tried to explain to the pirates, but they just threw him overboard. Pythias swam to shore, but then he didn’t have any money or a horse or any way of getting back to Damon. He was so worried that Damon would be killed! He started to run as fast as he could towards the king’s palace.

What happened on Pythias’ return to Syracuse? ON WAY BACK WAS KIDNAPPED BY PIRATES

Why was he worried? DID NOT WANT DAMON TO DIE

Meanwhile the king was telling Damon, “See! Pythias has abandoned you. I told you he’d never come back.” But Damon knew his friend would never leave him to be killed. Damon knew Pythias would not abandon him. On the last day, the king had Damon tied up and took him outside into the courtyard of the palace to be killed. But Damon was still not worried. He knew Pythias would come. And sure enough, just as Damon was about to be killed, Pythias came running in. He was filthy dirty and his clothes were all in rags from swimming in the ocean. And he had lost his shoes and had to run barefoot the whole way. But he was so happy to have come on time! He cried out, “See! I have come back. Let Damon go! I am ready to take his place now.” 

How do you think Damon felt when Pythias returned? RELIEVED

How do you think the king felt?  SHOCKED

What do you think happened next? KING KILLED PYTHIAS

But the king was so impressed by this great friendship that he did not kill Pythias after all. Instead, he kept both the friends at his court so they could give him good advice.

Why did the king keep Damon and Pythias as advisors?  HE WAS IMPRESSED

Let’s talk about friendship.  What does friendship mean to you? Describe your ideal friend.


what would you like to do with a friend?  LISTEN TO MUSIC.

Why do you think it has been tricky for you to make a friend?  BECAUSE I CANNOT TALK.



Ian learning RPM

First I should say a few words about the Rapid Prompting Method. It was developed by Soma Mukhopadhyay, (see her website here) the mother of an autistic boy. It is based on using a letter board that the student uses to spell out the words he wants to say. The rapid prompting part is that the teacher prompts the student to quickly find the next letter by touch, or voice, or nudge, or noise, or whatever stimulus she has found that the student reacts to. The idea is to establish a rhythm that keeps the communication flow going, and definitely not to do the pointing for the student. Another aspect of the method is that the pointing practice is done with challenging academic material rather than mindless spelling exercises. Therefore in her work with Ian, the teacher Elizabeth (see her website here) uses topics like  “Confucianism”, “photography”, “astronomy”, “humanism”,  “Emily Dickinson”, etc. She gives a brief introduction to the topic and then asks Ian questions about it. The following is an example from the session on Confucianism:

…Confucius taught anyone who was eager to learn. His ideas, called Confucianism, stress the need to develop responsibility and moral character through rigid rules of behavior.

How was Confucius different as an educator? HE TAUGHT ANYONE WHO WANTED TO LEARN

What were the principles of Confucianism? STRICT RULES OF BEHAVIOR

Confucianism is not, properly speaking, a religion; it’s a way of behaving, so you’ll do the right things.

How does philosophy differ from religion? SECULAR VERSUS RELIGIOUS

The most important things to Confucius were peace and order. Why do you think peace and order are important for a society? FOR SOCIETY TO WORK PEOPLE OR GROUPS NEED TO GET ALONG


Review of The autistic brain by Temple Grandin

This is a meaty book which provides and informed update of the current state of the art in autism research. It is a popular science book about brain research written by the research subject herself and gives a brisk and informative review of the state of the art in brain scanning with illustrations of the findings in the author’s brain. It reviews the latest findings in the genetics of autism and reports on the identification of genes associated with autism.  The author delves at length on the issue of sensory problems experienced by autistics and  decries the limited interest of researchers in this stressful issue for many autistics. She reviews the different diagnostic testing techniques and the labels they cause to be attached to people and appeals to people on the spectrum, and their loved ones, to resist being defined by a label. She talks about the employment possibilities for autistics and gives examples where their peculiar idiosyncrasies  turn out to be a competitive advantage. All packed into a narrative infused with Dr. Grandin’s life experience as a high functioning autistic.

As the grandfather of an autistic boy and as a friend of the autistic Iris Johansson, who I think of as the Temple Grandin of Sweden, I was intensely interested in the contents of this informative book. As the translator of Johansson’s book “A different childhood” I was particularly interested in Dr. Grandin’s discussion of the sensory problems experienced by many autistics, the visual and auditory processing issues in particular. In this context I was disappointed to not find any comments about synesthesia which I believe is often associated with autism. On this subject, the book by Johansson is a particularly rich source of material, describing her synesthesia (perceiving her mother’s anger or grandmother’s scolding as beautiful light-shows that delighted her), her out of body-like experiences (seeing her body sitting on the ground as she herself was swooping around in the sky with her spirit friends), her tactile problems (wearing her flannel shirt inside out and backwards to minimize the unbearable irritation of rough fabric).

As Dr. Grandin emphasizes, there are many variations in the autistic experience, but also many characteristic similarities. One way to possibly think about it is that what’s common is the areas in which autistic differ from neurotypicals, but the way they are different varies greatly. For instance, Dr Grandin refers several times to her poor short term memory, while for other autistics super memory is their most notable characteristic. Overall this book is well worth your time, even if you are not associated with anyone on the spectrum. If you are, then it is a book that belongs in your library.


Autistic Iris, expert at communication

Iris’ ability to read other peoples inner thoughts and feelings seems like a an impossible paradox considering that one of her key “handicaps” as an autistic is that she does not experience emotions herself. But this apparent paradox is resolved upon closer reflection.  Among “normal” people, (also called the neurotypical), interaction, such as conversation, is accompanied by subtle automatic emotional cues given off and picked up almost subconsciously. Since this subtle exchange is happening for the most part below the level of articulate awareness, it’s more like feelings given off and picked up rather than words. However, the fact that the appropriate feelings are picked up means that there is actual information being transferred, in other words each person is learns the other person’s feelings just as if they were expressed in words. From a communications engineering perspective this is not so different from reading each others’ minds. Now, in the case of Iris, the reason she can’t interact in this fashion is not because she can’t pick up the other person’s emotions, but because she doesn’t have emotions of her own that are automatically given off in response. Instead, when she picks up these emotional cues she has to categorize them, put names to them and store them in her memory banks for use in her “acting normal” behavior lists. In other words, what she does is read the other person’s feelings and translates them into words.  I believe it is this skill, which she developed in order to “be ordinary”, that enables Iris to “read people’s minds”. And it is this that helps her see what is actually happening in communication among people.



Here is Iris, the lady in red in front of the white cabinet, holding forth on the art of communication.

Iris, an Autistic Woman, Works With Cancer Patients

Iris,  the autistic author of A Different Childhood, spent some time in her youth working on the night shift in a hospital cancer ward. It was a place pervaded with the fear of death where the staff avoided the patients by running around doing a lot of things, whether they were needed or not. With her amazing ability to read peoples inner thoughts, gained by her diligent observation of how “normal” people function as she was learning to become “normal” herself, Iris was able to see the underlying causes of their distress. In the excerpt below she shows herself as observant as Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and exceeds him in effectiveness, because she sees the issue ans she knows what to do about it.

“When a patient was restless or anxious I stayed with her after I had done my rounds. I sat down, held her hand and talked about the immaterial. I asked the ones able to talk how it looked in their fears and got many descriptions of hell and all sorts of horrors that humans can imagine. The worst anguish was that so many thought that they hadn’t finished living, that their life hadn’t been good, that they hadn’t gotten out of it what they wanted (as if there is something special to be gotten out of life, as if it could be completed in the sense of “finished product”), that they had been too scared and too bound by duties. That feeling easily shifted into bitterness which they took out on the staff. They were well and had time left.

That envy was dreadful for the dying. They couldn’t help being mean and difficult, and at the same time felt more and more guilt feelings. I realized the hamster wheel they were on and that the patients really wanted to talk about their lives, have some type of connection, and work through their fear of death. I sat down and quietly asked them to tell about their life. I asked them to talk about both the light and the dark. They were often stuck in the dark and it took a long time and many turns before they got through it. I asked them what experiences they had had, what the agonies had taught them and if there was something rewarding they could find in it all. Often then they thought of something and little by little their mood brightened and we began to have a nice time together.”


If you would like to learn more about Iris and her experiences in this and other situations, you can read more on our blog and you can read her book, A Different Childhood.

My inner world

I preferred to be in my inner world, in what I later called “the real world” or “Out”. “The ordinary world” – the one you thought about if you were hungry, cold, longing, yearning – was very strange to me. Sometimes for short periods I ended up there and it was very unpleasant. It made my body feel like an unmoving piece of meat that often hurt. Then there was a lot of dangerous demons and horrible noises that scared the wits out of me. Then I would often scream, bang my head and scream until it quieted. The light was also so unpleasant in “the ordinary world”. Everything changed constantly, and my head burned and ached.

In “the real world” there was always a different kind of light, and it was very pleasant. In that world I associated with my friends. There were two of them, a light and a dark being; their names were Slire and Skydde. They were boys, but they didn’t look like people, they were beings, they were “sweeps”. You could think of them as a scrap of silk fabric that floats in the air, that sweeps through it, that sweeps through “The real world”. That’s what I was also: a sweep but I didn’t see myself as light or dark.


Synesthetic autism, a scolding becomes a light show

A fascinating thing about Iris’ description of her synesthesia and out-of-body like fantasy life is the hints it offers about the workings of her brain, as well as of others. The  great pattern matching machine, which researchers think the brain must be, has to spend most of its first years learning and storing patterns that it acquires through the senses. Patterns that it receives from the eyes obviously make optical sense and are perceived as such when acquired. However, in Iris’ case with her synesthesia,  audio signals from the ears, and do not make any optical sense, get into her vision system  where they are still perceived as images. But what kind of images can they be. In Iris’ case they tend to be light shows, like fireworks or shooting stars. The brain expects images from the vision system, but when they originate as sound signals, the higher layers don’t have any sensible visual patterns to recognize so it has to create some out of thin air so to speak, which are then perceived. I imagine the situation similar to a computerized pattern recognition system where the IO driver has a bug so that signals from the microphone go to the optical pattern recognizer software, which of course can’t make sense of it.  However, it is programmed to treat stuff coming in as potential patterns so it proceeds to process them as if they were optical signals. Similarly, the higher layers in Iris’ brain treats these nonsensical signals in such a way that she perceives them as light shows, as he describes in the following excerpt from her book. What a tantalizing glimpse into the deepest mystery of the brain, i.e. how it generates experiences, that this story hints at. Is it possible that this, what brain researchers call the hard problem, may yield some of its mystery from the clues here. Thinking about how it works that Iris perceives fantastical light shows in response to sounds, could that maybe lead to some ideas about what is happening in the brain to produce that sensation.

images (1) images (2)

….When I had done something that farmor thought was very sinful and wrong  she would call me up to her. Then I had to stand before her as she scolded and admonished me. This I liked. I stood totally still and stared out in space. Her words were flying around and formed shapes, it was different lights that sparkled. It was beautiful, and you could never predict how it would look. I stood there and was entranced. I flowed into the colors, shapes, patterns, let myself be carried back and forth, up and down. Everything changed shape continuously and I flowed in with it. 


A different childhood reviews


Three different reader reviews of the Norwegian edition of A different childhood:

FASCINATING     This book is the author Iris’ own retelling the experience of growing up as an autistic, and this at a time when the diagnosis autism was not known. The focus of the book is on what it is like to be an autistic, and how their mental life differs from another person’s. The book is not abstract or hazy, but returns continually to amusing and engaging stories – together with a backdrop and family filled with warm and interesting figures. The book is also interesting in that the author’s depiction of her everyday experience as an autistic crosses the border between the normal and the supernormal, between every day and supernatural phenomena, such as astral projection and mind reading, which she experienced as what she as a child called the “real reality”. A good book, I think, and I recommend it for all who wish to extend their understanding of how fantastic the brain is and can be, and how much that (possibly?) lies hidden in our minds. And, of course, invaluable for those who want insight into autism.


BORING      This was book I had great expectations for because of my work with autistic children. It was recommended  to me and I figured it had to be a very good book. It could have been a good book. But the language is so bad, repetitions are unending, so the book could have been half as long with just as much information. Then you could maybe absorb everything that was said. I got discouraged when I was reading, thought I’d never get through it. Iris Johansson should have gotten help to improve the book with things like sticking to first or third person. It was exhausting when it changed even within a paragraph. This was in other words not a good reader experience. The story was great, so it is disappointing that the publisher didn’t do anything with the structure of the book.

A FANTASTIC BOOK    I  can as an autistic myself testify that this is a fantastic book. I notice that another reviewer finds the book  boring and thinks the publisher should have helped Johansson more. But the reader ignores the fact that Johansson writes as she is to show others how an autistic thinks and functions. I can also see that to the outside the book may seem boring, with repetitions, etc, but that is an irrelevant objection. It is not a literary work, nor a textbook. It is an autobiography, and is not meant to entertain. A rewrite would have diminished its objective.