Friday, March 7, 2008

Monarch School - a gentle and safe place

I’ve been to quite a few schools since the release of Look Me in the Eye. Wednesday was one more school appearance, this one in scenic downtown Houston. Something about the Monarch School was different, though. I could feel it right away.

The Monarch school felt gentle, and safe.

I don’t have a very good social sense. I can’t read people’s faces or tell what they are thinking. That said, my ability to sense safety and danger is excellent. Why would that be? I don’t know. Temple Grandin says the autistic mind is closer in some ways to animals. She thinks this sense of danger is more basic, more animal. Perhaps she’s right.

And I could just feel it at Monarch. The place was safe. And I'd like to clarify something with respect to the other schools - they did not feel dangerous. But they lacked the safe and gentle feeling I found at Monarch. At least, that's true for me. There's a difference between places that feel "not dangerous" and places that feel "gentle and safe."

Last week, there was some lively discussion about Billy in the movie Billy the Kid, and why he looked around like a hunted animal in certain scenes of that movie. Indeed, I described him as a hunted animal, while others contended that his look was nothing more than a common autistic behavior.

Well, at the Monarch school, the difference was evident. The kids there looked around, but their gazes lacked the anticipation of danger. I could feel it myself. It’s just an instinctive thing; I know it but it’s hard to articulate. They looked around, but the expressions were subtly different from what I saw on Billy's face in the movie, and different from how I remember my own school experience.

When I spoke to the students, I mentioned this, and I think they saw it too. At my talk Wednesday night, at the United Way Community Center, I brought it up again.

We need more schools with that safe feeling.

I don’t what they did to bring this about, but whatever it is, it’s a remarkable achievement.

After visiting the school, I went on a little tour. I’d like to take you with me, via some photos of my trip. First, check out the potted plant in front of the Art Museum – a far cry from the snow and ice and frozen plants back home





Things are already looking green and lush, as you can see from this view of the street outside my hotel:








Houston has a fine light rail system, and it passes right by the museum. It's clean and modern. The cars roll silently on welded rail, which is set artistically into the pavement with decorative stone. Here’s one now:




Next, I headed for the Houston Ship Channel. With the post-9-11 security, it’s hard to get close but you can see the channel from the Battleship Texas park site. Here’s the Texas:



Here’s one of the quad 40mm antiaircraft guns that was added in WWII:




The Ship Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world. It was teeming with motorized aquatic life the whole time I was there. At one point, I counted five tugs in motion at once, all on separate missions. Here's a tug moving two bargeloads of petroleum product:





Here’s a tanker headed into port. To my surprise, there were no tugs tethered to provide control in case she lost steering. Why don’t they do that? I don’t know.





I will close with this. Many of you have heard the phrase, “Better living through chemistry.” This is where it originates:


24 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

John, the heightened awareness in terms of safe vs. dangerous environments makes perfect sense to me. I'm constantly assessing too. As for Temple Grandin, she's one of the most fascinatingpeople on the planet and I urge everyone to buy her book. I love your tour posts, John.

Amy MacKinnon

kyra said...

aw, that sounds amazing. maybe we ought to be houston-bound? or at least monarch-bound?

kyra said...

i forgot to add that fluffy has an acute sense of danger versus safety. he's continually assessing. at one time, all kids = danger. now it's just the 6 and older set.

kristen said...

John, I love the photos. Thanks for sharing. And your description of the school makes it sound like such an inviting place. You are right. We do need more schools like that--for all our kids, on or off the spectrum.

momof3feistykids said...

Thank you for sharing this. I have read about the Monarch School over the years, and am glad it seems to be as wonderful as I'd hoped. Good things are happening for your Aspergian kids in this generation!

TerryB said...

John, I'm glad you had a good trip. There's another reason that hasn't been mentioned--your childhood. Trite, but sometimes true. From an early age you knew when to take cover. This 'hyper-awareness' is common with children whose parents were dysfunctional in some way-psychological, addiction-wise, etc.

My mother was bipolar and all 3 siblings and I can feel a certain 'charged' atmosphere depending on where we are. I think of it as an aura-I can feel it in waves sometimes. Just a thought.

TerryB said...

I'd like to amend my previous comment (sorry). It's waves when the person is in the room and electrically charged when there's no one in sight but just a feeling. And about the school-it sounds like they never have to worry about the unexpected happening or popping it. (I think I'd miss the charge if I lost it forever.)

CindyW said...

As a principal of a large public elementary school and the parent of an Aspergian young adult, I would love to be able to provide a safe feeling environment for all, in my setting. I wish there were more information for educators to be able to do this. I know my daughter won't go to college because of the "unsafe" or "scary" feelings she got from twelve years of school.

Kim Stagliano said...

Sounds like a terrific school. I gather it's for kids with special needs (I went to their site.) You've primarily visited public schools to date, yes? So do you think kids on the spectrum would be better served outside of mainstream education? It's a real quandary for parents. Allow them to feel safe and earn an education at a school like Monarch but isolate them from their typical peers, or enroll them in public school and know that perhaps they also feel "less safe" as you so eloquently put it. Do you know the tuition at Monarch? That's another hurdle. Parents typically have to sue the public school distict to prove they can not get appropriate services to get the steep tuitions paid. Maybe Texas is less expensive than the NorthEast? Here the autism schools are at least $90K a year. Wonderful post and photos, John!

Agent M said...

You were in Houston! Oh, if only you had come just a wee bit more south.

That school sounds awesome...off to learn more. :)

ChristineEldin said...

Thanks for sharing the photos!! I love Texas, but wouldn't want to live there. Though Houston does have beautiful spots.

What you said about the feeling of safety is very intriguing. Did you share this sentiment with the school? I'd bet they'd love to hear such warm praise!
:-)

Debrah said...

John,
It was so wonderful to have you here. As I told you and keep telling you, I am so grateful you wrote the book. I spend most of my work life being curious about how our students learn and think. I remain in contact with many of our graduates so that I can gain from their insights as they mature. The experiences you shared through your book are so helpful and I am very grateful. Thank you also for spending time with us in Houston and I hope you will return to Monarch whenever you are in town.
Sincerely,
Debrah Hall

John said...

Dear John,

Our students can't stop talking about you! Thank you for your encouragement and support of them during your visit.

Thank you also for your kind words about our school. And know that your book and message is an important part of our growth and learning.

Let's keep in touch!

John Barone
Director, Monarch Learning Center

Justin Fox said...

John, there is one simple reason for The Monarch School being such a "gentle and safe place" -- all the fabulous teachers and staff there! Of course, I may be a bit prejudiced in my view, since I am the little brother of Dr. Marty Webb, the founder and head of The Monarch School!

But just as you are rightfully proud and amazed at the accomplishments of your younger sibling, Christopher (a.k.a. Snort, Varmint, Augusten), so I am with my older sibling, Marty!

You truly are an inspiration, not only to your "fellow Aspergians," but to everyone, including myself. Woof! Keep up your tremendous work!

Justin Fox
Chairman, Movers and Shapers
(Volunteer Group at The Monarch School)

Daniel J. Watkins said...

Bit of a stark contrast going from lush plants, to silent light rail, to 40 mm anti-aircraft guns! ;)

Justin Fox said...

John,

Hi, again. I forgot to compliment you on your fine photos of Houston!

C'mon back to "Space City" soon to visit The Monarch School. I know that you'd just love to see and photograph the Johnson Space Center!

Justin Fox

Patti said...

John,
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you speak here in Houston. As the mother of a 4-year-old on the spectrum (a suspected Aspergian), I am totally overloaded with all of the information out there, and overwhelmed to say the least. Your use of humor was refreshing, and it helped lighten a very difficult load. A million thanks to you for sharing your story, and to Monarch for sponsoring you.

Patti McGinnis

Connor Glynn said...

i think you should make a movie about your book it would be a really good movie in my opinion.
your brothers movie was a good movie, so why not yours?

Connor Glynn said...

you should come to my school "virginia city high school, nevada"

John Elder Robison said...

Connor, I'd be glad to go to your school. Ask your school people to contact my speaker's agent, Lavin. There's a link to them on the johnrobison.com site.

Kalimaikaika said...

Visual Aspie here. Please consider posting pictures of Monarch School. Hypothesis is that careful/observant choices in colour and texture, organisation of spatial relationships and quality/source/direction/redirection of light contribute strongly to sense of "safe/right/comforting/appropriate" vs "unsafe/wrong/discomfiting/inappropriate. Thank you.

John Elder Robison said...

Visual Aspie, thanks for that suggestion. You may be right about the appearance of the school contributing to its safe feel. I am sorry I don't have any photos of the school itself, but there are pictures on the Monarch website.

While I think the appearance may play a part, I also think the behavior of the staff makes a big difference.

The Anti-Wife said...

Wonderful pictures. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

Kanani said...

Hey John.... Groovy trip, eh? Yeah, I think safe places are really important --kids with special needs such as those on the autism spectrum pretty much feel assaulted on lots of sensory levels. Also, I know that if you have a properly trained staff AND everyone buys into the philosophy of the given institution, that the consistency for these kids is a lot better. I could tell you about inconsistency in terms of personal philosophies amongst staff will cause absolute havoc.

I've been busy covering Mercedes Benz Fashion Week for a couple of blogs. It's a blast. Wow. I'm having more fun than is probably deemed sensible.

Yes, let's do the interview. Just email me, ok?