Chess and Autism

I teach chess to a broad spectrum of children and have dealt with a plethora of young personalities. I’m the go to guy when it comes to troubled kids and chess in my geographic area. I’d love to tell you that I have a well researched scientific method that allows me to succeed with the troubled children I work with but I’d be lying. While I’ve done my fair share of research regarding how to work with children who have specific disorders, I suspect there’s simply something in my personality that these students connect with (as opposed to my understanding of human psychology). I’ve taught chess to thousands of children over the years and, while I’ve had a high success rate, all it takes is one student I couldn’t connect with to keep me up at night wondering where I went wrong. Enter Autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by a difficulty in interacting socially, communication problems and repetitive behaviors (there are additional characterizations but this is merely a short essay on two encounters). There are varying degrees of Autism with some people on the high functioning end of the spectrum, meaning they can lead a relatively normal life, and others falling on the low end of the spectrum, making life very difficult to manage. It’s a lifelong problem but its symptoms can be reduced and controlled with different types of therapy. I wanted to share my experience with two children with Autism. We’ll start with Student #1:

I met Student #1 during one of our summer chess training camps, one week chess boot camps for kids. His mother had indicated that he had a slight learning problem and nothing more. One of the biggest problems I face when working with challenged children is the lack of real information I get from the parents. Of course, I understand that parents don’t want to have to say out loud, because there is still a stigma attached to it, “my child has Autism.” However, things will go from bad to worse if you don’t give the person you’re leaving your child with concrete information. Roughly 50% of children with Autism have a tendency to wander off (eloping) from their caregivers which is a serious problem when that child is in a large group of children managed by a single individual. They can also (but not always) strike (hit or kick) other children, not out of maliciousness but due to the way their brains perceive their environment. Knowing a child has Autism allows the teacher or caregiver the opportunity to monitor and address the situation.

I immediately noticed a few of the signs of Autism with Student #1 and decided to spend one on one time with him. Prior to this, Student #1, within ten minutes of his mother leaving, started walking around and knocking chess pieces off the boards of games in progress. He also started to run towards the front doors of the building with the intention of leaving and kicked my associate when he intervened. He didn’t want to interact with the other students so I sat down at a chess board with him. I asked him if he’d played chess before to which he answered “yes.” I asked him to set up the board and what he did next was amazing to say the least. Rather than set the board up traditionally, he positioned it at an angle resembling a Rhombus. Some of the pawns and pieces were set up in the peaks of the Rhombus closest to each player. He then proceeded to tell me the rules of his game which were not like a typical child’s version, in which the rules get made up as the child goes along. These rules were very specific and made sense. This child had created a very sophisticated version of the game. He is an extremely smart individual!

Unfortunately, he was very disruptive and only made it through a few days at chess camp. However, this part of the story has an amazing ending. Two years pass and I see him listed as a student in my chess class. His father said he’d be attending class with him and serve as his focal point/caregiver. The first day of class arrives and the young man in question is not only the most well behaved student in the class but the most engaged. I was able to pair him up with other students and even when he lost a game, he took it better than most adults do. The youngster is now my classroom assistant (seriously, he’s my assistant). Enter Student #2.

In this same class, I had a student who I was told had some mild learning challenges. This child, I was told by other parents, had a propensity for kicking and hitting. Being slightly forewarned doesn’t help when the issues are serious. You need factual, detailed information. However, in fairness to the school and parents, a child’s medical history is private, so legally I couldn’t be given the information I needed. However, on day one of class I watched the child, saw the same symptoms exhibited by Student #1 and attempted to create a plan of action. The first thing you must do as a teacher is sit down with the child in question and see if you can interact. Communication was quite difficult in this case. The child was brand new to chess so I tried to teach him the game very slowly, starting with the pawns (just their movement). The first thing I noticed was that his thought process shut down as soon as things became too much for him to take in. He then walked away and started disrupting my other students by kicking over their chess pieces. Many of these students have been with me for a year or two and they know to be understanding when another student is having a problem (it’s an absolute rule in my classes). Therefore, they were willing to put up with the set back.

Needless to say, things escalated by the next class and Student #2 had an incident that led to his being removed from the class. Fortunately, I was able to work with the school’s director and guidance counselor to resolve the problem with little fanfare. However, it saddened me because as I said earlier, all it takes is not connecting with one student to keep my up at night thinking about what I could have done better. Time will tell regarding whether or not Student #2 will eventually return to chess.

For parents of children with Autism, I truly recommending being completely upfront with teachers and caregivers no matter what. Being forthright can be the difference between your child being able to successfully participate in a program or not. With Student #1, chess has become a lifeline and a valuable tool in helping him gain greater focus and control. This focus and control will greatly aid him as he enters the teenage years which are hard enough as it is.

If you have a child with any kind of disorder, you have to seek out help from day one. I know that no parent wants to think their child is broken in anyway. Often, this thinking leads a parent to avoid seeking help. They try to fix the problem on their own, hoping the child will grow out of it. Autism has a stigma attached to it, a stigma created by people who have no true understanding of the disease. Parents want their children to fit into society and sometimes treat Autism as if it were a dirty secret to be kept hidden. If you ask the average person to define Autism, they might say “oh that guy in the movie Rain Man.” The point is that the public is generally misinformed which creates a negative mythology regarding Autism. This, in turn, pressures parents into keeping their child’s problem to themselves, when they should be seeking professional assistance.

While school counselors are generally good at what they do, one should work directly with a health care professional who works in this field. I also recommend networking with other parents who have children in the same situation. It’s a balance of the two that seems to garner the best results.

I have spent some time studying Autism since my first encounter with Student #1 because unlike many teachers who would easily say “this is above my pay grade,” when faced with an Autistic student, I want to be the one teacher willing to learn how I can help. Of course, I can only go so far offering my assistance due to a lack of professional knowledge, but some assistance is better than no assistance, especially for parents who are overwhelmed. Know the signs of Autism if you’re a teacher and work towards helping that child out rather than dismissing them. With Student #2, I’m trying to set up some one on one time in a quiet setting to see if chess can be of any assistance. Maybe, if I can find the connection between he and I, we can reintroduce him to chess. It may work, it may not, but to not try would be far worse than trying and failing. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).