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'Words and what they mean'

12 September 2013

Lesley Lees writes about her experiences of starting a reading group with adults on the autistic spectrum.

Lesley Lees writes about her experiences of starting a reading group with adults on the autistic spectrum.

I am a mature, part-time student undertaking a BA in English Literature and Community Engagement and have just finished the fourth year of my studies. The theories behind community, engagement, universities and readers have been explored and I have been supported in my efforts to take literature outside the University to the wider community. I wanted to run a project for people with Asperger’s syndrome, or on the autistic spectrum.

How people communicate has always fascinated me and good communication skills were an essential aspect of my working life as a nurse; add to that the experience of parenting my son (who is on the autistic spectrum) it occurred to me that I might have the understanding needed to run a reading group with people who communicate differently. One of the features of the autistic spectrum is an unusual profile of language skills. In his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Attwood devotes a whole chapter to language and explains many of the communication difficulties faced by those on the spectrum. To understand the challenges those on the autistic spectrum face with everyday communication would be the key to facilitating a group that was all about sharing literature.

To reach my target audience, during the second year of my studies I approached the social worker employed by the National Autistic Society. He was very enthusiastic about my ideas and invited me to attend one of the social groups he facilitates. I went along to their monthly pub meeting and spoke to the group and then to individuals to see if they had any interest in coming to a reading group. I also left copies of a flyer with my contact details. An unseen disability that features difficulties with social communication can make joining group activities problematic, so a new group specifically for this client group was appealing. The positive response I received made it worth pursuing my plans.

I also made contact with the reading manager at Bristol Central Library as finding the right venue was important. It was necessary to use a central location that was well served by public transport; thus the Central Library was an ideal choice. I needed to find a room that was away from the busyness of other library users. Many people on the autistic spectrum have heightened auditory sensitivity so that even the hum of fluorescent lighting is irritating and distracting. I was offered the use of the conference room which is deep in the heart of the old building. Its thick stone walls and absence of humming lights made it the ideal room. I also signed up for a group membership card that allows me to borrow multiple copies of a book for an extended time. The reading manager distributed my flyer to all the county libraries though as yet no one has joined the group because of seeing this; my group are all people I met at the social evening.

My fellow students have set up reading projects with a variety of client groups and settings; the encouragement and support from the University and their partners (in my case the National Autistic Society) has been central to starting and maintaining  the programmes. It would never have occurred to me to set up such a reading project had it not been for this degree.

We are a small group of four regular members and we meet on the third Tuesday of each month for two hours. Studying English Literature at university has given me a growing confidence in my ability to understand literature. The skills I’ve learnt in class have informed the way in which I facilitate group meetings. We share two poems and a short story at each meeting. I read these aloud and then we discuss meaning and style. The poetry, despite its use of metaphor and simile has proved popular. The group also enjoy taking turns in reading aloud. J.M. Newton in his essay, ‘Literary Criticism, Universities, Murder’ asks, ‘What am I hoping for when I start talking with a friend about a film, a painting or a poem?’ I was hoping that my group would be a positive and enjoyable shared experience where the poems and stories would stimulate discussion. Newton goes on to say, ‘Often the simplest procedure is the best, like one of us reading a passage from the poem aloud’. The Reader Organisation support and promotes ‘Get Into Reading’ groups that use reading aloud; their evaluation shows shared reading aloud has a positive impact on participants.

The University has given me the knowledge and support to take literature out in to a community setting. This aspect of my degree studies has a vocational feel to it and is a wonderful balance to the academic rigours of studying literature. I am delighted that my group continue to commit their time and energy to our monthly meetings.

Lesley Lees, student, BA in English Literature and Community Engagement