Teaching English to Pupils Affected by the ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder’ Anna Maria Aiazzi

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Teaching English to Pupils Affected by the ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder’

Anna Maria Aiazzi
Anna Maria Aiazzi was born in Florence on May 14th, 1964 and graduated in Modern Foreign Languages (English Language and Literature) at the University of Florence in 1999, discussing a thesis about V. Woolf's Orlando. I took my Ph-D degree in English and American Literature at the University of Florence in 2004. I have published some articles in Italian literary reviews concerning V. Woolf, W. Lewis, Vorticism and Quantum Theory and the Italian Translation of Joyce's Ulysses by the Florentine G. de Angelis. Since 2002-2003 I have been teaching English Language and Culture in Italian secondary schools of second degree. In 2006 I took a qualification degree to teach English in secondary schools of first and second degree. In 2007 I also took a qualification degree as teacher for impaired students. This school year I'm teaching English, French and Humanities to impaired students (and normally-gifted students) in a secondary school of second degree.

E-mail: bruno.aiazzi@tin.it

As far as I know, the Italian system of educating impaired pupils is unique in whole Europe; in fact, in Italy ‘special schools’ for any kind of impaired pupils have not existed since 1977 anymore. As far as possible, impaired pupils share their school experiences in the same class with ‘normally-gifted’ pupils and follow the same syllabuses, having been assigned a ‘remedial teacher’ to help them in their studies. What is at stake, here, is a different perspective from the ones generally adopted by other European educational systems: a perspective of integration of disabled pupils in

the same school context of ‘normal’ pupils, rather than their isolation in special schools. In a future this experience of integration, if positively lived, can be helpful for these pupils, as adults, to improve the quality of their lives in society.
In the Italian school system this perspective goes back to the 1970s, when the first attempts were made to abolish ‘differential classes’. Finally, in 1992, a law ratified the rights of disabled people in all fields of social life, including education in state schools of every degree. The integration of disabled people in state schools is the result of the collaboration of different components: the Ministry of Education, the schools themselves, the social services and the pupils’ families. Each school, through the Ministry of Education, has to provide disabled pupils with ‘remedial teachers’, who will accompany them along their learning course. Disabled pupils normally follow an ‘individualized education programme’, in compliance with their class syllabuses. In secondary schools of second degree there can be more than one remedial teacher for each pupil, according to the subjects pupils have to study. In
order to get qualified as ‘remedial teachers’, teachers have to follow a post-graduation course and to be trained in schools for certain periods. This school year, after having been qualified as a ‘remedial teacher’, I have been assigned two pupils who are attending the first year of a secondary school of second degree. Both these pupils suffer from a ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder’ (a disorder belonging to the
autistic spectrum), which affects their physical and psychological growth in different ways, quite difficult to classify in an organic unity.

The term ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder’ (PDD) was first used in the 1980s to describe a class of disorders which has in common the following characteristics: impairments in social interaction and imaginative activity, verbal and nonverbal communication skills and a limited number of interests and activities that tend to be repetitive. The manual used by physicians and mental health professionals as a guide to diagnosing disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), last revised in 1994. In this latest revision, known as the DSM-IV, five disorders are identified under the category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders: 1. Autistic Disorder, 2. Rhett’s Disorder, 3. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, 4. Asperger’s Disorder, and 5. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or PDDNOS. Some doctors, however, are hesitant to diagnose very young children with a specific type of PDD, such as Autistic Disorder, and therefore only use the general category label of PDD.

All types of PDD are neurological disorders that are usually evident by the age of three. In general, children who have a type of PDD have difficulty in talking, playing with other children and relating to others, including their family. In fact, many such children show a lack of social responsiveness. They may even actively avoid other children. Some children develop imitative play, but this tends to be repetitive. In middle childhood, such children may develop a greater awareness or attachment to parents and other familiar adults. However, social difficulties continue. They still have problems with group games and forming peer relationships. As these children grow older, they may become affectionate and friendly with their parents and siblings.

However, they still have difficulty in understanding the complexity of social relationships. Their lack of response to other people’s interests and emotions often results in these youngsters saying or doing things that can slow the development of friendships. Comprehension of speech in children with PDD is impaired to varying
degrees, depending on where the child is within the wide spectrum of PDDNOS. Individuals with PDD who also have mental retardation may never develop more than a limited understanding of speech. When impairment is mild, only the comprehension of subtle or abstract meanings may be affected. Humour, sarcasm and common sayings can be confusing. When the child develops speech, he or she often exhibits abnormalities, such as echolalia (seemingly meaningless repetition of words or phrases). The actual production of speech may also be impaired. The child’s speech
may be like that of a robot, characterized by a monotonous, flat delivery with little change of pitch, change of emphasis or emotional expression.
When children with PDD develop functional speech, they may not use it in ordinary ways; in fact, such children tend to rely on repetitive phrases. Their speech does not usually convey imagination, abstraction or subtle emotion. They generally have difficulty in talking about anything outside of the immediate context they experience. They may talk excessively about their special interests, and they may talk about the same pieces of information whenever the same subjects are raised.

Generally, children with PDD do very well on tests requiring manipulative or visual skills or immediate memory, while they do poorly on tasks demanding symbolic or abstract thought and sequential logic. The process of learning and thinking in these

children is impaired, most particularly in the capacity for imitation, comprehension of spoken words and gestures, mental flexibility and inventiveness; in particular, they have difficulties in learning, applying and generalizing rules or using acquired information in different contexts. Yet, a small number of children with PDD show
excellent rote memories and special skills in limited fields of knowledge.

In these latest months I was able to experience with my two pupils that children with PDD vary widely in abilities, intelligence and behaviours. These pupils, who can be fictitiously named ‘John’ and ‘Paul’, are two fifteen-year-old boys very different in many respects, in particular as far as language acquisition is concerned. Although

both are diagnosed as affected by PDD and have, to different extents, a mild mental retardation, quite strong difficulties in social interactions, especially with peers, restricted fields of interest and repetitions of gestures and phrases (echolalia), they are two completely different persons. For example, although both have a strong interest in a particular topic/subject, John is mostly interested in cinematography and comics, whereas Paul is strongly interested in history and historical battles. They both like surfing the Net but, whereas John likes looking for news on films and actors, Paul likes playing computer games on famous historical battles and war strategies.

Although they both come from the middle school and followed similar syllabuses, at the beginning of the school year John showed to know a lot of English words, especially concerning his favourite ‘subject’: he could name films in their original English titles and the actors or actresses starring in them. He could also write the film titles in English by making very few mistakes. On the contrary, Paul could seemingly not remember one word in English, or pronounce any words in English, either. He showed a strong distaste for foreign languages, that could almost become mental opposition or physical repulsion when he was asked to remember, pronounce or write down simple words/phrases in English.

At first I was quite worried about Paul’s attitude towards foreign languages, because I realized that it would not be simple to overcome his ‘refusal’ of learning and practising them. In particular, I saw how Paul was particularly disturbed by the different way in which English writes and pronounces words, which was particularly

incomprehensible for him, especially as an Italian learner who experiences a different perspective in his own language (Italian is almost written and read in the same way). His mental rigidity seemed not to allow him to come to terms with the differences between English writing and pronunciation. Furthermore, I realized that even the
slightest variations in pronunciation (for examples, BE vs. AE) couldn’t allow him to recognize an input, i.e. a word or phrase, he should have already known.

John, on his part, seemed not to have all these problems with the differences between English spelling and pronunciation, even if I soon realized that, once he had learnt a word with a particular pronunciation (similar to the way in which he could have pronounced it in Italian), it was almost impossible to make him learn a different pronunciation, that is, the right one, even after many attempts and repetitions on my part: he soon came back to his ‘wrong’ way of pronouncing that particular word, as it was rooted and stored in his memory.

Meanwhile, John showed a peculiar attitude when he was asked to watch films in English with English subtitles, together with his classmates and teachers: he could translate from English into Italian with a certain ease and speed, almost instinctively, just by interpreting the images he saw and what he could guess from them. What he lacked was the ability of fully understanding the meaning of what he saw or read and writing down these words correctly, that is, producing even simple sentences in ‘standard’ British English.

As both boys followed an individualized education programme, it was fundamental to adopt an individualistic approach to foreign languages which could comply with their personal attitudes, that is, their strong and weak points and their emotional involvement. So, whereas for John it was important to improve his writing skills, his knowledge of standard grammar rules and to increase his vocabulary with words concerning not only film-making and acting, but also everyday life, for Paul it was necessary to overcome his distaste for foreign languages, especially English, with a ‘softer’ approach, which could come to terms with his mental rigidity and his need for
structured grammar constructions and fixed, established rules.
In these last months John tried to concentrate on writing tasks about his daily routine and his activities in the present time, in order to strengthen his knowledge of the formation and use of the Present simple and Present continuous tenses; furthermore, he read some comics in English (i.e. Asterix at the Olympic Games, on which is based a film recently issued), in order to increase his vocabulary in various fields. The aim of these exercises was to consolidate his knowledge of standard grammar structures and to fix the correct use of the main present tenses in the affirmative, interrogative and negative form. The progresses made by John are, to some extent, remarkable: the facility with which he is learning English is quite astonishing, as well as his flair for foreign languages, even if some mistakes in conjugating tenses or pronouncing words are hard to get rid of.

Paul, on his part, obtained great benefits from the possibility to study, in class and at

home, on a book with explanations and instructions in Italian, structured grammar exercises showing general rules with almost no exceptions and little listening activity, at least in the first period. This sort of ‘grammar’ approach was very useful to him, as his poor mental flexibility needed a structured perspective of the foreign language. Little by little he was able to use the general rules of basic English grammar (Present simple of to be, to have got and of lexical verbs in the affirmative, interrogative and negative form), and to acquire a rather good quantity of vocabulary concerning everyday life, even if memorizing pronunciation is still a hard task for him.

This ‘success’ contributed to increase his self-assurance and esteem, especially with his classmates, and gave him the opportunity to partly share his acquisitions with them. Nowadays he is better disposed to learning English and has lost most of his distaste towards it. Even if he is not prepared to accept many exceptions to grammar rules or different varieties of English pronunciation yet, his progresses in reading and writing are constant. He is now able to use the language to communicate elementary functions concerning his everyday life and give simple information about his interests, likes and dislikes.

The two boys’ achievements in these months are, to some extent, remarkable, in
particular if we remember their starting points and how little they could use English as a means of communication. The results they have achieved can be a solid basis for further improvements in speaking and writing, that can be helpful to partly bridge the gaps between their abilities in the acquisition of English or other foreign languages and those of their schoolmates, and to improve their integration with their
peers at school or outside it.


Jordan R. and Powell S., Understanding and Teaching Children with Autism, West Sussex, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1995 (Italian translation, 1997).

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Washington DC, October 2003 (http://www.nichcy.org/).

Pervasive Developmental Disorder, from “Wikipedia” (http://en.wikipedia.

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