This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in science fiction — space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc. — with input from an expert.
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About the Expert
Rachel Heaps-Page is a qualified teacher with particular experience educating children with severe learning disabilities and/or behavior problems. She has taught children with BESD in both mainstream classrooms and one-to-one, in primary and secondary schools based in England.
Rachel writes young adult fiction, her current WIP a fantasy trilogy entitled ‘The rise of Sir Louis’.
5 Truths About Behavioral, Emotional, and/or Social Difficulties
K was eleven years old and he was always smiling, but his anxiety showed in the raw red marks all the way round his mouth. The skin was always dry, cracked and bleeding because he licked almost constantly and nothing could make him stop. The other children tried not to notice, but it was hard for them and most days someone upset him with their stare.
As his designated adult, it was my job to make sure he didn’t react; to protect his learning and the other children from his problems and to shield the triggers that would set him off. I wrenched chairs from his hands and taught him under tables. I cajoled him through work that seemed impossible, helping him to navigate through overwhelming losses he was struggling to handle so that he could learn how to read or do maths or speak a little French.
After two years, we had grown quite familiar. I had my tactics and resources to help K attempt an education, I recognised the signs that warned of tantrums or tears and I knew by the way K took off his coat in the morning if we were going to have a bad day.
K would unzip his coat extra carefully on those mornings and leave it in the middle of the floor; a small and innocuous gesture that was his way of saying, “I am in pain and today is going to hurt”.
I had my purse stolen on a bad day, and my car keys. I stood for hours in the rain while he screamed personal slurs against me and watched him climb over fences, or onto the roof. Once, a bad day got me sent to the hospital; pouring with blood after I fell trying to retrieve my fleeing charge, the icy ground taking a chunk of my leg and leaving a scar to this day.
K was just one of many children with BESD that I have met on my journey as an educator, broadening my understanding of the term attributed to them and deepening my insight into their world. These are some of the lessons they have taught me, that may assist you when writing characters who share their title or traits:
1. BESD doesn’t require ‘extreme’ behaviour
K was extreme, but I am glad to say that in six years of classrooms I only met one child like him. Though children experiencing BESD have issues that run very deep, I have met very few who showed it through overtly negative behaviour.
Through our time together K taught me a valuable lesson: that children with BESD have choices. K’s destructive, visceral responses were understandable but they weren’t always justified. There were times he couldn’t control himself but far more often he indulged violence because a provocative streak urged him too while J, a pleasant boy I once supported, only revealed his crippling social anxiety through his catchphrase. He would mutter “potato” under his breath, picked up from a popular comedian he watched obsessively and whom made him feel safe. This was a minor disruption at best and taught me that no matter how severe the child’s condition, there is no ‘typical’ reaction children or guarantee of extreme responses.
BESD is typically only diagnosed when it is severe, but the characters you will write will have the same question facing them: though things may difficult, how will they respond?
In my time I have seen a whole range of reactions to BESD, from an eyebrow rising to self harm and violence. There is no ‘right’ or typical behaviour, so develop your character’s coping strategies whilst staying true to the personality you are forging in them.
2. BESD and learning disabilities are not the same thing
As is usual for children who struggle behaviourally in the classroom, his educators had tested and observed K in order to determine exactly what issues they were contending with. K had severe emotional problems that fuelled his BESD but traditional tests proved that when K was on an even keel and we had set up the right support, he was able to achieve academically.
BESD is the umbrella term that we use to explain a child’s consistent exhibition of disruptive behaviours, or issues regarding their social skills, relationship skills and emotional health. These behaviours and issues can stem from a learning disability such as Down’s syndrome, but they do not occur exclusively.
It is true that a child dealing with other issues is likely to suffer academically, but not because they have no capacity to excel. In many cases, a child with BESD will suffer academically simply because they faced much greater obstacles when they came to learn. This can be overcome by educators with insight, who obtain the right resources and offer the best support to the struggling child. Unfortunately, many children miss out on this help as they are overlooked or remain undiagnosed, or their teachers are simply too pressed by other responsibilities to give any more. So, you should feel free to retain your character’s title of ‘genius’ even if they hate the classroom or to allow ‘troubled’ souls to achieve greatness in the end.
3. Not every case starts with abuse
Though it is common for tragedy and trauma to be a root-cause of BESD, it is not a precursor.
Children can be born with problems, genetic issues that undermine a child’s ability to cope or to learn or diseases/conditions that prevent full mental or physical development. These can be at the heart of your character’s issue and a contributing factor or real reason behind their BESD, just as legitimately as a murdered parent or infliction of abuse.
It may help to think of this disorder as being, ultimately, about obstruction. There is something that causes the child to act out or fail to connect with the world or others around them. There is a reason that they struggle to moderate their behaviour or constantly misunderstand their friends, why they can’t express themselves healthily or at all. It is your place as the author to decide what this is. The options are limitless and a true test of your creative skill when it comes to their creation.
Consider BESD as the response of a character born colour blind. It is a minor, physiological trait that should not directly impact behaviour. But, if they are born in a world that demands perfection, it may become a powerfully impacting trait that makes them unable to forge and maintain relationships or cope in their society.
Many writers advise asking questions to get to the heart of each character, and I would advise the same in this case. If you are compelled to bestow BESD to your character I would urge you to consider why? What is the obscure or significant element of your character’s nature, physiology, or experience that first set them on this developmental path? That first act to light their behavioural fuse?
You may decide this won’t be revealed to your readers, but I believe such insight helps to understand your character and so lends depth to their behaviour as you write.
4. Characters with BESD don’t have to be villains or victims
There is an old adage I like to apply in this instance, ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’. As a teacher, I was trained to look beyond the child’s behaviour to who they were as a person; a child who could be encouraged to learn and make better choices, even if they acted terribly. This was particularly challenging when working with troubled children, as their behaviour was often a veil for the person inside. Many gentle souls I worked with had terrible reputations because violent outbursts, even when caused by exceptional circumstances, aren’t easily forgotten and are even less easily forgiven.
There is a tendency to look at a child with BESD and try to predict their life as an adult based on that short window of time. It is hard to imagine a healthy marriage or successful career, for the child who stands on a table to urinate during lessons. But childhood is only a part of our life journey and damaged children can recover, or at least control, their dysfunction as they enter adulthood.
Every damaged child in your fictional world does not have to become the helpless damsel, or cruel tyrant. An author has the privileged opportunity to play out the whole story, so consider offering your wounded character a chance to heal or to redeem themselves for past mistakes.
5. You don’t have to get everything right
What I learnt as a teacher I retained as a writer and I suspect some of my personal insights inform the characters I create. However, I don’t allow facts to constrain me as I find that the more I worry about technical accuracy, the more soulless my character (and indeed my writing) becomes. Unless you are hoping to create the quintessential ‘BESD’ child and set it forth as a case study, do not feel constrained when creating your character.
With the right research and a sensitive approach any topic can be masterfully explored in your writing, but bear in mind that ‘expert’ and author is a rare combination and readers won’t expect it of you. Fiction writers in particular can take liberties and are expected to fabricate, so let your creative juices flow! After all, it is one of the great joys of our craft.
My last thought is to urge you; forge a character with depth and complexity in mind and less concern for ‘ticking the boxes’ of their label. They may have severe BESD, but don’t feel obliged to mould them from that singular definition or try too hard to justify the label in your work. Your characters can wrestle with issues beyond your experience, or respond in a way some might consider unconventional, but if they are ‘real’ – if they are complex and human, they will still ring true.
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