Taking the Plunge!
Homeschooling a Child with Asperger’s Syndrome (Part 2)
By Michelle McConnell
Autism Asperger’s Digest | September/October 2006
As I was gathering together ideas and materials for this second segment – the “how-to” part – of homeschooling a child on the autism spectrum, it occurred to me that homeschooling is a lot like swimming. You can’t really learn it from someone else; you just have to get in the water and do it. And, just like swimming, with regular practice, it gets easier. However wise those words may sound, there have been days I’ve wondered, “How can I teach others to swim if I still struggle to keep above water sometimes?” I was still thinking these very thoughts while playing in theAtlantic Oceanon vacation, only a week before the article was due. Apparently I was where I should be, for as the waves washed over me, they washed away whatever was blocking my inner vision. I realized that while learning to swim is a fitting analogy for homeschooling, I’d failed to recognize one vital part of the picture. We aren’t swimming in a calm, well-defined lap pool. We’re in the ocean! The tides change daily. Waves that one day were fun to jump over can knock you flat the next. This environment can be peaceful, or frightening, and sometimes is just plain annoying (sand in the suit… need I say more?). In that moment of revelation, the ocean became the perfect image to me of what homeschooling a child with an autism spectrum disorder actually looks and feels like.
So take a deep breath, relax, and hear these basic pointers from a fellow swimmer who – though nowhere near ready for the Olympic swim team – has learned a thing or two about riding the waves. This past June my oldest son Luke, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, completed first grade. Our five-year-old son Aaron completed Kindergarten, and Sarah (almost four and expressing sensory issues of her own) enjoyed a year of preschool as she eagerly soaked up much of what her older brothers were learning. While I am by no means a veteran expert yet – my children are still young – we have learned quite a bit in the last year. I hope these brief, high-level points can be of some help to those of you who feel the urge to jump in the water and get your feet wet, too.
More than textbooks or teaching strategy, the one thing you need as you embark on this journey is confidence in your decision. Go through whatever processes you must to become CERTAIN that homeschooling is right for you and your family. Question it, doubt it, weigh the pros and cons, pray for wisdom, take a realistic look at what it will require of you, but reach a point of firm decision, a very settled mindset, where you can comfortably say, “We are sure and confident in our decision to homeschool.” There will be many people – both family and strangers – who will not approve of your decision, especially given that your child has an autism disorder. It is not your responsibility to change their opinions. But let me encourage you with this: it is a GOOD decision. From time to time you’ll need to grab hold of the reasons you decided to homeschool in the first place, so document those now, in writing. I highly recommend the book, Things We Wish We’d Known, by Bill and Diana Waring. It is a wonderful compilation of thoughts and wisdom written by fifty veteran homeschoolers, and is the very first book I read. It is not a “how to” book about homeschooling, but rather a well of inspiration. The authors represent many varied teaching styles and philosophies, but the common theme running throughout the book is “You can do this well, and you will never regret it!”
Once you are settled in your decision to homeschool, you will need to deal with the red tape of becoming official. This is not the fun part, but you need to be certain that you are operating within the laws and requirements of your state. In our state, North Carolina, getting started was simply a matter of signing a form declaring our intent to withdraw Luke from public school for the purpose of homeschooling. I did not have to call a meeting to explain why or give them any further information than that. Then I contacted the North Carolina Department of Non-Public Education and requested their information packet on starting a home school. It outlined all the requirements, and we are diligent to follow them to the letter. Let me emphasize that these are issues you never want to “slack” on. Laws and requirements vary from state to state. An excellent resource is the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (http://www.hslda.org/). They maintain state-specific information and make it their job to stay on top of things such as changes in legislation that may affect you.
Once you’re a “legitimate” homeschooling family, you will need a support network. Local support is vital to help you locate resources in your area. You’ll find out great tidbits of information, like how the farm up the road will let your kids come milk a real cow, or when the museum is free to homeschoolers, or who offers the best swimming lessons. It is worth it, so make the effort and connect with other homeschooling families. This is easier said than done for families affected by autism, as I well know. Our area is a deluge of homeschooling families, yet I have been very selective as our kids can sometimes be perceived as “high maintenance”. Still, I have not allowed that to discourage me from connecting with a few other homeschooling mothers for advice, support and assistance. Finding such a group in your area may be as simple as word of mouth, or you may need to search the HSLDA website or others like it.
While I cannot express enough the importance of “real life” local support, internet groups are also helpful and readily available. I subscribe to an email list through Yahoo, “Homeschooling Aspies” (http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/HomeschoolingAspies/). Online groups such as this one and many more can be found at www.autismlink.com/pages/autism_homeschooling. I have learned volumes from these women. We ask each other questions like, “Which math curriculum do you like best?” or “How have you handled this problem?” We share our joys and successes and encourage one another when the painful or tiring days come. So I recommend a dual approach – find a group locally, whether it is a formal organization or just a family or two, but also plug into the online support of families around the world.
On a more functional level, you’ll need to set the stage for learning. Before you begin, evaluate your physical setting. Where do you intend to do your schooling? There is no one right answer. Some families are very loose on this point, taking books wherever they go and completing assignments while on the backyard swing or in the bathtub. We have been known to practice our spelling words in the driveway and do treat every trip to the grocery as a learning experience, but on a regular basis, we’ve found we do better with more structure. Our guest/grandparent room has been set up as “home base”, where the kids sit on beanbag chairs as I “teach”. I also store all my supplies there, which reminds me of another hint – take a day and get yourself and your materials organized. Devote one cabinet or closet to homeschool supplies and create a system that works for you. Entire books are devoted to this topic, so I won’t even begin to broach it any deeper than to say, DO IT – you’ll be glad you did!
I’ve learned that I need to keep the teaching area free from distractions and clutter; otherwise it compromises the kids’ (and my!) learning and ability to concentrate. We have attempted to address specific sensory issues, such as hanging room-darkening shades at the window because Luke cannot tolerate sunlight in his eyes. These and other “sensory-friendly” details are hugely important when schooling children with autism. Homeschooling provides you every opportunity to create an environment that is conducive to your child’s individual learning style. Consider the physical setting as it applies to your particular child’s needs so you can prevent frustration and foster success.
Next, consider, what will your daily schedule look like? This is the one area where I often feel most “in the ocean.” I’ll think I have a workable schedule nailed down and we’ll float along calmly for a few weeks. Then before I know it we’re getting tossed around like mad and have to regroup. Although our kids prefer structure and routine, life can cause interruptions, and in the big picture, perhaps this is not all that bad. My advice is to be consistent, yet flexible. The two sound contrary and if you’re anything like me, I find this type of vague advice infuriating. Maybe an example will help. I try to be consistent with the basic rhythm of our day. Our schedule goes something like this: wake up, enjoy a little “Ready Set Learn” on The Learning Channel, eat breakfast together, do chores, exercise, then go to the school room. In the schoolroom hangs a very informal picture schedule created out of a yardstick, sticky Velcro tabs, and index cards. I’ve found that the time we spend going over the daily picture schedule is the single most critical part of our day. I include cards for all school activities and any outings, as well as things like “play” or “computer”. One of the rules we’ve established is that lack of cooperation during a learning activity results in one of the “reward” activities being removed from that day’s schedule altogether.
The daily schedule provides peace; it is a golden nugget “must have” for any homeschool mom in my opinion, but most certainly for the family dealing with autism. However, bear in mind you must also be flexible. The beauty of Velcro tabs is that they come loose and you can stick them again in a new spot, when need be. So, use it to your advantage. If math is proving to be hard today, why not swap out for some wiggly time and come back to it in twenty minutes? The general rhythm of the day has not been sacrificed, but as a wise soul once said, “Some hills aren’t worth dying on.” The schedule serves you, not the other way around. And, with our kids, that is definitely a blessing and an advantage of homeschooling.
I want to address the area where I think most new homeschooling moms (or dads!) err – because they focus on it first and then make all else revolve around it – choosing a curriculum. There are various philosophies and schools of thought related to homeschooling. You may find it interesting to familiarize yourself with the Charlotte Mason method, Classical education, and even “unschooling”. Based on my experience, I’d like to recommend the eclectic approach, and caution you against locking yourself into one narrow frame of mind. This becomes a huge pitfall, when methodology takes precedent over the needs of the child. (Doesn’t that sound like public school and what we fought so hard against?)
The ability to tailor your educational plans to the needs and gifts of your child is one of the core beauties of homeschooling. When we cling too tightly to any particular method we sacrifice that. My recommendation: don’t start with a curriculum – start with the child. Ask yourself what goals you would like to see him accomplish in the next year (sort of like sitting down at your IEP meeting). Include all aspects of life: academic, functional life-skills, language, social, leisure/recreation, etc. Once you are clear on your own personal goals and objectives, then find teaching materials which support them.
There are many curriculum choices and education avenues from which to choose. Reviews of various homeschool curriculums are sometimes helpful and can be found at websites such as http://www.cathyduffyreviews.com/ or http://www.homeschoolreviews.com/default.aspx. I recommend contacting various publishers and requesting a free sample or brochure.
I’m sure you’d love me to tell you which curriculum will help your ASD child best, but you probably already know my response: Our children are individual in their needs and their gifts. As someone once said, “If you know one child with autism… you know one child with autism.” I can say, though, that there is no need to spend a great deal of money on curriculum unless you simply wish to. I have discovered the library and the internet to often be all the curriculum sources I need, along with a solid math program. Maybe the following point will ease your mind a bit concerning curriculum. This past year I started out with a curriculum which I later determined was not working for us. So I set it aside and finished out the year creating unit studies of my own, based on the kids’ topics of interest (i.e. bugs, animals, gardening). I had the boys tested at the end of May (our state requires standardized testing once a year). I’m happy to report that despite how nervous their mother was, they scored beautifully and exceeded my expectations. The testing administrator told me to keep doing whatever it is I’m doing, because obviously it is working; both are doing wonderfully. It felt great to hear that!
The final point to cover in this ever-so-brief roadmap to homeschooling is extra-curricular activities and social opportunities. Some people still think of homeschooling as children locked inside their homes all day, cut off from the world. That is pure nonsense! Some families actually become so involved in extra-curricular activities that I truly wonder when they do basic schoolwork. My recommendation is to incorporate one or two activities into your weekly schedule which provide positive, well-structured settings in which your child can be successful. While social skills can be practiced in a “rote” manner, it is truly within the ‘real world’ setting, where language and interaction happens ‘on the fly’ that meaningful learning will take place. As the teacher, make sure the conditions are such that your child experiences success, especially at first. For Luke, this has obviously been challenging with his autism related issues. His brother has Tae-Kwon-do and teeball, and his younger sister has dance. Those types of extracurricular activities have not suited Luke. However, he found his niche with horseback riding. On Thursday afternoons, we drive an hour one way to a therapeutic horseback riding ranch. It is well worth every minute and every penny spent on gas.
Rather than bemoan what your child can’t do, find something that interests him and DOES work! The flexible schedule of homeschooling gives you this distinct advantage. Maybe it’s a yoga class or a weekly watercolor class, rock climbing at the gym (during the daytime hours when most people are at work) or a special tutorial program you’ve worked out with a local plumber or train maker. I know a mother of a thirteen year old son with Asperger’s. She brings him into their church office to work alongside the staff there, volunteering his time to help and learning basic skills such as sorting, stamping, copying, and faxing. Options abound, if you are creative and persevere.
If you have more than one child, also keep in mind that you have a social skills class within your very home! We practice conflict resolution, conversational turn taking, and general problem solving on a regular basis. Beyond that, by homeschooling you are fostering the sacred relationship among siblings that can carry them life long. Luke calls his brother his “best friend” and the two of them learn so much from each other. Aaron has done more for Luke than any professional therapist ever could!
So, you’ve decided to homeschool? If the answer is yes, I am excited for you! Take the plunge, the water is fine! There will be no gold medals awarded but the discoveries are endless. Enjoy them. Recapture the love of learning you knew as a child and ignite that within your own children. Don’t expect perfection from yourself or from them. See each day as a new learning experience instead. You’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t, and once in a while you’ll actually get to relax and float a bit before the next big wave hits. But isn’t autism always like that, homeschooling or otherwise? I personally would not trade this last year for any alternative life I may have “sacrificed.” It continues to be well worth it … sand in the suit, and all.
Michelle McConnell lives with her husband Eric in NC, where she homeschools their three children, ages 7, 5, and 3. When not being a “teacher-mom,” she enjoys writing so other parents can learn from (and laugh at!) her experiences.
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