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Homeschooling and Autism: Teaching to Strengths

By Lisa Rudy

When you have a child with autism, the public systems seem to reach out and pull you in. Early intervention professionals recommend appropriate preschools where therapists are available. Before you have a chance to turn around, you're meeting with school officials to put together IEPs, NOREPs, accommodations and behavioral interventions… and you begin to feel that educating your child is so complex that it requires a team of highly paid experts just to explain what will happen, where it will happen, why it will happen, and who will be making it happen.

With so many acronyms, therapists, specially trained teachers and special equipment involved, how could a mere parent possibly manage to homeschool a child with autism? And why, with so much available publicly, would anyone want to?

We came to homeschooling reluctantly. Our son is mildly autistic (with an official diagnosis of PDD-NOS - pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified), and we were sure the public system would be the ideal choice for his educational needs.

It wasn't.

Sadly, the American school system is set up with legal constraints which force parents, teachers and administrators to educate autistic children with one goal in mind: to help them become as typical in behavior, thinking, and learning style as possible. The ideal outcome, again legally enforced, is for a child with autism to look, think, and act typically enough to be able to function adequately in a general education classroom.

To achieve this goal, schools create individualized plans to remediate delays, fix problems, and teach social skills. Individualized plans are not designed to build on strengths, teach to different learning skills, or support self-esteem. Even academics may often come second.

What this meant to us was constant war. We argued for better academics and higher expectations, but were told that academics were the least of our worries. We wanted Tom to take ordinary field trips to zoos or museums, but his class went to the supermarket and McDonald's. Tom wanted to build dioramas and write stories, but between social skills groups and handwriting therapy, there simply wasn't time.

The breaking point came when, in fourth grade, he still hadn't learned multiplication. I asked, at a meeting, "How will he ever get through high school if he doesn't move forward with math?" The administrator looked at me quizzically and asked, "Why are you worried about that?"

The next year, we started homeschooling.

Initially, our goal was to engage our son in active learning based on his real interests and abilities. We were both working (for ourselves), but we were determined to make it work.

That first year (fifth grade) was a lot of fun. We had moved to Cape Cod, and we took advantage of our location and Tom's interests to create multidisciplinary unit studies. We went on a whale watch and studied humpbacks. We followed the old Cape Cod railroads and rode on a few lines. We explored ponds, went bird watching, and read the books Tom already loved through movies (it was the first time he'd been asked to read a novel or write a book report). The only therapeutic intervention we pursued was speech therapy, and the only connection Tom had to the school district was after school participation in the jazz band (he plays clarinet). We were determined that, by building on interests and abilities, we'd be able to include Tom in the wide world without the need for special supports or hours of therapy aimed only at making him more like everyone else.

Over time, we joined homeschool groups and signed up for homeschool gym at the Y. These were trickier, because of course they weren't "adaptive," and Tom sometimes fell behind, misunderstood, or simply couldn't do what he was asked. But we persevered, and enrolled him in a candlepin bowling league, a summer band camp, and a homeschool biography fair.

As we've progressed with homeschooling (it's now our third year), we've found that some things were easier and some were tougher than we had anticipated. We also learned that homeschooling a child with autism really does require the involvement of multiple people - and that finding those people takes research and tenacity. Math was very hard indeed, and we went to several tutors before finding the perfect match. Making "true friends" is very hard (though probably no harder than it would have been in school); and executive skills (planning, seeing the big picture, etc.) remain elusive.

To work on social and collaborative skills, we've signed Tom up for two days a week of small classes with a homeschooling mom/teacher, and he's connecting well with homeschoolers who range in age from younger to about his age. We've "caved" on the issue of therapy, and have signed him up for a social skills group to work on the basics of conversation, group dynamics, and body language.

While we are solidly behind homeschooling, our hope for Tom is that he will build the skills he needs to be included as a full member of a small school community. Our reasons for this are both practical and philosophical. On the practical side, we are finding it very hard to provide a high quality homeschool experience while also providing food, clothing and shelter for a family of four (including Tom's younger, public-schooled sister). On the philosophical side, we know that a child with autism really does need the experience of being part of group, and that the skills of true collaboration are very hard to teach in a one-on-one parent-child setting.

To chronicle her first year of homeschooling, Lisa created a blog, www.teachingtommy.blogspot.com, which includes photos and details of many of her family's activities. She's written articles about homeschooling and autism for her website, www.autism.about.com (a part of The New York Times Company's About.com site). She's also written a book for parents of children with autism, due out in May 2010, from Jessica Kingsley press. The book isn't about homeschooling per se: instead, its focus (and its name) is Get Out, Explore and Have Fun: Getting the Most Out of Community Activities with Your Child with Autism or Asperger Syndrome.

Please be in touch with Lisa if you have more thoughts, ideas or insights regarding homeschooling and kids on the autism spectrum!
Lisa Jo Rudy - www.lisarudy.com