“Homeschooling? Really? We Didn’t Think We Could Do It, But…”
What if liberating our child to follow her natural interests and curiosities could lead to profound learning? What if independent learning could unlock greatness (and happiness)? Here’s what happened when we took an unconventional approach to educating our daughter with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exists on a continuum. Each person impacted by ASD experiences a unique manifestation of the disorder. My daughter, now 10, is one of a kind; her challenges and strengths are unique, and we’ve found that supporting (not fighting) them is the most direct path to happiness.
Admittedly, my partner and I were slow to see the signs. Our daughter, Parker, is our oldest child, so we had no benchmarks for neurotypical behavior in babies. We didn’t pay much attention then to what, looking back now, was clearly an unusual obsession with certain toys. Her intense interest in particular items — baby jumper seats kept her occupied her for hours at a time — and her extreme frustration when, under certain conditions, things didn’t go her way, didn’t raise red flags for either of us.
It wasn’t until I volunteered with an organization devoted to educating public school teachers on working with autistic kids that I started to see Parker’s idiosyncrasies as signs of autistic behavior. When Parker was four years old, we ran the tests and received confirmation that she was on the spectrum.
With the ASD diagnosis in hand, we began to earnestly pursue and create conditions under which Parker could thrive. We bought toys to feed her interest and to soothe her worries. As a family, we experimented with different games and toys — gauging Parker’s reaction and gleaning insight into her world in fascinating ways. We quickly discovered a keen interest in animals — dogs in particular — and a deep need to care for them. A lovely discovery.
Considering the Homeschool Option
When Parker turned five, our thoughts turned to finding a good school fit. For all the usual reasons — affordability and socialization, chief among them — public school was the first option we considered. We researched a few private schools, thinking smaller class sizes might provide a better environment for Parker, but none of the options seemed optimal on every level. Then my partner threw out the idea of homeschooling.
Initially, I objected. Why would I elect to keep my child isolated in the house?! Doesn’t she have every right to live her life, make friends, and have access to everything her neurotypical classmates do? My concerns prompted me to ask more questions. I sought out educators, colleagues, and friends. Online, I researched the topic of educational recommendations for children with autism.
What I learned left me utterly disappointed. Both public and private schools, in my opinion, lacked the resources and staff to meet the needs of and identify the natural talents of a child who responded best to one-on-one attention. Traditional classrooms don’t offer frequent breaks and require a lot of listening and sitting still, which would be challenging for her. I worried the unfamiliar noises (school bells, scoreboard buzzers, and public announcement systems) and bright, institutional lighting might make her anxious.
The concern I wrestled with the most was the fear that Parker would be bullied due to her differences — and that those in charge wouldn’t effectively deal with the cruelty.
Can Learning at Home be Effective?
For all of these reasons, we decided to take the plunge and experiment with homeschooling — a choice we were lucky to make given our family income. We felt confident that we could provide an environment that worked for Parker and were inspired by the notion that learning is something all children do naturally — just as fish learn to swim.
We wanted learning to flow naturally from her passions and curiosities. Our plan was to carefully observe Parker and let her interests lead the way. When she asked questions, we answered them. We found creative ways to tailor the Louisiana state’s school curriculum to Parker’s learning style.
Our approach opened up a world of opportunities for Parker. Besides her passion for animals, we discovered that she loves music and playing the guitar. My partner had played guitar growing up, so she showed Parker how to hold the instrument properly and helped her learn a few basic chords. She now has a professional guitar teacher.
To support her love of animals, we found an animal shelter and hospital that we visited every day so Parker could play with and care for her furry friends. Staff at both venues noticed the care and attention Parker gave the animals and were impressed with her knowledge. Our daughter’s genuine interest in the topic led her to read veterinary books in the evenings and offer solutions for animal health problems.
When Parker became curious about learning to swim, we started swimming lessons. The first few experiences didn’t go well — we nearly changed our minds — but a patient instructor saw potential and asked us to give her a bit more time to work with Parker. About a month later, the instructor told us Parker was an exceptional swimmer. The ability and determination he saw in Parker told him she could swim competitively in the future if she wanted.
Overtime, Parker’s interests have blossomed and we’ve continued introducing her to more opportunities. Through online resources (search “unschooling”) and other forms of networking we’ve found ways for her to socialize with other autistic children, which has also been beneficial. Our homeschool experiment has lasted five years now and we’ve never looked back. The results have been and continue to be extraordinary in every way.
Growing and Thriving with ASD
Parker is happy, confident, and proud of her achievements. Because she is more sure of herself, her social skills have also improved significantly. In the last few years, Parker has gone from being shy and withdrawn to a child who captivates the hearts of everyone she meets.
Yes, working with a child with autism has its challenges and homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but we’ve found that taking the time to understand our child — to really know who she is and identify her strengths — has been a winning formula and instrumental in helping her find her way.