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The Autism Life.com presents an interview with Anne, a homeschooling parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum. Anne is one of the contributing authors to the book Home Educating our Autistic Spectrum Children edited by Terri Dowty and Kitt Cowlishaw published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Anne is also one of the moderators for the Yahoo! Group, As You Like It, that deals with homeschooling a child with High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
Alicia: Tell us a little about your family Anne.
Anne: Our family consists of myself, my husband and our son. Our son is now 17, and my husband and I are in our early 50s. We live in the suburbs of a large city into which my husband commutes to work four days a week....the other weekday he works from home as his employers allow him to telecommute to enable him to help with our son because of his special needs.
Alicia: How did you know your son had AS?
Anne: We knew there was something very different about our son from when he was just a few weeks old. He was virtually constantly breastfeeding, sleeping little, often very distressed, wanting to be held all the time, and highly fearful. He was nothing like the other babies in my parenting support group, but we put this down to a difficult birth (emergency caesarean as my pelvis is too small but they didn’t know that till my son was stuck and in distress). When he was only 11 weeks old he also started to become extremely distressed every time anyone came near him, apart from us that is. We thought he must be amazingly advanced getting ‘stranger anxiety’ at 11 weeks old instead of the normal 9 months, but it transpired that it wasn’t that at all. He also never did the usual babbling and, in fact, failed his hearing checks, but I knew he could hear so no one was concerned. He also had very poor eye contact and, later as a toddler, never did the kind of pointing out of things that other toddlers do. He was also not interested in things like other toddlers and never played with toys. And he was highly sensitive to sound and other sensory things in the environment. In addition, as a young child he became very hyperactive, always moving, never keeping still with lots of what we now know are stereotypical movements; and his fear of others continued, especially fear of other children, he'd scream if any came near him. He also had problems with toilet training and food issues, extremely rigid and limited in his diet. Still, although we were desperately worried about him we continued to think his problems were due to his difficult birth. Then when he was around 6 years old we came in contact with a family with a profoundly autistic boy and the mother suggested that our son’s problems were actually due to Asperger’s. So we began to research it and it all made complete sense. Later, a formal diagnosis confirmed this.
Alicia: Had you always planned on homeschooling him or was it only after he was diagnosed?
Anne: We actually decided to do homeschooling when my son was still a baby. When he was just a few weeks old and breastfeeding so very much I had thought I was doing something wrong and went to see a breastfeeding counselor. At her house I met her children who, to my great surprise, were doing homeschooling. I had never heard of homeschooling before and didn’t even know it was legal! These homeschooled children seemed so much more mature and sociable than regular schooled children, they were so very nice and happy and so interested in life and learning that I was immediately intrigued by the idea of homeschooling and determined to find out more. I joined a homeschooling organization and tried to meet other families...difficult because of my son’s fear of other people, but I managed to meet a few other families and they impressed me equally. I also read lots of books about homeschooling. The idea that children could learn by following their own interests, by education being set around the child’s needs instead of in a rigid, school system seemed very attractive. And so by the time our son was nine months old we had made the decision to homeschool him. The fact that my son has AS made our decision very fortuitous because his unique way of learning was helped by homeschooling more than we could ever have known when we made our decision to do it.
Alicia: How has homeschooling changed from when your son was young all the way through today?
Anne: The principle behind it has not really changed at all, that is, that we encourage him in his interests and he learns that way. My actual involvement in what he does has changed though. When he was younger I was involved with him virtually all the time, but now he’s an older teenager, I am less so.
Alicia: What is the hardest thing about homeschooling a child?
Anne: I don’t think it is particularly hard at all per se. In many ways it’s harder to send your child to school. Yes, it is an awesome responsibility...I mean if your child fails in school you can just blame the school, but if your child fails in homeschooling the whole world will blame you! On the other hand, if you are a responsible parent, then sending your child into an environment where they are unhappy or will fail is not very responsible either even though you can blame the school!
Alicia: What’s the hardest thing about homeschooling a child with AS?
Anne: For me, it's the level of intensity and the social isolation. If my son had gone to school I would have got breaks during the day to recharge myself, but doing homeschooling there is none of that. If my son had felt comfortable being with someone else I might have got a break, but it wasn’t like that with him. He needed to be with me all the time, even to the extent of following me to the toilet till he was about 8 years old and not being able to sleep on his own till he was 14 years. Also his anxieties and other difficulties associated with his AS are a big strain, life gets very intense and tiring with him, lots of repetitive questions and behaviors. However, knowing as I do the experiences of schooled children with AS, although their parents get a break during school time when they can do other things, there is a rebound the rest of the time and life can be much more difficult for the child.
Alicia: What is the best / easiest thing about homeschooling a child?
Anne: It can be tremendously enjoyable and fun doing so much with your child! And you learn so much yourself with your child along the way. I had a good education when I was at school, but I have learned so much more from homeschooling my son!
Alicia: What’s the best / easiest thing about homeschooling a child with AS?
Anne: For me, knowing how much more difficult life would be for my son if he had gone to school makes homeschooling him seem the best. For me, it would be difficult to send him to school—I’m 100 % sure he would have more sensory problems and more social problems if he had gone to school—the stressful environment would have made him turn into himself and his own autistic world much more and that would have made life more difficult for both him and us.
Alicia: What is your son’s learning style and how has that changed your homeschool plans?
Anne: When I first learned about homeschooling, I had seen and read about NT children, and the way they learn is through following their natural curiosity. NT children always seem curious and enthusiastic about everything around them and it is that, plus their own wide ranging interests which fuels their learning. But my son has never been a curious person. He never went through the ‘why’ stage when he was little. Nor even later. If I got something new or we went somewhere new he wouldn’t show any interest, rather he would be highly anxious or indifferent.
And his own interests are extremely limited, albeit highly focused, something I see as a gift though. So I had to be much more proactive in helping him than I had imagined initially. I did this mainly by being very involved with him in his interests because then I could help him learn more through them, generally by our conversation but also by seeing how to give him more of the same and a bit different so that he could expand on his interests. As well as involving myself completely with his interests I made sure he had an interesting environment where there was a chance that new interests could develop. Our house has on its walls and shelves a wealth of resources, books, visual aids, and kits. My son usually showed absolutely no interest in any of this so I found I had to use these myself, and as long as I was enthusiastic about something myself there was a chance that he might come over and look at what I was doing and learn something from it, but I had to be prepared for him to totally ignore what I was doing...something that often happened.
On the other hand, some things he took to years later, for example a large relief map attached to a wall along our stairs which I put there many years ago and mostly ignored by him is now looked at almost daily! So I have found it best to have lots of things available for him since we never know when they may come in use. My son needs structure in his life, all ASD kids especially need structure because they need predictability in their lives. Structure for my son is based on both the stability of his environment and the behavior of the people in it - I and my husband have to try and be calm :-) And it is also based on how his day is organised, like getting up times, washing times, meal times, that kind of thing; so at one point when he was younger he and I made personalized flow charts of it all using a computer program that enabled us to make and print off charts to pin up on the wall :-) As well as that it is important that he knows exactly what we are doing and when, so we have several large calendars around the house on which we write these things, like when friends are coming over or when we are going somewhere.
Alicia: How have you picked up on some of your son’s more subtle strengths and weaknesses and how did you encourage the strengths and work on the weak spots?
Anne: This is the big question.....or rather answer! Firstly, I firmly believe that children learn best when they are doing what interests them—all children not just ASD ones. Intrinsic motivation is the key, and since autistic children are able to focus so *extremely* well on what interests them, something I consider a real gift, it makes perfect sense to me to actively encourage them to follow their interests and so learn from them...no matter what those interests are I would add. This not only has the result that they learn things through their interests but it helps build their self esteem because by encouraging their interests you are actually telling them that what they are interested in has value...and that therefore you value the child by trusting and encouraging them to follow their judgment in doing what they enjoy. This has meant for me being actively and highly involved with my son's interests....I think of us as feeding his interests to the fullest so that he gets as much enjoyment and therefore learning from them as possible.
Strengths and weaknesses are easily seen this way. A few examples of the kind of things we did and do might help illustrate: From about the age of 11 months my son wanted me to read to him all the time, the same books over and over. But he didn’t want me to talk about the books with him or show him the pictures, he just wanted me to read the words, so this is what I would do for hours each day. This gave him great pleasure. Then when he was about 4 years old we discovered that he could read completely fluently, not just well but as well as an adult reader ! He had obviously been ‘learning’ how to read when I was reading to him and this very much reinforced for me the theory that children learn when they are doing what interests them.
A by-product of my son’s fluent reading at this age was that his spelling and grammar were near perfect too without ever having had to learn one single rule of it! Regardless, I still continued to read to him long after he had learned himself for many years because that’s how he wanted it, whether that was because of his fear of the unknown or whatever, reading to him became a social and educational thing as we both could then talk about the books. I could see where he had problems with comprehension and try and help him understand without damaging his self esteem.
It was also just before my son's fourth birthday that we got our first computer. That day we got it and installed our first program, a ‘Living’ book with hot spots he could click on, we could see that it had a major impact on him. His self confidence visibly soared. He played with that program on the computer all day without a break...it was something which he could control and make do spectacular things with in a way that was quite unlike anything else. This is how it has remained.
The computer is a whole world where my son is in control and where he can do things which will have predictable results. This helps him enormously because unpredictability is something he finds very hard to cope with. As well as being very educational, it has also become a creative tool for him and, at the same time, helped build bonds between us as we talk about what he does.....I'd sit for hours each day with him at the computer when he was younger. Because we could see how positive my son's reaction to computers was, we invested in a lot of software over the years...this, plus books, was the basis of his education.
We found that there was some very innovative software available, at least there was when my son was younger. There was also a lot of useless stuff....glorified workbooks which my son very quickly rejected. Just because something is presented on a computer screen doesn't make it good! The software has to use the computer's unique environment and potential. Again a few examples of some of the software my son liked and how he used it and benefited all round from it might help illustrate this, and how I used his strengths and helped him with his weaknesses with it: At about 5 years old my son enjoyed using ‘Sim Life’, seeing how the animals evolved and competed with each other in the different environments he created, and we talked about geography and evolution. Later we when we found that he could design his own little icons he enjoyed doing that and seeing his little icons running round the 'worlds' eating each other, dying and evolving....good for his self esteem as they were his creations. We managed to tie it in with our cat, making an icon of her and seeing how her species evolved. Also we tied it in with the Magic School Bus books and software as we made 'schoolbus' and Miss Frizzle icons !
A big interest in one Sim program meant that we could introduce other and different ones, one by one over a period of years, we built on the first one but introduced more diverse concepts and learning. So my son went on to: 'Sim Earth', 'Sim Ant', 'Sim Town' 'Sim Park', right up to 'The Sims' by the time he was 11 or so (this was excellent for experimenting and discussion of social situations by the way). There was also 'Sim City' and other similar simulated world type programs such as 'Creatures' which stimulated a lot of cross curricula learning. We discovered 'Professor Tim and his Incredible Machines' when my son was 6, and with this program he really enjoyed making zany machines with the pieces given in the program and seeing what happened when they worked or didn't work. He never followed any of the preset stuff. He always wanted to do things his own way and because the program let him (the sign of a good program) he enjoyed it and learned from it. He learned not only some physics but also that *he* had the power to make things happen on the screen and happen quickly so that he didn't have to wait long for the results. It was good for self esteem and confidence.
My son played for hours each day for months with Professor Tim. 'Widget Workshop' was another similar program we got which took this all one step further by allowing my son to turn the computer into a sensor to the outside world beyond the computer screen. 'Hyperstudio' was another program we used a lot. With it, my son and I could design our own multimedia presentations or little games using buttons rather than computer code which my son has always found too difficult to understand. When he was 10, my son easily made a kind of 'Myst' game with it where the player had to click on hot spots to take them through a series of caves where dangerous animals awaited. He downloaded pictures of prehistoric animals (another interest) and recorded sounds he made and incorporated them into the game. This allowed him to be very creative and was so good for his self esteem.
It was also good for his self esteem when showing it to other people too. On one occasion I had a friend visit and my son was hiding as he fears new people. I asked him if I could show my friend the "computer game" he had made and he immediately said he would do so if she didn't talk to him, and within a short time he was much more at ease, talking to her and letting her talk to him :-) 'Hollywood High' is another excellent program my son has used since he was 8, and still uses from time to time! With this program one types things into the computer for 'actors' to say which the computer reads back with different voices for the different 'actors' and minimal action on screen.
This program was very good at helping my son learn to write because he had huge difficulties with that. He does not have the imaginative skills to make up stories, but with this program, once he found that the actors said what he typed, he started to type in nonsense. And the computer being completely obedient and logical, was easily able to read the nonsense! My son found this an absolute hoot and that encouraged him to write more and more. And to write words that made sense too in the end (although he still loves 'nonsense' words!). We were able to develop on this further when he went on to write similar little film scripts on a small portable word processor which we bought for him in addition to the computer to help him with handwriting as he has an element of dyspraxia.
We further encouraged him in his creative writing by buying a digital video camera so we could film the scripts and then my son loaded the little films we made into the computer where he edited them, added sound effects, special effects and titles. This was all very creative and good for self-esteem, especially when we show friends and relatives the finished product. Another thing to note is that the coordination difficulties many children, like my son, with AS have. Difficulties with handwriting can be overcome by them being able to type on the computer and therefore free up their minds to concentrate on what they want to say rather than on how to form the letters which is completely frustrating for those with this kind of difficulty. The little word processor we bought for my son was especially beneficial as he could separate the writing he did from the games he played on the computer—he always finds it easier if things are clearly delineated. Also the word processor was much more portable than even a laptop—it is the kind often given to children with dyspraxia or other coordiantion difficulties.
My son also now plays conventional action/fighting games on the computer, but these are just as useful for his learning. When he was younger and first got into them, around the age of 9, I’d sit with him at the computer and we’d talk about what he was doing, and where the games were set which would bring in geography or history, and game design, and social skills, lots of cross curricula things, all the time in a casual conversational way, never explicitly teaching but learning things all the time. These kinds of games were also very good for building a social bridge for my son when we got together with our friends. He couldn’t enjoy playing like his NT friends but they would do things together on the computer. Currently he loves 'Rome Total War' and from his playing of that and from reading books about the Romans which we bought him which he read because the game stimulated an interest in Roman history, he has accumulated quite a knowledge of things Roman. Always on his own terms—he won't watch TV programs about the Romans, but he'll read books if he thinks they tie in with the computer program.
Another important point about those action fighting games is that they help my son develop thinking and strategy skills. He has a very hard time planning things in real life, it’s too abstract—it’s an imaginative skill that he and other AS children lack. But having to do so to win a battle in a computer game is helping him develop those planning and thinking skills which will help him in real life too.
Math is another thing my son has weaknesses with, but we found that bringing it into real life within his interests has helped. For example, at one time he used to love measuring things, so I obtained many different measuring tools and rules for him and math just came into the measuring he did, all without him knowing. Another big interest for a long time was dinosaurs, and talking to him about their various lengths I could ask him how much longer is a brontosaurus than a T-rex and he’d immediately be able to tell me. However, put a sum on a piece of paper, such as 30 - 22 and he would have found that hard. It didn’t matter that he was doing calculations in our conversation, he was still doing them. Schools only have to have children doing math problems on paper because that’s the only way teachers can keep track of a child’s progress, but when you are doing homeschooling you can know from your conversation with your child how they are doing.
In addition though, I did obtain lots of attractive manipulatives and mathematical aids for my son but he gained very little from them unfortunately. As an aside, my son learned his times tables in a matter of hours when he was 5 from a song tape we played in the car as we were driving somewhere. He didn’t understand the concept of multiplication at the time but the fact that he learned the tables as a song without any understanding was a very useful skill for him. Going out to educational places such as museums or the zoo was something that was difficult for my son because he finds going out stressful with the unpredictability and social factors, but we were able to pick and choose good times for him so that the experiences were always very positive for him. Any bad experience would have very long lasting negative effects—years long I mean—so it was important that things went well. Doing homeschooling you can find quiet times to go places or even simply abandon a trip because it is not going well.
Alicia: How do you handle the lack of social exposure that a school experience might provide your son?
Anne: Going back to the social bond that the computer helped build for my son with other children, brings in the social aspect of homeschooling. For NT children homeschooling brings them in contact with much more of the ‘real’ world than does school. Sitting in a classroom with 30 or so age related peers is not real life! Mixing with lots of different age groups in different social settings is, so generally homeschooled children are so much more mature socially. For my AS son, unfortunately, it could not work out like that. He finds being with other people very stressful so we found it best to get to know a few other homeschooling families on a one to one basis each and have them over, or go to their homes, individually.
At first my son just sat with me, not joining in, but after many visits he did, and this way, over the years, he built up friendships with the children from three different families. Being homeschooled themselves these children were very accepting of difference and not under any peer pressure as schooled children unfortunately are. Being there all the time I was able to see where my son had social difficulties and was able to intervene or guide him when necessary. This was also a good time for me socially as I got much needed friendship from the other mothers. Unfortunately, now that my son is an older teenager these friends have all moved on, the difference between him and them is too great, but the fact that he had such positive social experiences for so many years will have been a good thing for him.
I should also mention learning life skills as part of our homeschooling such as cooking and other daily living things. It's so easy to do with homeschooling and again learning can be brought into it in more ways than is obvious at first glance. For example, our son's autism support person finds it's good to interact with him while cooking something together. But also math, chemistry, hygiene, nutrition, all sorts of things are learned when doing something like cooking, even to the extent that it has helped expand my son's limited repertoire of foods. Shopping and handling money also come into this which is a problem area for my son but a life skill which he will need.
Other problem areas in life, such as transitioning from one thing to another I find I can help my son with because I have become acutely sensitive to his needs; that does not mean to say things like that are easy, but we can engineer his life and environment to make it easier for him to manage himself, after all, independence as far as possible is the goal. Difficulties and frustrations do not help him, too hard challenges are not something he can benefit from, so I am aware of when something is too much and can adjust things accordingly. His sensory environment can be engineered so that it is optimal for him so that he is not under undue stress and can learn to relax...something which we are constantly working on helping him with.
Alicia: What kind of curriculum do you use or what kind of homeschooling style do you have?
Anne: It’s difficult to say ‘what’ it is because our homeschooling is very much a lifestyle rather than a ‘system’. It’s not separate from our everyday living. Unschooling, or child led, interest based learning is the nearest I could name it but I don’t like giving it a label—it is the particular way my son spends his time and learns, and learns everything, not just academia.
Alicia: Based on your experience what type of approach fits a child on the spectrum best?
Anne: I don’t think there is one best fit for a child on the spectrum (or indeed any child). I think it’s what is best for the particular child that is the only important thing. This may mean trying different approaches to learning. We tried a more structured approach at one point in time with my son because we were concerned about his level of math and handwriting. We tried to do a little of each for a short period of time each day. It was a complete disaster for him. Because he had no interest in what we were trying to make him learn he couldn’t concentrate and therefore couldn’t learn. It is the flip side of his amazing ability to concentrate and focus on what interests him. He was soon exhibiting what in school would lead to a diagnosis of ADHD—he couldn’t concentrate, he got angry with himself and with me, his self esteem fell as he couldn’t do the work, and he simply didn’t learn anything.
Alicia: What are some of the biggest pitfalls to homeschooling or some mistakes people who are new to homeschooling make?
Anne: I think setting out with a pre-determined plan of what a child is going to do is the biggest single mistake new people make.
Alicia: How do you avoid that as a new homeschooler?
Anne: By doing homeschooling you have an opportunity to see how your own child learns best, so going into homeschooling with an open mind, being prepared to learn how your child learns, and being prepared to change, is the key to avoiding it going wrong.
Alicia: What kinds of support have you had in being a homeschooler?
Anne: I got some support from other families doing homeschooling. They did not have children with special needs, just NT children, but I was lucky enough to find them fairly understanding, though I'm sure I would have found it easier to know people homeschooling ASD children. I have a friend with an autistic son, not homeschooling, but she was still very supportive of our doing it and very understanding. And our son's autism specialist is very supportive of our homeschooling as she can see how it is benefiting him.
Alicia: Do you find more solace in online groups?
Anne: Absolutely! The internet has been a lifeline for me. The internet with email and support groups and forums didn’t really come into its own until around 1998 when my son was already 9 years old, before then I was much more isolated.
Alicia: Do you belong to a local homeschool group?
Anne: No because my son does not benefit from homeschooling groups. Groups are too much of a sensory and social overload for him. But I belong to a national homeschooling organization and it was through their contact list that I was able to find other homeschooling families who lived near enough us that I was able to contact them and meet up and eventually make friends with.
Alicia: Any parting words for a family who is considering homeschooling and has a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Anne: Yes! Read any autobiography of any ASD adult and you’ll discover that the biggest stress for them, the thing with the biggest negative impact on them in their lives, were their school years. Then consider homeschooling :-) Also, I have a list of books I would recommend for anyone considering homeschooling or interested in learning more about how children learn. Although I would stress that some of these do not necessarily focus on the special needs child, and some of these books provide a much more general take on all of the above. I would recommend the following: John Holts books, How Children Learn, How Children Fail, and Teach Your Own. The Unschooling Handbook: How to use the world as your child’s classroom by Mary Griffith. One to One: A practical guide to learning at home by Gareth Lewis. Free Range Education: How Home Education Works by Terri Dowty. Autistic Spectrum Disorders: An Introductory Handbook for Practitioners by Rita Jordan. Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Explaining the Enigma by Uta Frith. Autism: An Introduction to Psychological Theory by Frances Happe. Through the Eyes of Aliens by Jasmine O’Neill. Asperger Syndrome and Psychotherapy: Understanding Asperger Perspectives by Paula Jacobsen. The Child With Special Needs: Encouraging Intellectual and Emotional Growth by Stanley Greenspan. The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz.
We here at The Autism Life.com would like to express our deepest thanks to Anne for taking the time to do an interview with us. She is a wealth of information about homeschooling and developing a child’s strengths and talents through homeschooling or otherwise. Please visit Anne’s Yahoo! Group at As You Like It or check out the book, Home Educating Our Autistic Spectrum Children, to find out more about Autism Spectrum Disorders in children and homeschooling.