This post is in response to Aspieside’s post about her decision to homeschool her son. I truly admire her courage and her son’s bravery in facing school, and hope that this proves to be a better solution for them. This is a rather long post that is mostly a brain dump, but I think there’s a lot of valuable information buried within it. As I said in my comment on her blog, I’m conflicted about homeschooling as it would’ve applied to my life (which is really all I can talk about), but it’s important and I do have some important things to say.
When I was growing up, especially in elementary school, I always wanted to be homeschooled. I went through the local public school system where there were no supports and although many teachers raised red flags about my disabilities, I didn’t have a label for much of the time I was there.
School is a perfect storm for some people on the spectrum: lots of kids and social expectations, classwork that is so simple and boring that it’s borderline insulting, and sensory overload if I ever saw it.
My mother refused me anything that might make me look “different” from the other kids. She even went so far once as to remove me from a class because the teacher suggested I might have a learning disability (it was a very high level math class, and we were doing word problems. I was having trouble caring about the trains moving in various directions in Siberia. I could solve them no problem, but I just didn’t care. My literal mind wouldn’t hold for such nonsense.)
In elementary school, I was so bored that in 2nd grade, I finished every single math problem the school had up through 6th grade. I read The Lord of the Rings and started Anne McCaffrey (and oh how much I missed when I was 7-8). I used to move my desk out into the hall, because the kids would take my pencil or write on my worksheets or worse, try to copy them. Sometimes my teacher let me move my desk into the hallway. Maybe it’s because she didn’t notice, because she was furious when she caught me, but she didn’t catch me the first couple of times. After that I stopped moving my desk and just moved myself. My closest friend, my “mother hen” was a year older than me and a grade up (and we’re still friends today). My mother refused to move me up to her grade because I “lacked social maturity”. Even though I was testing in all subjects at least 2 grade levels up, sometimes 4 or 5.
I rarely learned from the teacher or in the classroom setting. Most of what I knew and retained came from books that I devoured. I learned math by working ahead in the books they gave us and asking for other problems from my dad. I learned to read before I got to school. I learned social studies in the classroom, because I wasn’t aware of it on my own. And I learned about my special interest (science) by asking my (very smart, highly likely undiagnosed Aspie father) question after question, and reading books like “The Way Things Work” and encyclopedias. I checked out every book I could find from the library on certain subjects and then absorbed them. The learning wasn’t taking place in school, so why should I have to be there?
I used to get bullied on the playground, the other kids hit me or took away my book almost every day (when the playground aids or the teachers didn’t take away my book first), and I didn’t do anything back. I would just sit or stand there. They would torment me in the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned, or in the hallway, or the cafeteria, and I never fought back. What they didn’t realize was that I was in sensory overload, and trained not to tantrum, scream or lash out, so instead, I would shut down. My mind would be so paralyzed with the trained “just ignore them” running through it, alongside with trying to process whatever it was they were doing to me, that usually it was all I could do to continue walking or try to stay seated. I couldn’t have run or fought back if I’d tried.
School was the place where I went for 6 or 7 hours every weekday to be tortured by bullies, bored by classwork, and assaulted by fluorescent lights and noises. Plus quite often my mother made me wear clothes that I couldn’t function in because she wanted me to show “respect” for the teacher and the learning by dressing nicely.
I used to beg and beg and beg my mother to homeschool me, but she never would, citing that I had to learn to get along with my peers and homeschool wouldn’t do that. To her, I think that school was training for being more neurotypical and to “fit in” with all the things she valued so much. She felt that if I didn’t go to school, I would turn out like my father, a social misfit programming computers in our basement all day long. The internet wasn’t nearly as big or important when I was growing up. But I was also put in after-school activities with other kids. Kids where at least I had the common ground of the activity. That is where most of my social learning came from anyway.
I used to make day schedules in my notebooks, and present them to my mother as an argument to homeschool me. I don’t have those notebooks anymore, but in them, I outlined what subjects would be covered and when. Sometimes I even went so far as to explain exactly how I would learn things and what homework, etc. would be. I like routine. All I wanted was to learn. I have no idea if I would’ve turned out how I did academically if I’d been homeschooled, but I certainly know I probably would’ve been a much happier kid, even if it DID mean spending all day every day with my mother.
When I was really young, the internet wasn’t really a big deal yet. My dad worked in computers, so we had a windows PC in the home, but I wasn’t allowed any time on it except heavily supervised to play those silly computer games designed to teach you how to do simple math. There was no such thing as an “online academy” for anything below high school level, and those that did exist were pretty ridiculous. I had already outstripped my mother’s mathematical abilities, though my father was still far ahead of me, so I think that’s part of why my mother refused me, but the social aspect is what she always cited. That, and lack of structure wouldn’t prepare me for later life and college. I almost completely disagree. College is all about being able to self-start, get yourself to your classes, and do your own work. There’s no one nagging you to do your homework or get up on time. Online schools/academies require you to work for yourself, for learning’s sake. And truly, that is the most important lesson I can think of – learn to teach yourself. Learn how to learn.
So bottom line? Yeah, school was awful. I wish I could’ve been homeschooled, or maybe partially homeschooled. Especially when I was younger, since as I got older, and began moving around classrooms, and in classes with tailored levels, school wasn’t as bad. But elementary school I could’ve done without. My friends were still a year older than me in high school, but for the 3 years we were in the same school, and I had someone to sit with at the edge of the cafeteria during lunch. My senior year, when I was on my own, was TERRIBLE, and I can absolutely understand why high school is a time many people want to be homeschooled. I actually got really sick my senior year of HS, and we still don’t have a cause, but it’s highly likely that part of it was due to stress of the school situation (having my mentor leave the school was not helpful either). I did most of my learning on my own during that period and it was great – I actually enjoyed school, because I was doing it from home at my own (much faster) pace. I’m lucky that my special interest sustained me through the K-12 years and got me to college. I’m an academic, it’s what fits for me.
But at any rate, I think homeschooling, if you are prepared for it, is probably the best option one can give to a self-directed Aspie/Autie who is finding regular school intolerable. For some of us, it’s just not a learning environment. I would’ve benefited greatly from being homeschooled, I think, especially when I was younger. In terms of the “how”, structure to the day is important – a carved out schedule for doing various subjects. And maybe if you’re doing online school, going to the library and sitting in a study room during the school day (or maybe a specific room in the house if you have that option), instead of sitting at the kitchen table or the bedroom may be beneficial to help keep a structure and routine. Plus some sort of “after-school” activity that you can learn to interact with other people through. Often, as I mentioned earlier, those are better for learning to make friends than school is, because you have a built-in common ground. Maybe you’re all learning to draw. Maybe you’re all learning to do flips. Either way, you have something to talk about. (I learned the hard way that “school” is not common ground for discussion with your schoolmates: learning for learning’s sake is not approved of by the general population, and often they scorn and bully you worse if you try to discuss school, even though it is what you have in common.) I got the most human interaction from doing gymnastics. My teammates were all really nice and we all worked together and supported each other.
The internet nowadays has a TON of really great information on it. In addition to accredited online schools, there’s amazing free sites like Khan Academy, (http://www.khanacademy.org/) which is one of the best things I’ve ever seen or used on the internet, and is so versatile and informative for people of all levels and interests, as well as things like iTunes U and MIT’s Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm) (and other universities are releasing some of their course materials for free as well) for when you’re a little older or more advanced.
So is homeschooling always the option for your Autistic child? Of course not, but it’s definitely AN option, and one that probably would have made a lot of difference in my life.**
**I’m lucky, as I have said so many times before, that my single-minded passion for my specific field of science carried me through school, and my determination has helped me to go into it for my career. If I hadn’t had that, there’s no doubt that I would’ve dropped out or worse. But no one should have to endure the amount of bullying that a lot of us endured through school. The bullying did not make me “stronger”. It didn’t teach me to self-advocate, to speak up or fight back. It didn’t teach me “the ways of the world”. It taught me to suffer in silence, because that was all that I was good for, and I deserved every taunt, every blow, every humiliation, every tease, because I was less of a person. And it taught me that no one cared about me enough to step in and help solve the problem. It taught me that I was worthless. And that is NOT a lesson anyone should have. Ever.
It took a very special teacher (one who wasn’t even a classroom teacher for me) to teach me that I did have value, and could offer things to the world. She taught me that it was OK to be who I was, and she celebrated me for my interests, my passions, and my determination. For most people, that “very special teacher” who believes in them, encourages them, and celebrates them is a parent. I applaud those parents and wish there were more of them. That wasn’t the case for me. My mother used to take away my books and tell me I was a prude and I needed to party more. She would punish me for studying on my own. I was lucky, because there were 4 teachers throughout my high school career who did step in, who did look out for me, and take care of me. There were people who showed me that I mattered. If I had been homeschooled through high school, I wouldn’t have encountered those teachers, and I might’ve spent the rest of my life thinking that I was worthless because of my mother, as well as my peers. But it’s different for every person and every family. I think that learning from multiple teachers is invaluable, because it teaches us to listen to perspectives. Learning from people other than your own parents is important as well, but it doesn’t have to be in a traditional school environment to be educational.