By Heidi Ryan
It has often been argued that traditional or mainstream schooling is beneficial to autistic children due to the consistency and routine offered for those who do well with predictable routines. In fact, even specialist schools focus on the positives of conformity, meeting neuro- normative targets and ‘doing what everyone else is doing’. Success in school is viewed as meeting predictable milestones, measurable progress and not standing out from their peers.
However, what we are increasingly seeing is NOT success at school for autistic children. There are ever growing numbers of families removing their children from this environment due to the lack of support for ‘success’ at best, and more often, due to the damage done to the esteem and self-worth of these individuals. Bullying, harassment, unreasonable expectations, inability to adapt the learning environment, stress, sensory overload, trauma and overwhelm are all too real and frequent for autistic children and teens in school.
Many families choose home education (HE) out of desperation – a system that failed them leaves them without a real choice. Others make a conscious choice for better, individualised options for their child. There is some burden attached to such a choice, particularly in the face of professionals and therapists who also want to measure success against a ‘norm’. How will I be sure I’m doing enough? What if they don’t make progress? How can we access support?
I suggest a bigger question, one that drives the education journey, should be ‘How can I help my child learn their best way’. This is where HE is a great fit for Autism. Autistic brains work differently – that is fact, not judgement. When we embrace this, we can allow this to guide our learning, our daily life, and our children’s self concept and self development.
HE allows us to shift away from meeting neuro- normative standards, as they are not relevant to the autistic brain. Every person learns differently, on a different schedule, with different strengths and challenges. This is no different for autistic children where the variations may be more pronounced. When we stop comparing ‘progress’ to arbitrary standards we often see mighty progress in specific areas. When we truly accommodate individual needs, we can see thriving and authentic learning.
The environment for HE can be much more individualised, both physically and socially. If your child learns best when hidden under a blanket on their bed with headphones on at 7pm – great! We can accommodate that at home. If they learn best when the house is quiet, at a table with no
distractions and visual worksheets to complete in short bursts of 10 minutes
at a time – great! We can accommodate that at home. If they learn best through hands-on experiments or household tasks with modelling, not talking and lots of physical activity – great! We can accommodate that at home. The burden and pressure of ‘fitting in’ to a system that doesn’t work for them, their brains or their bodies can be lifted or greatly reduced by discovering their unique needs and working together with them. They no longer have to expend energy just to get through the day, they can be themselves and are supported to be successful as they are.
We are not trying to change who our children are, we are helping them to discover who they are. The social model of disability explains that a person’s impairments do not disable them, rather that the lack of accommodations and support in society is what creates the divide to disable them. When they are fully supported and able to ‘be’ in this world as their authentic selves without disadvantage, then their functional disability is reduced. It is this disadvantage that is evident in schools which cannot accommodate widely individual needs, and reducing such disadvantage is where HE is beneficial. That is not to say that HE will help your child be ‘less autistic’, that is not the goal – the goal is to be able to flourish in a learning environment that is individually suited to their needs. They are also benefiting from a better ‘teacher:student’ ratio, and often more flexibility of schedules. HE allows us the time and patience to re- start, re-evaluate and change how we learn as often as we need. There is no ‘one size fits all’.
I understand that educating autistic children brings its own certain set of challenges, and these are very real and require different approaches, whether at home or at school.
Many neurodivergent families find great ‘fit’ and kinship within the HE community, and I urge you to find those that fit with you. There are lots of families out there on similar paths to yours. There are autism specific HE groups both online and in person. Home educators are a welcoming bunch! They are far more embracing of individual differences and uniqueness than mainstream education, so don’t ever feel alone – whether you’re new to this or have been here a while, don’t be afraid to reach out and find your own community.
In summary – letting go of the ‘norms’ and embracing unique personalities and learning styles creates a great fit for Autism and HE.
Otherways 169 (August 2021)