The Greatest Gift

By Pavlina McMaster

We came to home education like many others, carrying scars from a school system that was eroding my child’s self-esteem, and our sanity. School, though short-lived, had been a time fraught with stress, anxiety, and the regression of everyone’s skills, not least of which were mine.

As an autistic adult, I had come to learn so many things that many neurotypical people take for granted – effective communication skills, the art of diplomacy, negotiating group situations and the art of Zen. These were gradually eroded as my child went crashing through the cracks of the school system, despite our very best efforts. This is not the story I’m going to tell you, however, because it isn’t mine to tell. I will say that school did not suit my eldest child, and leave it at that.

Everyone’s education story begins at conception, and some will say even before that. Ours was a joyful journey until we hit the school system, which I now view as a bump in the road that set us back significantly. It is now joyful once more, but it was a hard road coming back. I felt guilty for the longest time for inflicting school on my child, but just as he loves driving on the jarring, corrugated bit of dirt road near our house because it makes his voice go funny, I now see the positives in our jarring, corrugated school journey.

I don’t know that I would be the home educator I am today without it. Would I change it if I could? Yes, for my child’s sake, every time. But not for mine. While so many of my skills regressed as my anxiety and stress levels peaked, my advocacy skills were honed. I became some weird sort of yoga machine that relied on my forty-five minutes every morning at sunrise to get through the day, and I became fit and strong. My meditation expanded to include minutes in my days that were previously given to other things, and I learned the true value of sitting and being. These things were necessary for survival.

And I got to see first hand what happens when a child butts up against a rigid, inflexible system. I never want to be that for my child; for either of my children.

I run a group for almost 550 parents of autistic children. I hear so many stories, constantly, about children who are dragged into classrooms crying and resisting, parents who have to negotiate with children to go school, children who are learning to hate education and I wonder, why? Why are we doing this to children? How have we managed to convince parents that the only way their children will “get ahead” is to go to school? Parents have had their voice, their self-confidence and their belief in their intuition eroded by a society and a system telling us that we don’t know what is best for our kids, that the raising and educating of our children is best left to “experts”. We are often sent off with a pat on the head at best, or at worst gagged, scorned, lied to and ignored in the school system. Professionals tell parents that if they home educate, their child will meet a “bad end”, that they will end up antisocial, unemployable, and locked in their rooms all day. The reality is that 60% of autistic children do not finish high school.

I started running home education information nights last year for this very reason – to dispel the myths that are constantly perpetuated about home education, especially as they pertain to autistic children and adults. I believe so strongly in advocating for autistic children in school, and I do not know if I would have such strength in that conviction if we had not been there ourselves.

The reality of home education is that it has, over time, repaired the rifts that were beginning to show in our family. The fabric of our lives was starting to fray around the edges, and as I stood there, seemingly helpless, looking at it, I could see how the whole thing would unravel before me unless we made a change.

Home education has provided us with time and space to be ourselves, to be together, to be united in common ventures, to be in nature, to be excited and quiet and productive and lazy, and to just…. be.

It has given us the space to be autistic, without judgement, without need for conformity, without ridiculous, arbitrary goals that someone else has set and deems important. It has given all of us the opportunity to take our strengths and run with them. It has given us all deep, abiding friendship, community, caring, self-worth and appreciation for who we are and what we bring to the world.

Living and learning together is the greatest gift a parent can give a child, but it is not as great as the gift that the child gives the parent. As parents, we get to watch them discover, enquire, expand their confidence, grow their self-esteem and that innate sense that they are worthy, that their opinion counts. They give us purpose, a sense of self that is not just tied to ‘self’ but to ‘other’. It is a connection with other humans that is precious and rare. They give us personal growth and self-awareness. They show us ourselves, perfectly flawed human beings that we are. They give us the very best years of our lives, and what could be a greater gift than that?

Ten things I love about home educating autistic children (but there are more)

  1. They get to be their unique, quirky selves without fear of bullying or judgement.
  2. They are not told that their divergent thinking is wrong.
  3. Their sensory overload is dependent on factors under your (theirs and yours) control – if you need to make a strategic exit, you can, and you can tell when they are getting close to having had enough.
  4. They get the space, time and support to develop deep and meaningful friendships.
  5. They believe in their self-worth, and that they have meaningful things to contribute.
  6. They learn how to achieve downtime, how to decompress and to self-regulate their activity levels, their emotions and their interaction levels.
  7. They get to follow their passions, whatever they are and however often they change, all the way from babyhood to young adulthood, and beyond.
  8. They come to understand that there is nothing more important than relationships, and that to be truly content, we must follow our dreams.
  9. They learn that it is as much about the process as the end goal, and that even if we never get to the end goal, that is okay – what we have achieved is often even more relevant to our lives.
  10. They learn to embrace their mistakes, to repair them when needed, or seize them and run with them when they can. This teaches them problem-solving, flexibility and frustration tolerance, the cornerstones of resilience. The end result is often startling, amazing and always unique.I’m going to have to add one more:
  11.  The benefits to me are innumerable…getting to watch this process, spending time really getting to know these wonderful human beings that I have had a part in creating, eliminating the judgements of other people who tell me what my child’s sins for the day have been, giving myself the space to enjoy my children, having time to develop close and supportive family relationships, reducing anxiety levels for everyone in the family, helping my children acquire real and meaningful life skills… The list is long and extensive.

The choice to focus more on benefits for children than adults is deliberate. We chose to have them, and it is our responsibility to let them be the lead actors and directors in their lives. They need the freedom to be themselves and make their own choices, and while we definitely need to concern ourselves with our own self-care, we must give our children the opportunity to practice the same. Home education does that in spades.

Often, the need for “therapy” dissipates like so much smoke. We realise that our children were in therapy due to the pressure on them to conform, which magically evaporates when we home educate. This frees up our hearts, minds and time for more meaningful pursuits, and allows us to focus on our strengths rather than our deficits. That is, after all, the path to freedom.

From Otherways 152

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