Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Yes, you *can* homeschool your autistic child.

See how I worded that all clever-like, so the search engines could find it? This is a very long post. I'm sorry about that. I thought of breaking it up, but just decided it would be easier for those searching for information to find it all here. There are links to our journey of diagnosing Jack in the side bar. Please leave a comment if you find your way here and this helps you! Come back too. I'm doing a photo essay of a day in the life of homeschooling Jack, and I hope to have it up in a few days.

So, almost exactly four years ago Jack was diagnosed with autism. I remember it well, because is was just after Ash Wednesday, and I remember thinking how appropriate it was, to go through this trial during Lent...this dying to self, dying to my expectations for my son, dying to the illusion of control over my children's lives. It is like a death, you know? I cried a lot that first year. Anyway, Jack was five years old at the time and due to start kindergarten the following fall. We had been planning to homeschool him because we were already homeschooling the older children. But the diagnosis threw me for a mental loop. His therapists and other people "in the know" that we talked to discouraged it. Basically their argument was that we might get away with homeschooling a normal kid without screwing them up too badly, but there was no way we would be able to meet Jack's needs. One therapist I talked to told me she was very supportive of homeschooling in general, but not for autistic kids, because they needed to be in school to learn social skills. I was scared. I was overwhelmed and didn't want to make him worse. I knew he would need lots of help to become as functional as possible. Could we meet his needs? I wasn't even sure what his needs *were* anymore!

The timing of his diagnosis was a blessing. He was too old for most of the day programs in our area. They were geared towards toddlers and preschoolers, and since it was the February before he was to start school, the feeling was that it wasn't worth the time to get him started somewhere that school year, that we should just start private therapy and then enroll him in school with an IEP. This bought me time to wrestle with our decision. I even made an appointment with someone to get an IEP started. I didn't keep it. I was resisting, all passive-aggressive like, even then. And then I started asking around, and reading, and wondering if we could do this after all. I really didn't want him to go to public school. It wasn't because I was sure we could do a better job for him. It was a heart thing. I was planning to have him at home, you know? He would homeschool like my others. That's what we *do*. And I just couldn't make the leap to putting him in school. In the end, I homeschooled him that year because homeschooling is our default. We would homeschool him until I saw it wasn't best for him.

I wasn't really liking what I was hearing from the schools anyway. There is an elementary school in our area that has an autism classroom with a good reputation. But we were not zoned for it. I was told I could fight this, I was told how to fight it, but I was also told it could take months, even a couple of years, to win that fight. I was told "they" wouldn't consider him a priority for that room because he was not disruptive enough...that he would probably be put in a room with an aide at his side to help him. And he would be taken out for therapy. And I thought, "So...what are they going to do that I'm not doing, exactly? Aren't *I* already at his side, helping him? Aren't *I* already taking him to therapy? Lots, lots and lots of therapy? Like, five hours a week of therapy?" I stewed, and I waffled, and I hemmed and hawed. And then...I did nothing. I just did nothing.

The school year started and Jack stayed home. I didn't really *do* kindergarten with him. He could already read anything and everything. He could count, he knew all his numbers and shapes and such. He knew lots of things, because he's Jack, and that's what Jack does, he accumulates information, and I wasn't really sure what else to do with him. He had the attention span of a chicken. I tried to read to him. I tried to do crafts and such with him. He hated all of it. I kept driving him to therapy, and we spent the year getting him started with writing and using scissors, working on sensory issues, and mostly just giving him plenty of time and space to mature some more. We worked on potty training. We spent several weeks learning to wash our hands. We worked on toothbrushing, and memorizing our address and phone number, and we hoped and prayed the neighbors wouldn't call social services when he scaled our privacy fence wearing nothing but a tshirt and a smile in the middle of the school day. I had no idea how to address anything beyond the motor skills and sensory issues. He couldn't discuss anything he read, he wouldn't color his math worksheets. I wasn't sure where I was going to go with him. But I did know that this was better for him than school. Because one thing I *did* do was to go to an autism support group meeting that fall. The topic was "back to school". And every parent there had a horror story. Every. One. Bullying. Being kicked off the bus. Schools refusing to follow through on the IEP. Parents fighting, fighting, fighting for what their kids needed. And I thought, "Who needs that?" So I kept on. Not because we were accomplishing great things, but because the alternative didn't look any better.

The following year, first grade...Jack made HUGE strides in his motor skills and in his communication abilities. Therapy (PT, speech, OT) was helping. He didn't (and doesn't) always like to go, but it helps. For my part, I enrolled in Mother of Divine Grace and put Jack in their special services program. Our consultant is a former special ed teacher. She is also a homeschooling mom with a special needs kid of her own. That was a rough year. I was pregnant with Mary Claire allll that year, from September to May. That was the year that everything with my nephew came to an ugly head and he ended up leaving us to live with my parents. That was the year Maria started high school, in MODG's legendary 9th grade curriculum. It was a Rough Year. I cried a lot. A lot. I had a hard time dealing with the reality of Jack's diagnosis. John and I fought all the time, about Jack, about Kain. Academically, Jack did ok. He was able to handle the curriculum, though we worked at a half pace through the math book. This was due more to his inability to sit and focus and write than his ability to actually do math. He had a lot of difficulty narrating, discussing what he was reading. I would read a short story to him, and ask him comprehension questions, and he would tell me about legos, and dumptrucks, and spiders, the moons of Jupiter...anything else but what we were reading RIGHT THEN. We used to joke that he had the right answers to the wrong questions. And we pressed on. I would model the narrations, model how to illustrate them, and move on. I thought, "He'll never be able to do this." We tried Cub Scouts, which was a fail, and park days were often a disaster. Social skills were a bust, but at least he wasn't being bullied or mistreated.

Second grade was better. Kain was out of the house, though still in our lives and in our hearts, always. Maria was enrolled in some online classes with MODG, which helped take some of the burden off of me. And I wasn't pregnant. Jack made HUGE progress in his ability to, the actual physical act of writing. Suddenly, a kid who wouldn't even pick up a crayon was drawing detailed pictures and writing things he had memorized from his beloved books in sidewalk chalk all over the privacy fence. We continued therapy. He tested out of PT, and he nearly tested out of speech. We would read Saint stories, and history stories, and he would give me one sentence, something very vague, like "He loved God". He finally finished the first grade math book. But the writing was still difficult to do for any length of time, so we split up the second grade phonics book over two years. He received the sacraments through much blood, sweat, and happy tears.

And this is third grade. His best year yet. He is in the second grade math book, and finishing up that phonics. But otherwise he is using the third grade curriculum as written. We are still enrolled with MODG, and my consultant still cheers us on, helping us adapt, reassuring my fears, putting things in perspective. He writes easily now, and he is even learning cursive. He complains about having to do school every. single. day. But he does it. He now narrates and illustrates his stories, probably on about the same level as Tess (my kindergartener) narrates hers,,,two or three sentences. His social skills are still poor, but we are working on it. He learns a lot from heavily supervised interaction with his many siblings. Really. A lot. They love him, they tease him, they fight him for toys, and he learns how to manage these things, and that's saying something. We seek, and occasionally find, opportunities for him to socialize, but it is not usually a good experience. I am teaching his PSR class this year, and he needs constant redirection and supervision. Other 9 year-olds are not particularly kind or patient. This reinforces our belief that he will not learn good social skills from a classroom full of them. Jack will always be autistic, and he will always have trouble socializing. For Jack, his siblings will be his friends and support, and "social skills" will mean learning to sit next to strangers at mass and making eye contact with the cashier at Walmart. He needs to learn certain social skills to function in public. That will be enough.

His attention is still horrible. And that is where homeschooling shines. Today, he did his memory work while doing laps around the dining room table with his nerf gun, shooting bullets on the dry erase board. Then he sat down to do phonics, read his science, and then left to go jump on the trampoline. He was having an especially difficult time concentrating today, so we took lots of breaks and didn't finish up until after rest time this afternoon, but most days he is done by lunch. I know how to motivate him. I know he will do anything for a chance to read the Mario Wii Wiki site, do anything for a handful of Hershey kisses. I know when he needs a push and when he needs space. When he masters something difficult, we are both elated, and when he struggles, I'm right there struggling with him. I have learned, from watching my special needs nephew struggle, once these kids are middle-school-aged adapting the curriculum translates into "dumbing it down". No one is sitting by Kain's side anymore everyday, pushing him to the next step. They just push him through, even when he literally does nothing but take up space in a desk in some of his classes. I don't want that for Jack. No one wants him to succeed more than I do. Jack is diagnosed "borderline retarded". Success for him may not look like success for typical kids. I just don't know. I have no idea what Jack is capable of. I can't wait to find out.

We don't even consider public school anymore. If your autistic child is in public school and doing well, then that's awesome. I am in no way looking to knock what is working for you. If he is in public school and it could be better, but you can't handle homeschooling him, I totally sympathize. Dig back to that second grade year and read some about my nephew. I'm right there with you. But if you are interested in homeschooling, if you think it might be worth trying, I'm here to tell you, it can work. You aren't alone. There are lots of us out here, doing this crazy thing, homeschooling our quirky, crazy, awesome children. There is help for this, there is support for this. It's not easy. Not easy at all. But you can do it, and you can do it well.


mysteryhistorymom said...

Melanie- You are absolutely one of the best moms I know and I wish I could be more like you. Each and every one of your children is amazing in their own way! So proud of you- and Jack!:) Did you feel that? I just sent a huge hug your way, dear friend! :) Lori

Angela M. said...

No matter what is going on in your life - and I've followed your blog for some time - I always come away from reading about it with a sense of hope.

Julie said...

Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, parents are the best educators of their children. Period. You're doing a great job! And always see the humor in everything. I love that!

courtney said...

you are so wonderful! and right!! and such an inspiration!

mel said...

Thank you, everyone, you are all very sweet! I'm not always a good mom, believe me, lol. A work in progress, and then some. God is very patient with me.

Home School Mom: Denise said...

I just love Jack and his story :) good job Melanie, stay the course my friend.