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Homeschooling Autistic Children: The Blessings

by Jessica Parnell | Apr 17, 2015 | 4 min read

“He can’t sit still to hear the story,” his teacher said, “and he is too much of a distraction to the others. So we let him do his own thing.”

There is a moment carved into my memory of when *Josh was younger, the moment I realized that he was different. He was a joyful, fun-loving, hard-playing boy, as many are, but this experience brought to the surface the struggles that Josh was facing that others his age did not.

He was sitting on the carpet at circle time in pre-school and each child had their own small carpet square to sit on. While other children were bouncing up and down on their squares, somewhat distracted and yet still paying some attention to the story, my son was in a completely different part of the classroom playing at a kitchen set – alone.

It wasn’t long after this moment that I began to see just how much he was struggling socially, academically, and with communication, so I sought help. After a battery of tests from several different doctors, Josh was given the dual diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD).

I was heartbroken, but threw myself into reading as much as possible about how to help my son. Over the next few years, we attended (I say “we” because I was at every session!) countless sessions for occupational, speech, and physical therapy – and we saw a lot of progress. Sure, there were tears and worries, but I tried to stay focused on the positives – on what Josh had overcome.

When struggles come

And then we hit second grade. Socially and verbally, my son had made amazing strides. He had a lot of friends, was able to integrate into and transition out of situations well, and his fine and gross motor skills were improving. But second grade brought struggles that I did not see coming. The critical thinking and attention required to master tougher concepts like multiplication, writing essays, inferring from stories, etc. seemed to set him into a tailspin. “I can’t do it!” became his response to most work, and he was right! He really did seem to be unable to accomplish much of what he was being asked to do at school.

Perhaps worse than the academic struggles were the social challenges. By age nine, Josh had become aware of his own differences, and struggled to fit in and understand the social interactions within his class and on the playground. He began to be bullied by one child who would constantly cut him off while he was talking to others and call him “weird.” Nothing breaks a mother’s heart like seeing your child preyed upon simply because he is different. Once a social butterfly, Josh began to withdraw, preferring to play by himself. The challenges he was facing created so much stress and anxiety that we saw him take huge steps back in self-control, obsessive behaviors, and social skills. My once happy, social, and smart nine-year-old had regressed into a willful, angry, hurting six-year-old. And something had to change.

So, we did what many families do, we decided to homeschool. And we have never looked back! Homeschooling has, in many ways, given us our child back. Has it been difficult? Absolutely! The struggles to maintain his attention, stick with hard subjects, and continue to gain ground with social skills have kept me on my toes. But, the benefits and blessings have far outweighed the struggles.

From struggling to super hero

Right away we began to see improvements in Josh’s approach to learning. Because we allowed him to lead and use his interests and obsessions to guide us, Josh was more interested in learning than he had been in years. I found that allowing his obsessions into his lessons engaged his interests, which in turn made it easier for him to learn. At that time, if it didn’t fly or have a cape and a super power, he didn’t care. So, we made his super hero friends the center of much of what we did. We used “math superpowers” to count coins, we wrote sentences about their adventures while learning correct punctuation, and even studied comics as an art unit. He began to thrive because he felt empowered and slowly began to believe that he was capable of accomplishing things he never imagined he could!

Saying goodbye to sensory overload

Homeschooling also gave Josh more power and freedom throughout the day. What Josh really needed was individual attention and a day that was tailored to his needs. Being home allowed us to set a schedule that worked for him, worked into his therapy, and provided time for his two favorite activities: green time (outside play) and screen time. And because I was just focused on him, I could tailor his day around his mood, stop something that wasn’t working, or keep going with an activity or lesson that he was particularly interested in. Some days we just did science, and that was OK!
When we had bad days, we just stopped working and picked up the topic again another day. We found his attention span growing as well. He was no longer distracted by a thousand noises, colors on the wall, other children, etc., and was more willing to tackle hard tasks. Homeschooling worked because our focus was on reclaiming the joy of learning, and giving him the time he needed to feel successful. And we worked hard each day to meet his sensory needs and maintain regulation.

A wide open future

The biggest blessing of homeschooling for Josh has been how he now sees himself. I didn’t realize just how depressed and dejected Josh was until I began to see him come out of the fog. He had absorbed the negativity, the constant struggle, and had begun to see himself as stupid and unlikeable. This lightbulb came on for me when we tackled our biggest nemesis: base 10, or place value. Before homeschooling, this topic would eventually end in tears and meltdowns for us both! When we finally tackled it again, Josh was able to work at his own pace and had the confidence to push through road blocks. When he said, “Mom, math is kind of fun!” I knew we had made the right choice and that I had my creative, intelligent, lively son back.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Jessica Parnell
Hello everyone! I’m Jessica Parnell — mom, homeschool evaluator, teacher, and CEO of Bridgeway Academy. In my 20+ years of experience as a homeschool mom and evaluator, I have had the privilege of meeting homeschoolers that take a variety of approaches to their education. It is their many stories and successes that inspire me in my own homeschooling and I love to pass on the knowledge that I have gained from them to other homeschooling families. The one constant that always remains true is that there’s no such thing as a “cookie cutter child.” Each child is fearfully and wonderfully made and as a result, learns and functions differently. It’s our job to ensure that we’re raising each child to fulfill their individual purpose and when we can teach in a way that inspires them, we are on our way to homeschool success. When I’m not writing or teaching my children, I like to ski, write and participate in triathlons. I graduated from Kutztown University with a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Masters in English and I am currently pursuing a degree in Neuroleadership.
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