Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why we home schooled our autistic son

Year after year, we faced skepticism at every turn about our decision to home school GL. First we would get a halfhearted defense of the idea that only a professional can teach a child, especially an autistic child, to read and write. (When we had him tested for public school enrollment, those very professionals were amazed to find his reading, vocabulary, and verbal skills far beyond what they would expect, given his cognitive abilities. His math skills are much more in line with what they would expect. His handwriting is messy, which is not surprising, given his poor fine motor skills. They are providing PT and OT. And he can't spell worth a darn.) His skills are all over the map, but patient teaching and individual attention day after day, year after year, from someone who knows him very well, and with no change of teachers in ten years, have allowed him to make the most of the abilities he has.

When they see that line will fail, everyone throws down what they believe to be the trump card: "But what about socialization?" It has apparently become an article of faith in America that:

1. Social skills are the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra, the raison d'ĂȘtre, the 42, and the e pluribus unum, of not only education, but employment, life, the universe, and everything,
2. Public school is the only place social skills can be learned, 
3. Unstructured social situations (the playground, the locker room) with little to no adult supervision, where the kids are encouraged to "work things out for themselves" and adults don't generally intervene until there is bloodshed, a broken bone, or severe bruising, and then more likely than not will take the side of the aggressor, are the best places to learn social skills.  (Bullying and not getting caught are social skills, after all.) 

Call me a heretic. I believe the purpose of education is academic learning. I've met plenty of socially well-adjusted home schoolers. I've met plenty of socially inept people who still earn a good living. There is more to life than socializing, which I believe is overrated. The happiest and most productive members of any group are those who first know themselves well as individuals. God is more concerned with your treating people ethically, morally, and kindly than with your making them like you. 

People on the autism spectrum don't just lack certain social skills their peers take for granted, they often also lack the ability to read the social cues by which their peers typically learn these skills. If they can't absorb these skills by osmosis, they must be explicitly taught, which most public schools are slow to do. Expecting a child with autism to just pick up social skills along with academics, and without being taught is like expecting a child with extremely poor vision to learn to read without glasses. Expecting him to learn social skills on the playground or in the locker room is like teaching him to swim by nicking an artery and throwing him to the sharks.

I've seen situations like this one happen far too often. To a bully, an autistic kid is the perfect victim:
(He also has OCD.)

These facts, coupled with the facts that GL will do anything other kids tell him to, and confess to anything he is accused of, whether he did it or not, led us to keep him out of public school until now, even if it meant giving up services he would otherwise qualify for. Looking beyond high school, his options are to sit around watching TV all day, while someone else pays the bills, or enter some type of vocational program. He may or may not be self-supporting, but he needs useful work. (I suspect he will make some money, but not enough to live on.) He's gone about as far as he is likely to go academically, but at this point, the public school looks like our best connection and transition to vocational programs. We have enrolled him with fear and trembling.

When we made this decision, we waited a year to enroll him so he would be entering high school. The cruelest people I've met are middle schoolers and adults who never progressed emotionally beyond middle school or high school. We had him tested and got an IEP written during spring semester. He starts high school next week. So far, everything looks encouraging. School staff have all been friendly, helpful, and understanding. They've been supportive of our making the best choices for GL, whether we chose to enroll him or not. They've had only good things to say about his accomplishments while home schooled. They listened when we told them about our observations and experience. They put everything in his IEP that we asked for. He visited his class a few times last year, and both Sp.Ed. and regular students recognized him and greeted him in the hallway.

But the most important thing we've learned from other autism parents' stories is: Don't. Trust. Anyone. Or prehaps, Trust, but verify.

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Blogger Kelly said...

It sounds like you guys laid a great foundation for the public schools to work off of. Good luck to you and GL. Keep us posted, please!

August 24, 2011 at 3:42 PM  
Blogger DeeAnn said...

I agree with you that socializing is overrated.

Most of my son's schooling was at the school for the blind (he's autistic as well), but we did put him in our neighborhood high school. It turned out to be a good experience. He had peer tutors that went with him to his different classes and made some friends that still keep in touch with him, even though they're married with families of their own now.

Bottom line...Do what YOU think is best for your son and do it with no regrets. :)

I hope he has a great school year, wherever it may be!

August 24, 2011 at 8:55 PM  

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