As a homeschooling parent, I am keenly aware of some derogatory stereotypes associated with the choice to educate children at home. Homeschooling is often portrayed by the media as a backward process with exclusionary motives. Additionally, the subject is used as comedic fodder. A lack of understanding abounds…I clearly remember an instance a few years back at reunion having someone condescendingly imply that I “just stay home all day and play” with our daughter. This person had no comprehension of her own ignorance of the subject. Thus, I write this post to share our personal rationale for choosing to homeschool our daughter, who has Autism.
As I’ve stated previously, for approximately the first seventeen months of our daughter’s life, she was the over-achiever child. She said her first word at four months old, greeting one of my husband’s colleagues by saying “Hi!”…the woman backed up in shock, looking as if she was trying to figure out if we were ventriloquists or our daughter was an animatronic creation. At seventeen months old, while spending time together in the front yard, our daughter looked at me and said with absolute pristine pronunciation, “I love my momma.”…my eyes welled up with tears of joy. Soon after, she stopped talking, interacting, lost acquired skills, started ripping out her hair, started to gag whenever we tried to feed her anything more solid than baby food, etc.
She started repetitive behaviors, which in an effort to interact with her any way that I could, I would imitate her behaviors and sounds in a game that my husband and I referred to as “Monkey See, Monkey Do”…it was the only way that I knew to say connected to her. After we finally convinced doctors that this was not “just a phase” (nearly a year later), it was recommended that we start working with Early Intervention. She received one-on-one therapy from an occupational therapist and a feeding nurse and seemed to have some positive responses to the therapies. One thing they “corrected” us on was our “Monkey See, Monkey Do” game, because they said it that just encouraged undesirable behavior…they were the “experts”, so we gave up the game. We had Early Intervention for approximately four months, then it was time to transition her to a special needs preschool.
I had a gnawing concern that I didn’t want our daughter’s spirit broken, in a effort to make her cookie cutter. She had never been a cookie cutter child and that was one of the many things that we loved/love about her. Yet, we sent her to school anyway because we were told that was the thing to do. The first teacher would write notes that seemed to imply that our daughter was trying to make her life a living Hell. However, since I chose to drive our daughter to school, I would observe our daughter being happy in the morning when seeing teaching aids and therapists, but cry when seeing teacher. The teacher also made it clear on numerous occasions that she thought it would better for our daughter to ride the bus to school “to socialize”. In addition to the various reports each year of those with special needs being left in transport vehicles in severe temperatures, having our nonverbal daughter on an almost hour long bus ride each way, didn’t seem like a productive use of time, so I repeatedly refused.
I insisted on my husband and I observing the class one day, which was an eye opening experience. We watched as the occupational therapist struggled to get her to make the “crafty” project of the day…taking her hand over hand gluing bits of tissue paper on construction paper…my daughter was clearly disinterested…ultimately, we watched the therapist put together the project in an effort to complete it before a bell would ring, and they would have to move on to the next station. Knowing we were watching, the teacher treated our daughter fine. That said, it was not the same for another student. During “circle time” a little boy kicked off his shoe, this action resulted in him being put in the “naughty chair”. Though I’m not a fan of time outs, if they are done, time outs should be done following a set protocol. The school system’s protocol is one minute for each year of age. Though I’m not sure of the boy’s age, he was at most five, possibly younger, thus his time out should have been at most five minutes. He sat in the “naughty chair” for the remainder of circle time, bathroom time and snack time…he almost missed his bus. I really wished that I knew his parents, so I could tell them what we had witnessed. This incident begged the question, if that is what happens while we are watching, what happens when we are not watching, and possibly to our daughter.
On a field trip, we met a teacher who had a wonderful rapport with our daughter. As it turns out, the teacher was also a parent of a child with Autism. We tried to get our daughter transferred to her class, but were told there was no room. Thus, we visited another teacher’s class in hopes that it may be a better fit for our daughter. Our daughter was at that point three and a half years old, and at the time, had a habit of smacking a chair or table if she became frustrated. On that day, when she smacked the chair in which the teacher was sitting, she also smacked the teacher’s back in the process of trying to smack the chair. I am eternally grateful that our daughter couldn’t see the teacher’s face from where she was standing. Having grown up being exposed to abusive situations, there is a look of blood red rage with which I’m very familiar. The teacher looked like she wanted to throw our daughter across the room. As we left, I simply asked by husband, “So what did you think?”…wondering if he would interpret the events in the same way as I had. He said, “Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire! Did you see that look?!?” He had indeed interpreted a potential violence in the teacher’s expression.
We refused to have her transferred to that class and insisted on the teacher, who we had met on the field trip. This time we had our request granted. It turned out that the original statement of there being “no room” was based on the morning section, even though we had all along asked for the afternoon section.
That class worked out much better. That said, the most effective teachers get a reputation as such. Parents then push to have their child in that teacher’s class. The precious resource of an effective teacher becomes depleted…stretched too thin among so many students. They are further limited by the constraints of the school system’s bureaucracy and one size fits all approach. The result is the teacher in question becomes like those performers who spin plates on sticks…rushing feverishly from plate to plate trying to prevent any from falling. The teacher becomes burned out and the efficacy of this skill professional is squandered.
Beginning the second year of the effective teacher’s class, the class was assigned a different speech therapist. The therapist’s first question of me was “What kind of candy does she like?” and I replied she doesn’t eat candy. The therapist seemed at a loss as to what to do with our daughter without an interest in candy. Then we did something that boggles the mind, we started giving her lollipops just so she might progress in speech therapy. Over time, our daughter kept getting harder to handle…three hour tantrums with head banging (multiple times a day), smearing excrement on any surface she could find, little to no improvement in speech, and so on.
Life seemed to be spinning out of control. In desperation, I took a college level course on educating children with special needs. Everyone else in the class was either a teacher or becoming a teacher. I found myself on several occasions compelled to correct the instructor of the course on various topics. We were required to watch “Forest Gump” and “Rain Man” to learn about special needs. I was astounded! The course textbook, by a reputable publisher, had just been published, yet had only three paragraphs on Autism with several inaccuracies and citing studies that were ten to thirty years old. When I pointed out to the instructor the problems with the book, she said that she had not read it before she chose it for the course. The illusion that the “experts” knew more about educating my daughter than me started to crumble. If professionals make their best effort to educate themselves, but the materials are out of date or down right wrong, how much of an expert are they?
We began preparation for our daughter’s transition to Kindergarten. She was to be assigned to an Autism classroom. Hence, we visited one. It was a room so small and cluttered that I had trouble concentrating, and at one end of the room was a crowd of children watching TV…nothing particularly educational, just a random cartoon. Even with our daughter’s various deficits, she never had a deficit in interest in television…that activity she already excelled in. She did not need a class to get her more interested in watching television.
Up to this point the teaching modality used with our daughter was behavioral. During one of my many late night Internet Autism searches, I read about the Son-Rise Program, a relationship based teaching modality, that was originally developed for a boy, Raun Kaufman, diagnosed as profoundly autistic and an IQ below 30. His main self stimulating behavior (stim or ism) was spinning things; plates, boxes, etc., and his family would joyfully spin things with him. His parents eventually founded the The Autism Treatment Center of America. Raun recovered from Autism, and we have since had Raun as teacher in several classes. He is profoundly brilliant with an amazing ability to read the needs of students and spontaneously move with those needs.
As transition time approached, we debated whether to have our daughter in Kindergarten part time and use Son-Rise at home the rest of the time. The final decision was made one day when my husband and I picked up our daughter from the effective teacher’s preschool class. The speech therapist lined up students to go out to the bus. I had witnessed this process many times before. One little boy would always lay on the floor refusing to get in line, but that day, he was in line with a huge smile, clapping his hands, yet the speech therapist chastised him saying, “If you don’t stop clapping your hands, you’re going back in the classroom.” It should be noted, in that classroom, they taught the children the song, “If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands”. With the current deluge of children with Autism, being in the school system means getting an effective teacher is luck of the draw, and the same is true for the therapists that work in the classroom.
I want it to be understood that I respect the teaching profession. I’m merely pointing out that those with a thriving passion to teach are becoming more rare in the educational system. Decades ago, many were willing to give up the big salaries that they could make in industry, in order to follow their passion and had some sense of security knowing there was a pension at the end of their career to be their safety net. These days, it is common place for educators to have to take second jobs to make ends meet, and often buying supplies for their students when school budgets are inadequate, and some are having their pensions threatened. It stands to reason that this financial burden manifests itself in strained familial relations. Thus, either educators leave the field or the tension likely permeates all aspects of their daily life, including their interactions with students.
Our society often values ill-mannered celebrities, who make obscene amounts of money for TV shows glorifying their debauchery, more than society values those who educate our children. Now, it may appear that I’m making a judgment here, I take ownership that I am. Where we (as a society) put our time, energy and money demonstrates what we value. Our society, as a whole, has put education far down the list, ignoring the vital question of how can our society survive if the next generation isn’t properly educated to forge ahead.
It seems highly appropriate to me that as I write this, Michael Buble’s “Hollywood” is playing on the radio, encouraging people to love what is true and find the answers within themselves.
Other than the message of self reliance in the song “Hollywood”, I really love the guitar work in this song that reminds me of 1970′s Elton John songs.
Other than quality of education, our concern was for our daughter’s very safety. With our daughter’s life threatening food allergies, in addition to her immune problems, it was clear to us that one mistake at school…one lapse in judgment, could cost our daughter’s life. So, we started homeschooling using the the Son-Rise Program as the teaching modality. Son-Rise uses a child’s repetitive self stimulating behaviors to bond with a child. We don’t judge behaviors. As it turns out, my “Monkey See, Monkey Do” game was right on target. We love our daughter’s stims and since we do them with her, she interacts with us more as a result and stims less because she is too busy interacting with us. We work with her one-on-one, and tailor the lesson to her…for example, if one day she doesn’t want to work on reading, math, etc., I start “teaching” it to her stuffed polar bear and praising the polar bear for doing so well…seeing polar bear get this attention, soon enough, she is interested in learning the lesson.
Our daughter’s progress in the first year we homeschooled using Son-Rise far out paced the previous three years in the school system, in terms of verbal communication, eye contact, demeanor (no more 3 hour tantrums), sleep pattern (no more praying for her to finally go to sleep at 4 a.m.) and toileting (finally in “big girl underwear” and announcing when she had to go). That was life altering!!!…no lollipops required.
She has continued to blossom in the year since. We assess and make changes in our team and routine as warranted. We started out doing everything at home, with the exception of horse riding therapy, with which we instructed the therapist on a Son-Rise approach. The child who once had to be taught to even hold the reigns, now will spontaneously say, “I want to trot.”, and sometimes while doing so, will command the horse (therapist and my husband) to “Trot faster.” She is becoming skilled at guiding the horse through obstacles, such as weave poles, and will be in her first Special Olympics this year.
We’ve attended theatrical productions, such as the touring production of Billy Joel’s and Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out”, after which we decided that dance classes were viable. Our daughter’s first year of dance encompassed various dance forms including Belly Dance with a fantastic teacher. The openness of the culture of belly dance facilitated our daughter making her first friend. When that teacher’s life path led her elsewhere, we questioned how our daughter would adjust to the change. She started taking belly dance from another wonderful teacher at one studio and tap and jazz from a different studio, where the teacher did not seem comfortable with her Autism. Unlike fighting through a school system’s red tape, when it became clear that it was not working out, we simply switched to a studio with a better suited teacher who embraces our daughter as she is. She is now happily progressing in that tap and jazz class. Her favorite is still belly dance, and I’m learning some moves too. The words shimmy, flutter, camel and belly roll are common place in our house…and she does indeed have an awesome belly roll. Life is a lot like spinning to the festive belly dance music under bright and sparkling veils…color, movement, sound and most of all joy abound.
Though I don’t have the instructional video mentioned in this YouTube, I thought I’d include this YouTube excerpt as an example of some lovely veil choreography.
Note: The videos that come up as options once this one ends
are also great snippets of belly dance instruction. Enjoy!