Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Homeschooling, Socialization, and the Autism Spectrum

Guest Post by Homeschooling Mom Heather DeGeorge  


Editor’s note:  When I mention home education as an option some in the education world who are in my PLN have brought up socialization being an issue.  Heather DeGeorge has had wonderful feedback which she shares on the Homeschooling, Unschooling, Uncollege, Opt Out, DIY, Hack Your Education group. I asked her to share her insights here and she said yes!  This is part 2 of her insights.  Part 1 addresses homeschooling and socialization in general.  Thank you Heather.


I am a mother of a child in the spectrum.  Our journey started when he was flagged with profound delays at 9 months old and suspected of cerebral palsy.  I remember when, as a nursing infant of a stay-at-home mother, my son had no concept that I had left the room let alone gone out to the store.  I remember when he had progressed to the point of being able to verbalize a need, but didn’t understand that a human needed to be present to hear it in order for that need to be met.  I remember the very first time he laid his head on my shoulder, or looked me in the eye—because they were exceptions in our life.


He is now 7-1/2 years old.  I have a Master’s in Education with additional graduate credits in Special Education and teaching children with autism.  I have been a foster parent.  


And I homeschool.


None of these things seem to belong in the same paragraph, do they?  Every therapist, specialist and educator would scream that these things are mutually exclusive: a child in the autism spectrum and homeschooling. Their most fervent argument is the need for the child to be socialized.  And they are right.  We simply disagree on the best method of providing that education to a child in the autism spectrum.


I had two very major concerns for my son’s education:

1) not squashing his love of learning (which I wasn’t sure he had, but didn’t want to remove the opportunity for) by forcing him to do work that was below his level simply as a means of teaching him how to follow directions (with the mindset that: because he already knew how to do those things, the frustration level would be with following the directions vs. following directions AND completing the task)

2) a school’s ability to direct his interpersonal development. By this, I really meant: are they truly going to be able to supervise and mentor his relational skills in that setting better than I could do as a homeschooling mother? Who's going to be responsible for this in the classroom? A teacher with training specific to my kid's needs (and not split among 6+ other kids)? Or the aide assigned to him who has a high school diploma and MAYBE some specialized training (if at all)?  And do any of them share my ideas of what “acceptable behavior” is?


It really came down to seeing the classroom in session first-hand. I'll be honest: I ADORED the preschool disabled teacher my son would've been with. She believed in all the same literature that I did--had studied much of the theories I was most supportive of. She was really good with the kids.


But at the end of the day, the classroom setting wasn't going to be a good fit for my son. At the time, he had more oppositional behavior than he does now. In a school setting, there was absolutely no way they would legally be able to work him through that in ways that were going to produce the results that I wanted for my child. They wouldn't be allowed to hug and rock him until he calmed down from a rage. They wouldn't know him well enough to understand when it was okay for him to be upset for any length of time (at least not till mid-year at BEST). These were very big deals. And with no real way to redirect him into compliance (he had no real "currency" for praise and frankly, I'm not "for" the whole "If you do this, you can do/have that" mentality anyway) I just felt that it was a recipe for him seeing the classroom as a place of no real consequences for poor behavior... and that becoming the mentality about school.


Instead, we tried two different private schools--moving mid-year when the first didn't work out. Neither was a good fit.


The following year (what would've been his pre-K year) we kept him home. I dreaded it given his behavior issues; but ultimately it was the best thing ever. I was able to supervise and mentor his relational skills in a way that made so much more progress. Of course, I also made a serious effort to have him out and about a lot. About halfway through that year, the behavior started to level off and things were really good.


The people that gave me a hard time about him needing the socialization are baffled when I explain that children like my son truly needed more help with socialization--help that *I* could give him one-on-one by being there all the time. I didn't intervene, but I was there. I saw what happened first-hand vs. what the teacher managed to catch and/or he remembered from the day (assuming he could even verbalize it). I was able to work him through it right after it happened while it was fresh in his mind (and heart). Sometimes I was able to work him through it while it happened (although this was rare). And I was always modeling behaviors for him... when we were at stores, the library, at group activities. He really couldn't have had better social skills training and he couldn't have had it more intensively. Furthermore, it was social skills training that I knew I was in line with, because *I* was giving it to him.

He WAS in a classroom setting until his pre-k year. But my child was becoming the "problem child" and THAT was also something I didn't want to stick.


There are absolutely still issues.  He has very little idea when kids are taking advantage of him.  He’s been held down against his will and still thinks that child is his friend.  And really, he presents like most neurotypical 7-year-old boys, which is a blessing and curse: he looks like every other kid—but he isn’t.  There is no question that he could’ve been mainstreamed into a first grade classroom at first grade thanks to the work we did at home for two years.  I’m not confident that level of progress could’ve happened in a classroom.

We will continue to keep our son home where he is free to learn his lessons—social and academic—at his own pace, with better supervision by someone whose interest in him is unparalleled even by the most loving teacher, and whose values are the ones who SHOULD be instilled in his social skills.  


It is not bashing the schools to say that they are incapable of providing my son with the level of socialization that we were capable of providing him at home.  It is a matter of student-teacher ratio, teacher expectation (which research shows has a PROFOUND effect on achievement), and opportunity.  The best teachers will concede that some children simply do better in a home environment.  And to those who would say (and have said) that my training in teaching makes it okay for my son, I will tell you unequivocally that the bulk of my education dealt with teaching me how to juggle the needs of 24+ children at a time and legal issues.  The precious little that applies to teaching my own child at home is easily found on the internet by parents willing to look.


This is not a popular route.  It is generally not a SUPPORTED route.  But it is a life-changing course of action for your child that could make a world of difference.


Consider it.


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Heather DeGeorge holds a Bachelor's in Business Administration and a Master's in Education with additional graduate credits in Special Education and teaching children with autism.  She is a biological and adoptive mother; and former foster mother and teacher.  Her journey with the children in her life and helping in their significant struggles has led her to becoming certified in Holistic Health Counseling and focusing on children with developmental and behavioral issues.
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