Many of my readers are teaching a special-needs child. All of us love one, a friend or family member we care for and pray with regularly. My friend Jenny Herman is rearing her own Little Man and sharing God’s grace toward her on her blog, ManyHatsMommy.com. I am learning so much from her, how to better empathize, support, and pray for mothers like her, whom God has given unique challenges. All this month, Jenny is sharing what God has taught her through Autism, for Autism Awareness Month. Today, she shares how the Lord used Autism to point her family toward home education.
My Journey to Homeschooling
by Jenny Herman, of ManyHatsMommy.com
I never planned on home schooling my children. A lot of people thought I might, since I was an elementary school teacher. In my mind, just because I was a teacher didn’t mean I wanted to school the children already living with me! God had other plans.
There were a lot of signs–a teddy bear completely defuzzed, a large vocabulary at age two, no pretend play, no pointing, no desire to seek out other children for play, sensitivity to light, sound, touch, repetitive behaviors, the ability to quote entire books, and I could go on. When you see the list together, it jumps out at you. When you see a three year old boy exhibit these behaviors individually, and you question them, people reply, “Oh, he’s just a boy. He’ll grow out of it.” When it’s your first child, you assume he will. He didn’t.
My oldest son has autism. Just to give you a bit of information, autism is now diagnosed in children more than cancer, AIDS, and diabetes combined, to the tune of about 1 in 97 children. Autism is a neurological syndrome. Our children’s brains are wired differently. There is a biological reason for their behavior.
Additionally, autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that some children are more severe than others. If you passed us in the mall, you probably wouldn’t know my son has autism, unless he was having a meltdown. “Spectrum” also means autism presents itself differently in each child.
Finally, autism is invisible. There are no wheelchairs, no hearing aids, no braces to tell you something is different about my son or garner understanding. Because autism is invisible, sometimes people don’t understand what autism families face. Sadly, many autism families face undue judgment and harsh criticism. I have been pretty fortunate so far.
So, how did God use autism to bring me to home schooling?
When my son was three-and-a-half, we finally had him evaluated through the local school district because we could not afford medical insurance. I distinctly remember the psychologist saying to me, “I understand why you requested the evaluation.” I also clearly remember the relief I felt when she said that to me. Someone understood! I wasn’t crazy.
Unfortunately, my son had learned “coping skills” on his own to deal with a lot of the things that bothered him. For example, bright light bothered him, so when he went outside to the playground with other preschoolers during his evaluation, he simply played in the shade.
The social worker told us, “We recommend you put him in a regular preschool room. He will either do really well and they won’t know he’s in the building, or his world will fall apart and then we’ll be able to classify him as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).” That was fine with me. I didn’t want him in a special education classroom!
His world did fall apart. It was the worst seven weeks of our lives. Prior to preschool, my son was already having a lot of sensory issues. I remember once he completely freaked out over having to try on a new Elmo shirt and a Thomas shirt, even though they were his favorite characters at the time. He often wore sunglasses inside because lights bothered him, and the sound of water running in the apartment above us sent him bolting, petrified, from one end of the apartment to the other.
The new world of preschool was his undoing. He loved school. He loved learning. He loved his teacher and the aide. However, being in a room with 12-16 other three and four year olds, with lots of unstructured time, bright lights, extra noise, etc., was simply too much for him.
It is painful to watch your child cram himself against a bookcase away from other children who are all sitting in a circle, eagerly listening to a teacher discuss their day. I would volunteer to help in the room just to be an extra set of hands for the ladies, and it was hard to watch my child fight the results of sensory overstimulation. The other problem was that, for the most part, there were no consequences for these behaviors, for any of the children.
My son became aggressive, to the point he’d just walk up to his little brother and shove him down for no reason at all. He started hitting me. He threw large plastic blocks at a girl’s face at school. My back started hurting from carrying a tantruming child. I was in physical and emotional pain. He was in turmoil. Where had my child gone?
We finally requested that the district social worker come back to evaluate our little man. We wanted him out of the regular preschool room and into the Early Childhood Developmental Delay (ECDD) Preschool classroom in the school district. Believe me, I agonized over this decision, and got a variety of opinions.
My little man blossomed in the ECDD room. He latched on to the picture schedule. It gave him comfort. Instead of unstructured time where he had to make decisions, he was guided to certain areas. It was quieter and calmer. He wasn’t being assaulted from all sides with extra sensory input. There were three adults for six to ten children.
If you look at the picture the teacher took the first time we visited, my son’s stare was vacant, and he wasn’t looking at the camera. This is typical in autism. This last school year, when she took his picture for their daily notebooks, he had a huge grin, and he was looking right through the lens! He became more social. He learned how to have two-way conversations. He had typical preschool fun.
I’m guessing by this point if you’re not a homeschooler yet, you’re wondering, “If your son was thriving, why did you start homeschooling?” Good question. Because he graduated, so-to-speak.
My son is what is considered Aspergers Syndrome, or high-functioning autism. It depends on who you talk to. He was reading three-letter short-vowel words at 3 1/2. We had been working hard with him outside of school to make progress in eye contact, other social skills, self-control, etc. Late last fall I began wondering if the ECDD room was still the best thing for him.
You see, my son is a big mimicker. He loves to copy things that other people do. I’m guessing because it makes him feel comfortable, like he doesn’t have to figure out what to do. He’s a big quoter. It’s technically called echolalia. If you lived with us for a month to see what he read and watched, and listened carefully to what he said, you’d realized much of his conversation, even still, is quoting other people–books, movies, family, etc.
Back to the ECDD room–my son was now pretty much the top of the class. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. He had just made a lot of progress, but also had a late birthday, so he didn’t move on with some of the other boys. He was bringing home lower-functioning behaviors. He was causing problems on the bus–he had worked so hard at self-control during the day, that after school was his letdown time, and he let loose! It would take an hour or two at least for him to calm down.
I attended the class Christmas party, and that was the final push I needed. My husband had already expressed a desire for me to start homeschooling in the fall. However, when I went to that party, and my son was copying another child’s vocalizations, not even seeing me in front of him, I almost cried. As he was under a table, laughing with another boy who was under another table, and I couldn’t get him out, it was all I could do to hold it together. This was not my son, either. He was ready to move on.
And so, in January, I started my homeschool journey. Of course, that means a transition, which is hard on autism folks. It was a rough couple of weeks, but my son’s meltdowns have actually decreased. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing. It is only kindergarten, but my son loves the structure of doing school. I am working out what that means for us. I also have to make sure I spend time working on social skills with him, since that is one of his large deficits.
So, there you have it, the beginning of our homeschool journey. It had its ups and downs, just like the rest of you. It will continue to have its ups and downs, just like the rest of you. I’m thankful for resources like Whatever State I Am to guide me through the journey. Most importantly, I’m thankful that God is with me to help me do what is best for my son.
Jenny Herman lives in Michigan with her husband and two little men. She blogs about the many hats she wears over at www.manyhatsmommy.com and invites you to stop by for Autism Awareness Month in April.