Beyond Special Ed: Autism and the Benefits of Home-based Education

Erin Gayton 1by Erin Gayton, Ph.D
Autism Society of Washington

When people find out that I homeschool my sons, and that they both have autism, they either act like I'm crazy or some kind of saint. Neither is true, though plenty of days I feel like I'm losing my mind. Most of the time, though, I know that my boys are getting an education they couldn't receive at a typical school because few schools are set up to teach the way my kids learn. This isn't about bringing Special Education home, mind you, it’s about rethinking the needs of learners with diverse gifts and challenges. A saintly pursuit? Not really. When I'm feeling righteous, I say it's a matter of social justice: all kids deserve to learn, and many 2e (twice-exceptional) students have intellectual gifts that are not supported in traditional classrooms. The rest of the time I do it because I love my boys, and when they learn at home they are happy and successful.

Why homeschool a student with autism or twice-exceptionalities?

Reduce Stress
Environmental and social stressors are pervasive at school. A student who is chronically stressed and exhausted will find learning difficult. Learning to navigate groups is an important skill, but it's not the only skill. For many students with social skills challenges, navigating that social world becomes the only skill they practice at school.

Social Skills Can Be Mindfully Taught and Practiced
Every homeschooler gets the "socialization" question, but for students with spectrum diagnoses the concern is especially acute. Please understand: social skills learning is not a function of time spent around peers. Indeed, it is very possible for a student to feel extremely isolated in a school. For many twice-exceptional children, learning social communication requires direct teaching, skilled support, and structured opportunities to practice. Social skills instruction can be provided through home-based instruction, where they are practiced in the safety of the home and generalized in the community. In my family, we practice waiting in lines at the grocery store, using quiet voices at the library, and asking for help at Target. Homeschoolers engage with peers in small groups and structured contexts like Lego League, co-op classes, and taekwondo. Parents get very good at identifying and supporting emerging friendships which are not constrained by same-age peer groups. In this way, as in many ways, homeschooling is a lot more like the real world.

Create a Sensory-Friendly Learning Environment
My older son was in many ways a model student in regular school. He didn't act out, he was never disruptive. But he'd hug his body to keep from falling out of the chair. It became clear that it took all of his energy just to keep his body still, and he couldn't listen to his teacher at the same time. His "good" behavior came at the expense of actually learning. At home, my son can pace and rub his body against walls while dictating an essay. He can do math while wrapped tightly in a blanket. We can adjust for sound, lighting, and smells. He can take movement breaks whenever he needs to. Besides having happier kids, addressing sensory issues teaches our students that their needs are, in fact, important.

Erin Gayton Son 2Truly Differentiated Instruction
Many 2e learners do not work at grade level across all subjects—one of the many reasons they struggle in traditional classrooms. They also may learn quite differently than their typical peers. Both of my sons are behind grade expectations in some areas, yet right at or well ahead of grade-level in others.

Our students deserve to feel like successful learners, an experience they do not get when they are constantly remediated for their deficiencies and, however obliquely, measured against their peers. Even though my boys are "behind" in certain areas, this is de-emphasized in a home setting and is balanced by the opportunity to pursue, in depth, areas of learning where they excel and about which they are passionate.

Interests can be developed
Individuals with autism often have deep interests, and these can become lifelong passions and professional opportunities. Through these passions, we can teach the skills of self-motivated learning and self-directed study—skills that will serve our students very well in the future.

Balance 1-on-1 and group learning
As a home educator, you get to identify what your goals are for your student, and what learning environment is best for achieving those goals. For many 2e students, a classroom full of students simply isn't the best place to learn—especially difficult skills. My boys take some on-site classes at an alternative school, but we choose those classes carefully. We value our learning community, but we limit our time there because it comes at a cost (stress, overload, more transitions in our day).

Minimize TransitionsErin Gayton Son 1
Homeschoolers control the pace of the day. But just as important, homeschooling allows a long, gradual transition to greater independence. Special education teams spend a lot of time preparing their students for transitions between grade school, middle school, high school, and adulthood—time that could be spent on many other things.

So what's the catch? Challenges of homeschooling students with autism
Now we're back to the question of saints and lunatics. How hard is it to home-educate a child (or multiple children) with intense needs?

Homeschooling is an intellectual, emotional, and financial commitment. Intellectually, you commit to learning about special education, gifted education, social skills, and sensory integration. Emotionally, you may face a resistant learner and/or challenging behavior. I've been punched and spat at, and I get yelled at almost every day. Patience is critical and keeping up that patience is hard work. I can say that the intellectual challenges get easier with experience and the emotional challenges get easier as your student matures.

Homeschooling impacts the family dynamic. It is a lifestyle, so you do need to consider the ramifications for the whole family, including yourself.

And finally, stress. An amusing number of studies confirm that parents of children with autism are, in fact, very stressed (go figure!). Homeschooling can also be stressful. It can be really hard. But dealing with schools, IEPs, phone calls from teachers in the middle of the day, and meltdowns at home are also really stressful.

The research about "supports for autism parents" encourages us to learn about autism and the best strategies for teaching, as well as become experts in the ways our kids learn best so that we can advocate for them at IEP meetings. But it is incredibly frustrating and stressful to have this knowledge and see these practices not being implemented. Families that homeschool trade the stress of relentless advocacy for a different kind of stress. For me, it was a welcome trade. The hard work of home-based education feels productive, and my sons' success validates that hard work.

Homeschooling allows us to create a truly differentiated learning environment that takes our children seriously as learners and individuals. We can see our children's strengths and giftedness, and work with them, offering support and encouragement.

Erin Gayton, PhD., has taught at Duke University and the University of Washington, Bothell. She lives in Olympia, asw-logoWashington, where she homeschools her sons and serves on the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Washington (ASW). Erin can be reached at ering@autismsocietyofwa.org.

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