6 Oct 2008

Learning at home with autism

On a cold, dark February morning, I gathered my long-legged but skinny son in my arms and carried him to the end of our street to wait for a bus. He was six years old and lacked mobility problems. Yet on that morning, like all the other mornings when I brought him out early to meet his bus, he was overwhelmed by the sleep that still hadn't quite relinquished it's hold, the inclement weather and his tension about what lay ahead and needed my arms to hold and comfort him and my neck to hide his face in.

He spoke his longest sentence to date that day as he said quietly yet emphatically, "I not go to school today." So we turned and went back home. He has not been to school since.

When he was six months old, my maternity leave ended and I returned to the lab where I worked. While his older sister had thrived in the workplace creche, he was always distressed and it tore me up to leave him. So I ended up serving just the minimum time required to retain my maternity pay and have not returned to paid employment.

He was a demanding baby and I was often shattered. I didn't know then that this child whom I'd nicknamed my "wee marsupial" for his desire to be attached at all times to his favourite bit of my anatomy, would gain a diagnosis of autism two months after his second birthday and four months after the birth of his baby brother.

I have focused on raising these children and eschewed the heady delights of a glittering career, especially since my husband's job demands long hours and frequent trips away from home.

Years ago, while reading online about autism, I encountered families who opted to home-educate their autistic children. They described the difficulties their children had faced in schools; the inflexible education system, the lack of appropriate support, the bullying and the children's feelings of inadequacy and isolation. Many had battled with the education authorities to have their children's needs recognised or to have those needs addressed. I didn't want to spend too much time tussling with the authorities, I just wanted to raise my children.

Intrigued and inspired by their stories, I researched it further, meeting with home-educating families, reading books and articles and discussing it all with my husband and our daughter. She promptly decided that she wanted to be home-educated after having attended primary school for almost two years. And so it began. My youngest son has never been to school.

My autistic son had gone to a fantastic nursery and on to a special school. I knew that eventually he would join his siblings in learning without school but I worried about how I would cope with teaching all three of them, especially considering how demanding he could be.

Then he moved to a new school which he never enjoyed, and clearly expressed his desire to leave, I listened and complied. I removed his name from the school register and embarked on a path of home-educating all three children.

It has been wonderful and he has thrived and developed in ways which, in my ignorance, I'd have thought were impossible. I can be forgiven for having such low expectations; the overwhelming depiction of autism I was faced with at his diagnosis, was very negative and heavy on the devastation rhetoric which has evolved over time as part of the mythology of autism.

But for each of my children, home-based education has allowed them to learn in a highly individualised and personally optimised setting. They are motivated to learn via their particular interests, like Doctor Who and Harry Potter, pets and wild animals, Thomas the Tank trains and roller coasters.

My son is autistic. It's an integral part of him, like his gender or eye colour and affects how he learns, how he experiences the world and how he interacts with others. It is no less valid a way of being than a non-autistic life. He is wonderful, just as he is. I am helping him and his siblings, to develop and grow to adults with the ability to think, the desire to learn and the ambition to realise their potential. I want them to have empathy and respect for others, to have confidence and self-esteem. I want them to develop the skills to solve problems and the flexibility to deal with modern life as well as they are capable. They learn that discrimination on the grounds on disability is no more acceptable than discrimination due to race, gender, social status or sexuality. Although I have the same wishes for all three children, they will not end up doing or achieving the same things and they will have different levels of independence. That's fine too. All I can do, is raise them as best I can, in an atmosphere of love and acceptance of their differences, difficulties and strengths.

My house is never as tidy as I'd like; there are usually piles of books, CD Rom boxes, swimming bags, toy trains and track, marker pens, dressing-up clothes and modelling clay lying about. Perhaps since we're all at home more than other families, it's more difficult to keep the chaos in check.

It's rarely quiet. The youngest might be in the kitchen perfecting his dance moves to a Justin Timberlake song, his sister in her room with the headphones plugged into my laptop and following an online maths course, while their brother designs another action packed funfair on Roller Coaster Tycoon or drawing a beautiful picture on the computer.

I stay more or less sane with frequent cups of tea, the odd break to blog or to read my favourites as well as lots of hugs and chats with the three greatest (in my biased opinion) children in the world.


Anonymous said...

Sharon you sound very sane to me and you are doing a wonderful job of enthusing and giving the gift of learning.

Sharon McDaid said...

Thanks Grannymar!

I was thinking of putting this post in for the blog book. Sure it'll do no harm to try!

Red Mum said...

I am humbled by your patience. Doing homework with herself after work was a torture and I used to get very frustrated, being wrecked after work and cooking etc. Which of course wasn't fair on her, she was tired and distracted as I was.

I never considered home schooling, couldn't consider it either (being on my own and needing to work) and wonder now would I in a home schooling situation have been as patient as she deserves, but I do know starting homework for a five or six year old at 7 or 8 at night isn't ideal and doesn't work, not when we have both had long full days.

I ended up asking the childminder if they could do it with her when she got back from school. Anything else wasn't fair on her.

So well done you, it sounds amazing, and they are three very lucky kids to be spending so much time together as a family and with their Mammy too.

In years to come they will feel so privileged and you will have so many wonderful memories of it all, particularly seeing as how you are blogging it.