In some ways I was lucky. I knew nothing about Aspergers when I started homeschooling. I only knew that my oldest son was different from other children. Although I had researched homeschooling, I chose to send him to our local parochial school for kindergarten and first grade. It was not a positive experience. He never wanted to get out of bed in the morning, struggled with behavior issues and meltdowns at school, and came home with his stress level at maximum level. We then had to struggle over homework, which took forever and caused even more anxiety. At the end of first grade, I decided to pull both him and his younger brother out of school.
It wasn’t until he was almost nine that he received the diagnosis of Aspergers, a high-functioning form of Autism. While it came as a shock, I began reading everything I could about the diagnosis and parenting a child with Aspergers. The pieces began to fit. I also realized that my younger son had many of the characteristics as well. Those two boys are now in ninth and eighth grade, and we are still homeschooling. Yes, you can homeschool a child with Aspergers. In fact, in many cases, it can be the best choice to accommodate their educational and social needs. This doesn’t mean the road is easy, but there are some things I’ve learned along the way that may help to make it easier.
1) Do What You Can to Get Your Child out of Meltdown Mode
If you have a child with Aspergers, you are most likely familiar with meltdowns. They aren’t pretty. Your child may behave in completely age-inappropriate ways, throwing what appears to be an epic tantrum over the smallest thing. Sometimes, you don’t even know the trigger. One minute, the child is fine. The next, he or she is a screaming, thrashing mess.
These children often have sensory issues. Too much light, noise, an uncomfortable fabric on their skin, or an unpleasant smell can make it impossible for them to function. They also like routine. Unexpected changes can cause a great deal of stress. For them, the world is a scary place, and they just want to feel safe, which means staying with what is familiar and feels comfortable to them.
The Asperger Experts (http://www.aspergerexperts.com/), two young men with Aspergers who now work to help other parents and children coping with this brain difference, refer to meltdown mode as “Defense Mode,” which is a more accurate description. These children put up a defense wall when they feel threatened. When they are in meltdown, they are scared. This is not the time to punish them for behaving inappropriately. This is not the time to force them to finish whatever lesson they might have been working on at the time. This is the time to help them find a safe space where they can relax and feel secure in the world once more. This may mean a special corner in your home or holding on to a favorite toy.
Paying attention to what triggers your child’s meltdowns can help reduce them. You may not ever be able to completely eliminate them, but any reduction in number is a plus. Professional counseling focusing on identifying triggers and offering relaxation techniques may also help with this.
2. Embrace Your Child’s Obsessions.
A common trait of those with Aspergers is to fixate on a particular topic. Jennifer Cook O’Toole is an Aspie, married to an Aspie, with three children who are on the spectrum. Her children have attended both traditional school and been homeschooled. In her book, Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome, she shares, “An Aspie’s special interest is not a perseveration to be endured – it is the most powerful way into our hearts and minds . . . the child’s passion is the way to get him passionate about learning.” As a mother, she acknowledges this can be hard. At her dinner table, there may well be “concurrent monologues about Athena, dinosaurs, and Spiderman.” Nevertheless, “that passion is your ticket into their minds and hearts.”
What does that mean for homeschooling? First, it means that as the parent, you need to acquire at least a working knowledge of whatever they are interested in. You need to show interest in and listen to their monologues, and be able to ask intelligent questions. It may require playing their favorite game with them over and over. It also requires some creative thinking to incorporate whatever their current passion may be into a math, reading, history, literature lesson etc. For example, a child interested in dinosaurs could do math problems involving them, read stories about them, make up stories in which dinosaurs time-traveled into different historical eras, and write about different types of dinosaurs.
3. Work with their Limitations and Make the Most of their Strengths
Children with Aspergers often are gifted in some academic areas and require special help in others. This makes them a unique challenge in a traditional classroom. In homeschooling, a learning plan designed especially for that particular child can be developed and implemented.
According to Cook O’Toole, “many Aspies, who may already battle anxiety, confidence issues, and some OCD tendencies, must also manage real roadblocks like working memory problems, dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, visual or auditory processing issues, hypotonia (low muscle tone), motor planning problems, or sensory integration issues.” Yet, “they are often ‘too bright’ to receive educational or therapeutic support, even if they have legitimate deficits in learning.”
Your child may need testing to determine where their particular difficulties lie, but in many cases, simply by being with them and doing some research, a parent can figure out how to help his or her child. For example, using a multi-sensory approach to spelling, allowing more verbal than written responses, requiring fewer tests and/or providing more time for tests, incorporating frequent breaks and physical activity into the day, and creating schedule charts can all help an Aspie thrive. The Home School Legal Defense Association offers some helpful links for children with special needs at http://www.hslda.org/courtreport/V31N3/V31N37-SN.asp
It is also important to emphasize your child’s strengths. Many Aspies have amazing memories (for things that they want to remember!) Others may have skill in math or science or the arts. Make sure to incorporate a lot of what he or she is good at. This will give the child a sense of accomplishment and help him or her face the tasks that are more difficult.
Yes, it is possible for your child with Aspergers to thrive being homeschooled. Some days will be better than others, but in time, you will be able to look back and see the progress that has been made. Someday, your child may even thank you for it!