By Meghan Vivo
Children with autism and Asperger’s are highly misunderstood – a fact that makes it difficult for them to get their needs met in public school.
Many teachers and school officials lack adequate education about the disorder and do not know how to respond to typical autistic behaviors. Those who are willing to invest in these students may not be able to because of large class sizes and the disparate needs of their students. Parents have also found it challenging, if not impossible, to get needed services, such as occupational therapy and sensory integration therapy at a public school.
As a result, children with autism are faced with repeated academic failures and physical and emotional abuse by peers, which, in turn, can lead to the following:
- Low self-esteem
- Getting expelled from school due to misunderstandings
- Social isolation
- Refusing school
- Giving up on academic success or hopes to attend college
Typical observations from parents might include, “My child started refusing to get out of bed in the morning, and I knew it was because of bullies,” or, “My teen kept coming home angry, but would never tell me what was wrong,” says Molly Shriver-Blake, MSW, the program manager at a school for children with autism.
Frustrated, upset, and wanting better for their child, many parents of children with autism do research about their child’s unique needs and decide to homeschool. But is homeschooling the best answer?
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Homeschooling
In some cases, homeschooling may be an effective option. At home, parents can protect their child and create a self-paced learning environment, notes Shriver-Blake. Specifically, parents can monitor their child’s peer influences, address their child’s specific learning needs, create their own academic curriculum, and reduce the number of transitions their child must experience on a day-to-day basis.
But many families find the responsibility of educating their child is more complex than anticipated. Children with autism who are homeschooled are sometimes unrealistically sheltered from real-world events and issues, says Shriver-Blake. Because their days are filled primarily with parent-child interactions, home-schooled teens may lack independence.
Parents who homeschool are often overwhelmed with the all-consuming nature of being both parent and teacher. “When parents wear too many hats – parent, coach, teacher, disciplinarian and guidance counselor – it gets difficult to sort out what the expectations are based on the role the parent is currently filling,” explains Shriver-Blake. “The teen ends up confused, and the parents end up exhausted.”
The social aspect of homeschooling is another challenge, says Shriver-Blake. “Learning about social norms and expectations, making friends, and practicing social skills are critical for children with Asperger’s,” she says. “In some cases, homeschooling decreases the child’s desire to become involved socially because their parents have become their world.”
Despite these difficulties, homeschooling can be beneficial for teens with Asperger’s and autism. For parents willing to take on the challenge, Shriver-Blake offers the following recommendations:
- Get your child involved in supervised peer groups outside of the family to build social skills.
- Hire tutors to vary teaching styles.
- Get other adults involved to fulfill different roles, such as tutor, teacher or counselor.
- Take breaks for yourself.
- Follow an open curriculum.
- Teach extracurricular topics.
- Use experiential education tools.
- Get outside and exercise.
- Take precautions to ensure you don’t shelter your child.
Alternative Schools for Children with Autism
Even with the best intentions and adequate planning, homeschooling does not work for many families, says Shriver-Blake. “As the saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Sometimes the stress of so few people doing so many jobs makes homeschooling an unworkable option,” she says.
For these families, an appealing alternative to homeschooling is special needs boarding schools or specialized programs for teens with Asperger’s and autism. Schools like Southeast Journeys in North Carolina (part of the renowned Talisman Programs for children and teens with special needs) create a positive peer culture in which each student’s strengths and unique learning styles are appreciated. The experienced staff works to treat self-esteem issues intensified by negative experiences in traditional schools by peers, and helps students develop the skills to develop independence.
“Some of our students who have been homeschooled have expressed how much they appreciate their time here,” says Shriver-Blake. “They report feeling more comfortable with peers and academics – things they had shut themselves off from previously.”
You know your child’s needs better than anyone else. — If public school isn’t working for your child, consider the alternatives. For some, the best learning environment may be homeschooling. For others, specialized schools for children with autism and Asperger’s are best equipped to help their child develop personally, academically, and socially.