by Steph W.
"She's just not doing the things other five-year-olds are doing," a very frustrated substitute teacher told me.
I was puzzled. My five-year-old, S., was already reading, and she dictated wonderful stories. Her verbal skills were advanced, and she had great problem-solving skills. She loved to learn about science and nature. She seemed to really "get" concepts like God, death, and infinity.
What was S. not doing that set her behind her peers and caused the teacher to look like she'd witnessed a battle? She wasn't following simple directions and routines. She didn't put away her things or transition from one activity to another when she was told to. She seemed to have an aversion to rules. She didn't play with other kids on the playground. Overwhelmed by the noise and motion of 14 other 5-year-olds, she avoided the other children at recess, refused to participate in P.E., and wouldn't walk in line.
My daughter, who was later identified as "gifted" and diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and Non-Verbal Learning Disability, came home from school every day with dark circles under her eyes. We tried hard to make classroom life work for her. We collaborated with the teacher in focusing on her goals for S. We pushed the importance of following classroom rules and walking in a queue. We lectured S. We devised all sorts of behavior modification plans -- psych speak for offering rewards. We were not yet wise enough to understand why our well-intentioned efforts were so spectacularly ineffective, and no one could guide us. I can only imagine all the additional stress we put on our beloved kiddo by trying to get her to fit the mold designed for public school life.
Children with Asperger's or NLD are typically intelligent and have excellent verbal abilities. They usually struggle with social, motor, and organizational skills. "Reading" other people's emotions, facial expressions, and body language is difficult. The give and take of conversation and cooperative play is hard won. They are often physically uncoordinated, and rules, routines, and basic organizational skills elude them.
On the other hand, if given time to focus on their own interests and explore their unique intellectual gifts, they accomplish amazing things. This is true for everyone, of course. But it is especially important for kids with AS. They often feel driven to learn everything they can about their special interests, and they are unlikely to see the point in following anyone else's lead.
A traditional scope and sequence is even less likely to make sense for our kids than for their "neurotypical" peers. S. has Non-Verbal Learning Disability which sometimes, though not always, goes with Asperger's. As a result her verbal reasoning skills were quite advanced, while non-verbal problem-solving skills, such as math, building things, reading maps, and other visual-spatial activities, were challenging. She needed to be challenged in reading and other verbal skills. She also needed extra time to blossom in math. Neither of these things were possible in a public school setting, even with the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to which she was entitled by law. She could get extra help in challenging areas and a few gifted-talented services. But she could not be allowed to blossom at her own pace. The government-mandated scope and sequence took precedence.
Because of her need to follow a path that fit her developmental needs and to have more time to explore her own interests and gifts, home schooling is a good fit for S. Living without school means that, instead of focusing on the things teachers need her to learn, we can concentrate on things that make sense in her life. Walking in line is not really an essential life skill. When was the last time you were judged on your ability to walk in a straight, orderly queue? This may sound funny, but it was a BIG deal in school.
There is no reason for anyone to EVER have to participate in group games and sports if that is a recipe for humiliation rather than fun. I am sure S. is one of many kids with gross motor delays who found P.E. to be an embarrassing ordeal. Exercise and fitness matter, and they can be achieved by walking or swimming. Sports? If that's not what you're into, it's not important.
Is it necessary for a child to learn to exist in close quarters with 14 other people, for six hours at a stretch, without running for the hills? Not really. Few adults have to work under these circumstances.
What about organizational skills -- being able to get together ones work materials without the teacher pulling her hair out? Well, yes, organizational abilities matter. But this needn't be a huge part of a child's day. Organizational skills can be developed gradually, as the child becomes ready.
Do social skills matter? Of course they do. Social skills -- true social skills -- are developed in the family, community, and among friends. The ability to negotiate playground politics, which seemed so monumental when S. was in school, seems to bear little resemblance to anything that is meaningful in real life. Now, if she doesn't feel comfortable hanging out with a gang of other kids on the playground, she needn't go. She is free to choose friends from among many people, of various ages, in the community and to build relationships at her own pace.
Many of the issues that once inundated our lives seem small enough to fit into a tea cup. Being able to tolerate the sensory overload of a classroom, walking in line, and negotiating playground politics no longer matter. Rules and routines are crafted to fit her needs, instead of it being the other way around. Her blueprint for learning is a collaborative effort between her and her parents rather than a state-mandated formula.
S. is now 13, and in "eighth grade." Her "English curriculum," might be reading and discussing books of her own choosing, or it can be writing a novel or memoir. There is no need to break grammar, spelling, reading and literature into disconnected pieces. "Social studies" can be exploring psychology -- a special interest -- for several years. There is no deadline for finishing the "course." She delves into graduate-level psych textbooks, reads psychological novels and memoirs, and discusses the ideas she's absorbing.
Nothing is perfect; the problems she faced in school did not magically evaporate. But she has time to follow her own passions and develop her own gifts. She can make a life that focuses on her strengths and abilities rather than on her weaknesses. She can choose to associate with people who accept her as she is and treat her with dignity. That's about all any parent could ask for.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (13), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.