*Wow, the feedback on this has been amazing. I had no idea that school was such a sensitive and difficult time for so many of my close friends and family members. Please know that I respect your individual choices when it comes to how to educate your children, as long as they are rooted in love and acceptance. <3*
I've always been a fan of structured schooling.
I was one of those kids who did really well academically, with very little effort. I was able to sit still during class, was a good listener (when I wasn't talking), and was self-driven enough to really apply myself when needed.
I flew through most of my courses, except anything having to do with Math, largely because of an undiagnosed learning condition (Discalculia) which I would only discover years later.
But for the most part, I was the kind of kid that the school system is built for.
I remember watching my peers struggle, never fully understand why they couldn't just adapt. Why did they have problems sitting still? Why did they struggle with active listening? Why couldn't they remember anything they read? It never occurred to me that my peers weren't only struggling with the actual information being presented, but that they were actually struggling with HOW it was being presented. I was too young to understand learning styles and how early childhood brains take in information. I was too young to know how completely counter-intuitive the entire school system is.
However, as I got older and grew through my years of study and work in childcare, I began to truly understand that- in many ways- the system itself is broken. It was designed to accommodate the needs of a society (namely, the needs of the work force), but not necessarily ideally suited to how children learn.
Kids like me- those who flourished in the very routined and structured environment of a school- we were the anomaly. Most kids got through, but they did not thrive. They simply survived.
School is, for many of our children, a significant obstacle to their ability to learn.
It wasn't until I became a parent that I was introduced to the concept of radical "unschooling," a philosophy which dictates that kids, left to their own devices and natural experience, will engage in active learning that fuels their desire to learn and their ability to adapt and problem solve. It is rooted in exploration and self-discovery, as opposed to rote-learning which relies on memory and methodology.
The idea of unschooling freaked me out. Seriously. Not only are you not sending your kids to school...you aren't actually giving them a curriculum at all?? That can't be right???
I watched as my friends engaged in this very free parenting approach and it took everything in my power to check my judgment and just observe. These were brilliant parents- women and men that I really respected. And they were rejecting a social norm that I had always assume just "was." There must be something to this, I thought, or these people that I really respect wouldn't be choosing this non-traditional lifestyle.
But still, it freaked me out.
And to be honest with you, it still does freak me out a little bit. I think that there is an awful lot about school that is necessary to functioning in a society, including but not limited to being exposed to learning methods that are not necessarily conducive to your own learning style. Beyond socialization, school encompasses an arrangement of social constructs that translate directly to how most work situations are based. There is a "boss" (Principal), managers (teachers), peers (students) to whom you are compared and contrasted. You are rewarded for excelling (grades/scores/praise), and you are admonished for failing to adapt to the situation at hand (grades/scores/reprimands). You are forced into a cohort of people who are your age, but who otherwise may have very little in common with you and, therefore, you have no choice but to learn to adapt to the different values, cultures, and social standards/norms that surround you.
It's a sink or swim environment.
It's not pretty. And it's definitely not "child friendly."
But in many ways, it is a miniature version of how 'real' life works, at least in a North American traditional model.
These were the principles that guided my decision to place Sam into a preschool designed for "early intervention" of his ASD challenges. And I have not regretted this decision at all. It is a difficult environment for him to learn in, and he requires (and has the right to) a variety of accommodations to make it work for him. But, he is also forced to learn how to be more flexible and more adaptable to situations that can not always be accommodated 100%. There are days where he has to go outside, even if the sun is too bright. We offer hats and sunglasses. But not going outside is not a choice, because in life you don't always have the option of just opting out.
You can call it 'tough love'. I call it 'the facts of life'.
So, four or five days a week, Sam goes to school for 3 hours a day, and during that time is thrust into a world that is very difficult for him to adapt and adjust to. He is doing remarkably well. He is succeeding beyond my wildest hopes. But he is not thriving. And he likely never will "thrive" in this type of environment.
And I am not expecting him to.
What I have learned of Sam in his almost-four short years on this planet, is that he is unquestionably an "exploration" based learner. He likes to test things out, engage in trial and error, see objects and problems from absolutely every angle. He likes to make toys play in a variety of ways- not only those for which they were designed. He likes to be engaged in things that interest him, not in activities that are dictated to him.
My kid loves to be "unschooled."
That is where he thrives.
And for that reason, I've taken a hard and firm approach with him for the hours that he is not in school:
We will not create a learning environment in our home in which our son can not thrive.
We will encourage him to learn and grow in ways that are suited to his learning style and personality.
We will respect that school is where he goes to learn to adapt, but home is where he goes to learn to become a fuller and richer human being.
We will respect his right to play, to exploration, to discovery.
We will respect his right to quiet, to privacy, to peace of mind.
We will respect his needs to turn off the lights, block out the sounds, and lose himself in his own mind.
In short, we will not turn our home into a classroom.
Classrooms are for school, not home.
This seems simple enough, right? Except that it's not. Because when your child is Autistic, the pressure is on to get them as much "early intervention" as humanly possible while their brains are still young and plastic. After all, research tells us that intervention is the best way to ensure that they are able to manage, or even eliminate, their symptoms.
Intervention is the only "cure" we have for Autism. It's the only way we know how to help kids become "normal".
So we are encouraged, as parents, to inundate our kids with learning.
Sensory Integration Therapy.
Social skills therapy.
The list goes on and on...
We are told that the more of these active services we access, the more our children have a chance at a healthy, happy life.
And maybe that's true.
For some kids.
But I have a hard time buying that it's true for my kid. Everything I know about him says that he learns best in situations where he is supported in his own discovery, not in an instruction-based setting.
So, aside from the 3 hours he spends at school, Sam's life is pretty much 'unschooled'.
We have never, outside of the school system, worked with any professionals on Sam's skills development.
All of his learning is rooted in our daily interactions, in a natural environment, that plays off what he loves.
His sensory diet is one that I designed, based on observing the activities that he loves and the ones that he seems resistant to. But even this "diet" is completely self-driven. Sam has access to a variety of sensory activities around the house that he can choose to engage in whenever he wants, including water play, swinging, fidgets, lights and sensory boards, and "nests". He even has his own room that was completely designed to be self-sufficient for him: he controls the lights, the furniture, what toys or objects are allowed in or out at any given time.
We encourage Sam to read and he does love books. We have made available a variety of magnets and cut outs of the alphabet, and every so often he surprises us by spelling out a word or two out of nowhere.
We encourage Sam to talk, but we do this by talking and singing to him. We do not force him to make verbal (or even non-verbal) requests for things, though we are finding more and more that he is choosing to do so.
We do not force Sam to engage in social interactions. If he wants to play with me or with someone else, he will join us in our space and we will play together. But there are some days where he would rather just play by himself in his playroom...and that's ok by me too.
And while we are investigating adding professional, out of school practitioners to his team, even these will be very Sam driven and focused on exploration and self-discovery.
There are many kids who can learn through ABA at a table. But my kid isn't one of them.
You see, the one thing that I know is true for all kids is that they learn differently. There is no "one size fits all" curriculum that you can hand them and say "there you go! Now you are able to function as an adult." This is as true for Allistic kiddos as it is for Autistic ones. So all traditional models of schooling, while they serve many good purposes, fail to respect the individual's ability to learn and grow in their own time and on their own terms.
I don't want my son to succeed at being like everyone else.
I want him to succeed at being who he is; who he was born to be.
And the only person who can help him learn that is himself.
So while it may seem like we are very hands-off or unconcerned with his development to some (and yes, the amount of criticism I field for my parenting style is incredible...), the truth is that my son is learning every single day.
Words are appearing.
Skills are being discovered.
Social interactions are increasing.
His self-esteem has never been higher.
But most importantly, he is happy. He is happier at home than he is anywhere else in the world. He feels safe and respected here. He knows that this is a place that accept him for who he is, and where he doesn't need to worry about fitting into a mould.
Home is where he thrives.
And that makes my heart soar.