By Louise Frazer
All homeschoolers face challenges at some level, but parents of autistic children often have a different set of challenges than most parents can even begin to imagine. Moreover, it can be hard to fit in with the average support group, geared for families with neuro-typical children. The needs and learning goals can be very different as well, leaving parents of extreme cases feeling like they are stranded on a desert island.
Rachel’s son, Cody, is on the extreme end of the autistic spectrum, functioning at a very low level. Although Cody is only semi-verbal, Rachel says, “I show him pictures and speak to him like I’m speaking to you, and he understands.” Every day is an adventure, and he can be unpredictable when they go out in public, but her greatest struggle is figuring out what her son is trying to say. She shares how helpless she feels when he is crying but she has no idea of how to help. Could it be a headache? Indigestion? It is a constant guessing game to know what he is trying to say—small wonder that he regularly had temper tantrums.
Rachel states their turning point was discovering a program called Sonrise. Although it has been available in the United States for over two decades, it was not even suggested as an option when Cody was diagnosed, and she says she discovered it by accident. Through their program, she learned techniques and strategies to help him learn, including getting him to make eye contact and learning to talk. Rachel says before employing the Sonrise techniques, Cody was hardly speaking. Using their language techniques, Rachel began with one-word action words and spoke to him in one-word “sentences”, such as “Eat,” and “Jump!” After three months, she added two word sentences, such as “Eat apple.”
Cody was attending a specialized school at the time, but as he progressed with his mom teaching him when he was home, she became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in school. Although geared to help children like Cody, the system wasn’t working for him. “In school, they have to use the same strategies for all.” She concluded he really needed the one-on-one learning only afforded by homeschooling.
Not only could Rachel give him the individualized instruction he so badly needed, but she discovered that pacing is very important for Cody. She has learned to let him lead so he can learn at his own pace and to offer him choices whenever possible. She looks for every opportunity to match the things that motivate him with their learning goals, so she observes him closely and makes note of what he likes. When she noticed he likes bell noises, she asked herself, “How do I use this?” Rachel says she has learned to respect his “no” and to wait for him to be ready to learn. When Cody feels pushed, her efforts backfire. Letting go, and giving him more control, has ironically helped accelerate his learning. She explains homeschooling took the pressure off, with the unexpected result that his tantrums decreased by 80%. “When he was in school, it was rush, rush, rush,” states Rachel.
Since beginning homeschooling, Cody‘s communication has increased. Further, he has learned to wait, which was a big issue at school, and now can even say “wait” when waiting for food. His autonomy has also increased, and now he washes his hands by himself and is starting to brush his own teeth. Rachel says since homeschooling, she has been able to know him better.
Even with such tangible progress, there are discouraging days and lots of ups and downs. Rachel says, “I can’t say every day is beautiful; there are hard days…I’m still learning every day.” But she points out that it is she who decides if the journey they are on is horrible or happy.
They also homeschool year round, even on weekends, making use of every teachable opportunity. Consistency is one of the keys to success, because as Rachel says, “You’re not going to get anywhere without it.”
Rachel is grateful that HSLDA gave her the guidance and encouragement to start her homeschooling journey. She is also grateful that homeschooling is an option that permits her the freedom to use a program so pivotal for her son. In her words, “Sonrise…widened the world for me and opened my eyes to understand Cody. Before that, I was trying to fix him. After, I learned to love him as he is, but still (pursue) what I want for him. Homeschooling is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”