Category Archives: Homeschooling

End of an Era

With the school year ending, it’s time for me to hang up one of my hats – for good. For the past year and a half, I have been homeschooling Nigel, and in September he will attend the high school for a full day, so I will no longer be his academic teacher. When he started back at the middle school in March, it was only part-time, so I continued to homeschool him for language arts and social science. He made some amazing progress in those areas, writing a total of five essays, including a comparative analysis of Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. His case manager at the middle school was so impressed that she took a copy of that essay to give to his future teachers at the high school. I’ll have to make sure they realize how much of an effort it was for him to complete that; it took him weeks to write it. They need to be aware of that before they expect him to produce more work – or at a faster pace – than he is capable of doing.

At any rate, come September my academic responsibility will be limited to helping him with assignments and encouraging his organizational skills. I will no longer be designing his curriculum, preparing lesson plans, or teaching the material. It was doable in middle school, even though it took me a while to get used to the idea, but I don’t think I could do it for high school. I mean, I consider myself to be fairly intelligent, but there’s a lot of high school knowledge that I would need to relearn in order to teach it to my son. It would take quite a bit of effort and time, and as a single parent of two, I’m in short supply of those items. I also had to radically reduce my work hours so that I could homeschool Nigel for the amount of time that I did; as a result, my bank account is in sorry shape. So continuing to homeschool is really not an option, and I’m glad that Nigel no longer needs it. We’re both looking forward to his return to full-time regular school, for many reasons.

But there’s something else that happens at the end of every school year, and has for the past eight years: Nigel and Aidan go visit their dad in Los Angeles for several weeks. LA is nearly 700 miles away from us; it’s a long drive. And another world away. They get a taste of big-city life, get to bodysurf on warm beaches, and Nigel gets to go to the day camp for autistic kids. These are all things they get to do that they can’t do at home in southern Oregon, and I am glad that they have the opportunity.  I’m also glad they get to spend time with their dad, whom they miss so much during the school year. But I miss them while they’re gone every summer. It’s just consuming, this missing. It’s not like when they’re gone for a week at Spring Break. One week is nothing. But seven, eight, is a daunting expanse that cannot be filled. Maybe I’m being melodramatic – I mean, after all, we go through this every year. But it never gets easier. I walk down the hall and see their empty rooms. I can’t watch a movie or eat ice cream without thinking of them and missing them. True, I’m keeping busy, especially since I’m back at work full-time, thanks to my wonderful employers. Life is full and good, but there’s this void with the boys gone. It doesn’t feel natural. I feel disjointed without them. And I’ve got a long summer ahead of me.

Since it’s impossible for me to go more than a month without seeing them, I’ll be visiting them next month, so that will break up the time, make it a little more bearable. For a while now, Nigel’s been requesting to go to the Grand Canyon, so three weeks from today, that’s what we’ll be doing. I can’t wait to share another adventure with them, but mostly I can’t wait to see them, hug them, to be in their presence. Of course, until then, I have phone calls to look forward to: “Hello, Mom. This is Nigel [insert last name] speaking.” Or perhaps a conversation like this one. Oh, well. I’m just happy to hear their voices.

So summer begins. And it just dawned on me that I’ve essentially combined two separate posts here – the end of homeschooling and missing my kids. Correlation? Nada. Let that be a testament to how disjointed I feel with my sons being away! I can’t even write!

There’s No F in IEP

This week Nigel received his mid-term progress report for his first term back at regular school after over a year of homeschooling. He is receiving an F in math, and I am not surprised. What’s that you say? How am I not surprised? Because a few weeks ago we discovered that the entire time I was homeschooling him, I was teaching him out of the wrong book.

It all started at his IEP last September, when I requested the school-issued math book so that I could teach him exactly what his peers were learning so that he would be up-to-date when he transitioned back into regular school. I also knew that at the end of eighth grade, this year, this month, actually, there would be benchmark testing for his entire grade, including him, whether he was still homeschooled or not. I wanted him to know what he needed to know. The school’s sped coordinator spoke to Nigel’s previous math teacher at the school, and then he, the sped coordinator, went to pick up the math book and brought it back to the meeting to give to me. I thanked him and was very appreciative that the school complied with my request for the book, since they are not obligated to do so.

And since last September, Nigel and I diligently worked through that book every single day, along with working on the other school subjects. I felt certain that we kept up very well, since we made it two-thirds of the way through the book by March, two-thirds of the way through the school year. When he started back at the middle school that month, initially I was more concerned with how he was doing socially and behaviorally than academically. Things seemed to be going well for the most part, and then it was time for Spring Break. After that, I started asking him how things were going in class, and how he was doing in math. I asked him where they were in the math book, if it was near where we had left off with homeschooling. That’s when he told me. “Mom, I found out that was a seventh grade math book we did homeschool with.”

I wanted to scream. “Are you serious?! Are you sure? It didn’t say seventh grade on it!”

He confirmed that was indeed the case. And had I not been so busy with Aidan’s health issues at the time, I would have marched straight into the sped coordinator’s office and let him have it. Or the math teacher who recommended the book. I was angry. I felt like I had wasted Nigel’s and my time and effort and had put him at a great disadvantage for returning to regular school and taking the required benchmark testing. My heart raced and I clenched my fists. I took a deep breath and vowed I would deal with it when I had time. I went home and trundled Aidan off to whatever doctor’s appointment he had.

A few days later, maybe that weekend, I remembered what I had read around the blogosphere about there being no accidents. Carrie mentioned it, and Jess and Pixie expanded on it. I started to calm down when I thought about that. And then Nigel wanted to rent Kung Fu Panda that weekend, which we hadn’t seen yet, and guess what the theme of that movie is? That’s right – there are no accidents. The wise old tortoise master says it several times. And I started thinking that maybe I was meant to receive the wrong math book. Maybe I received it because that was what Nigel needed me to teach him, and what he needed to learn. I realized that no one had intentionally given me the wrong book, it was just a mistake, and I was glad I hadn’t stormed into someone’s office threatening to bestow one of Mama Mara’s Ieppie Awards in the Worst Great Idea category.

And so the benchmark tests are in two weeks. It is what is and what will be, will be. I’m not going to get stressed out over it, and I certainly don’t want Nigel to be. His transitional IEP will be coming up soon, and I’ll be sure to diplomatically let everyone know the reason behind his (very) low math grade, without pointing fingers. And if anyone apologizes for giving me the wrong math book, I’ll surprise them by thanking them. Because I learned a lot from this experience. And not just how to divide fractions again.

Autism and Writing

Sometimes, when I’m writing, I just don’t know where to begin. A quote is nice as a hook, and so is a well-crafted topic sentence. Once I figure out the beginning, I can usually organize my thoughts well enough to write a fairly decent piece. But sometimes the ending gives me trouble. Or my transitions are choppy. It doesn’t always flow.

Nigel has trouble with all of these things, every time he writes. He usually has plenty to say (these days), but organizing all of his thoughts is difficult for him. He is back in regular school, but because it’s part-time, some of his subjects still fall under the homeschooling umbrella. Language Arts is one of them. Fortunately, I used to be a writing tutor, so I’ve got some experience in figuring out how to teach someone to write. I’ve worked with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, dyslexic students, and other students with special needs. But Nigel is my first autistic student.

Last year, I started off teaching him to type, which went very well, and then he wrote a few small paragraphs as reviews of educational videos he had watched. The trouble started this year when I had to explain to him that cutting and pasting paragraphs from Wikipedia articles was not an acceptable way to write an essay. But if I stop to think about it, that way of learning to write is exactly the way he learned to talk – by using words he had heard somewhere else. Yes, with writing it’s plagiarism, but I like to think of it as “echolalic writing.” So, just as he learned to talk when his speech was predominantly echolalic, I slowly guided him to use his own words in his writing. We began with a narrative essay, then an imaginative one, both three paragraphs long. Once he realized that he could write a full essay with his own words, I then upped the ante to a five-paragraph persuasive essay. He chose the topic – Stricter Rules Against Bullies. I helped him draft an outline, and then he typed the first draft.

One of the necessities of a persuasive essay, of course, is addressing the opposing viewpoint. Nigel, with his theory-of-mind challenges, declared, “I can’t mind read! How should I know what the opposing viewpoint is?!” And of course, that made all kinds of sense, coming from an autistic mind. I should have realized that the concept would have been difficult for him. After explaining that he should try to think of how he would feel if he were the other person, I realized that I was getting nowhere, and Nigel was only getting more frustrated. I finally had a brainstorm, albeit an obvious one. “Nigel,” I said, “read one of your reasons that you listed for why there needs to be stricter rules against bullies, and think of what you would say to someone who disagreed with you.” He took that and ran with it.

It’s Spring Break now, so he’s not writing, but when we get back to it in a week and a half, he’ll be working on his first essay involving research and citing sources. It’ll be a challenge for him, and will probably take him a few weeks to do it, but I think he can. I remember when he was not functionally verbal, and how glad I was that he could read, even though it was hyperlexia. I thought how wonderful it would be if he could learn to write, since he could not speak much, and he then could communicate by writing. I remember thinking that if he could write, it would liberate him to no end. And even though he can talk now, I still feel that way about him writing. He may have some difficulty with conventions, transitions, and thinking of good topic sentences. It hurts his hand to write with a utensil, which is why I knew I had to teach him to type. But now he’s writing, and that will take him everywhere.

Changes

That David Bowie song is playing in my head – “Ch-ch-ch-changes . . . Turn and face the strange changes . . .”

Nigel and I have some big changes ahead of us. It’s been a year since I began homeschooling him, and just when I started to feel like I was doing okay with it, Nigel announced that he wants to go back to regular school. I’m not too surprised, actually. He is a social, extroverted person, autism notwithstanding, and even though he’s been involved in Scouts and has other social outlets, he’s reaching his limit of being home with Mom. And it’s showing in his lack of compliance with doing his schoolwork. It’s been increasingly difficult to get him to focus, to gauge if he’s learning anything, and if he is, whether it’s going to stay with him. His thoughts are always elsewhere.

I never expected to homeschool him for very long. Hell, I never expected to homeschool him at all until it became necessary! I had never even entertained the thought. I never thought I was the homeschooling “type,” whatever I thought that meant. I guess I thought it meant people who really wanted to homeschool their children for religious reasons – or any reason, for that matter. But once I realized that he needed it, a) because things were so bad at school that he asked me to, and b) because bussing him to a contained classroom in a different city was not acceptable to me, then I wanted to do it. Then I began to wrap my mind around it and come up with ways to make it happen. It was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a single parent – making drastic work changes, schedule changes, and financial changes. I put so much mental energy into just getting used to the idea of homeschooling. Then I had to research what I was supposed to teach him, how to do it, and plan. It required a lot of focus to convince myself that I could do it.

It’s not over yet, of course, not for a while. The first step will be to see his doctor again, since we have decided to try some new medication to help with his behavior and need to get started with that. Then we need to attend his IEP (Nigel has requested, for the first time, to attend his IEP meeting, which is huge) to discuss what his options are. Most likely he will attend two classes in the morning and then come home, so he will be half-homeschooled. We’ll do this for spring term, and if all goes well, in the fall when he starts high school (gulp), he may be able to attend full-time with some support.

So, we’re making adjustments. It reminds me of when he was younger and he attended three different elementary schools before we found the right fit – we constantly made adjustments. We are no strangers to change. Part of me is feeling defeated – I had to work myself up to doing this in the first place (homeschooling), and now it is winding down. But it’s not like I’m throwing in the towel. We’re just making adjustments. Trying to find the right fit again. I have to believe that we will.

Winter Break

Remember when it was called Christmas Vacation? It amuses me that even what we call our seasonal time off must conform to political correctness. But that’s okay. I actually prefer the name change, especially since I’ve been teaching this year, and I realize how essential a break really is.

One of the most common internet searches that points people to this website is “homeschooling autistic teenager.” I know this not just because my blog software tells me, but because I’ve typed that search myself. And I still do. I keep hoping that someone out there will have figured out the ins and outs of homeschooling autistic teens. And if they already have, I haven’t yet discovered their words of wisdom.

Winter Break gives me a chance to do a lot of things in addition to taking a break from teaching. I catch up on other work, like the work I do that actually generates some income (can’t let that slide!), I clean the house a bit, I try to visit with friends and family members who may be wondering if I’ve dropped off the face of the earth, and I make plans for the next school term. I have been homeschooling my autistic teenager for nearly a year now, and this is what I’ve learned.

  • Homeschooled autistic teens function best with a written schedule. We went without a written schedule for one term, and we won’t be doing that again. Not having a written schedule opens the door for numerous motivation and focusing issues.
  • Verbal autistic teens will debate with you the merit of any subject that they are not interested in learning. In fact, they will debate the necessity of formal education in general. They will demand to live how they want to live. This does not just happen occasionally. It happens every day. Yes – every single day without fail. You know that saying about the patience of a saint? It ain’t me. So I have learned to leave the room for a moment to get my bearings and remember that even though he is verbal, it doesn’t mean that I can reason with him. It doesn’t mean that even if we’ve already discussed the importance of education three days in a row that he won’t ask the same question tomorrow.
  • Autistic teens are individuals and have their own particular learning styles. My son is a visual-kinesthetic learner. I have taught him division by taking a pile of almonds and grouping it into sets of three to show how a number goes into another number. For years while he was mainstreamed he never understood this concept because math is not typically taught that way. I have also taught him how to multiply fractions by writing out the steps for him to visually refer to.
  • Autistic teens may need “crutches” to help with some concepts. I have used question marks in place of letter variables when teaching algebra to my son. After he learned how to solve the equations, he no longer needed to substitute the question marks in place of the letters.
  • What works one week may not work the next. Not only do you have to “think outside the box,” you have to reinvent the proverbial wheel on a regular basis. Inspired moments like teaching division with almonds won’t always produce the same “a-ha!” results when applied to other concepts. The almonds, however, do come in handy if you get hungry.
  • Homeschooling an autistic teen will stretch you – your mind, in coming up with innovative ways to reach someone who thinks differently and often simply does not want to learn; your patience, in dealing with the daily debates and the frustration of going over the same concept for weeks; and of course, your heart. Nothing else I’ve ever done is more of a labor of love than this.  

So take Winter Break, Spring Break, and Summer Break. In fact, take Friday Break also. Keep up your strength and safeguard your sanity. Take whatever breaks you can, when you can. Take Christmas Vacation, Halloween Rest, Easter Time-Out. Relax, regroup, rediscover. And then restart.

Selfism

I suppose many typically-developing teenagers question why they need to learn certain things in school, or why they need to take a certain class. And you can usually reason with them along the lines of “You need to graduate from high school so that you can go to college. Or if you don’t go to college, you still need to graduate from high school so you can at least get an entry-level job somewhere. And in order to graduate from high school, you need to take some classes that you don’t like.” And they won’t like this reasoning, but they will eventually see the logic.

The autistic teen? Not so much. “You don’t think like I do.” This is what Nigel tells me after I have tried the above-mentioned reasoning tactic. He really does not see the merit in graduating from high school. “I want to live how I want to live. Why can’t we live like our cavemen ancestors? That was when survival was more needed than mathematics.” And he is serious.

This is what I deal with when I try to teach him algebra and essay writing. And I point out to him that at least now he can learn these mandatory things at home where it’s quiet and he is not distracted and harassed by other students. I also gently mention that I’ve made some major adjustments to be able to do this for him. But that’s a concept he can’t grasp. Even though once in a while he’ll take out the trash without complaining and then (!) he actually puts a new bag in the trashcan without being reminded (!) or he scoops some ice cream in a bowl for himself and then – on his own – scoops some in a bowl for me (!), even though he does these things once in a great while, he is still pervasively influenced by the aut, the self. Selfism. It’s not that he only thinks about himself or only cares about himself. It’s not egocentric or narcissistic. It’s that he cannot understand someone else’s viewpoint. He can’t possibly realize that, as a single parent, I go through a lot to be able to homeschool him. He can’t understand why education is necessary, beyond what he already knows. He is governed by the self. “You don’t think like I do” also means “I’m only able to think how I think.”

Mind you, this is just a mom still trying to figure it out. I think I know enough, and then months later I have another epiphany and I realize that I have so much more to learn. I know now that I will spend the rest of my days trying to understand my son’s autism. Trying to think like he does. Many parents say that having an autistic child will make you see the world differently. My son is fourteen and every day I am still realizing just how true – how profoundly true – that is.

When Autism Does Not Equal Liking Math

There’s a saying in the autism community that you’re probably familiar with. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” This loosely translates to “When an autistic teen doesn’t like math, he really doesn’t like math.” And neither do I, making it an arduous task to teach it to him. After trying to teach him long division and triple-digit multiplication late last year, I finally said, “Oh, look! A calculator!” and the two of us were much happier. That is until this year, when we got to algebra.

I tried to explain to my son as he gently banged his head on the kitchen table that if he wanted to attend the local public high school at some point (which he has indicated that he does), he would need to learn algebra. A simple equation like 2c + 1 = 7 would send him into a tirade: This is an outrage! Letters do not belong in math!

After explaining to him that the letters are called variables and they symbolize numbers that we need to figure out by solving the equation, an idea came to me. As we sat on the couch together with the dreaded math book in front of us, I suggested to Nigel that we substitute a question mark for the variables. In other words, 2c + 1 = 7 would become 2? + 1 = 7. I could actually feel Nigel calming down as soon as I rewrote the equations. And it worked. He listened to my instructions and he could solve the equations.

The drawback to this, of course, would be when we got to two variables within the same equation: 2x + y = 7. I started to think that we could use other symbols besides question marks, like an asterisk. Then I thought, okay, maybe the question mark is just a crutch, just something that will help him to understand the concept of variables so that he can learn how to solve the equations, and after a while he won’t need to substitute ? for c or x.

Following our local public school calendar, which gave all of last week off for conferences and Thanksgiving, we homeschoolers also took last week off. Today we got out the math book, Nigel groaned, and I turned to a new chapter, one that started working with two variables in the equations. We started working one together, and I wrote it out just as it was in the book: y = 2x + 8. Nigel did not ask about the question mark. He did not yell about letters not belonging in math. The question mark had been just a crutch, one that he quickly could do without. But he still reminds me every day that he doesn’t like math at all. “Just humor me,” I tell him, and then I explain what that means.

On a side note, I just discovered this article, Reaching an Autistic Teen, that I loved and wanted to share. It’s about a special school in Decatur, Georgia for autistic teenage boys. Be sure to check out the last page – there’s a bit about one of the boys wanting to build a “magic cabinet,” and it reminded me so much of something Nigel would want to do. I absolutely loved it.

Picture Day

Often it’s the little things that really make your day. With homeschool pictures, you get to choose the day, you get to take as many shots as you want until you get a good one, and you don’t have to write a check. You also get to make sure that your child is wearing something decent, not the ratty old T-shirt he wore last year without your knowledge that it was picture day at school. This year, I feel vindicated. Here is the homeschooled one, in all his self-buttoned glory.

Nigel

 

Homeschooling Hurdles

Search engines amaze me. We can type in anything and in mere seconds, dozens, even hundreds and thousands, of listings pop up in some configuration of what we typed. We could spend days reading all of them. And so, when someone finds this web site by typing “teen homeschooled and doesn’t want to learn” into a search engine (as my blog tracking software indicated a few days ago), it amazes me.

The reason it amazes me is because, even though I have not yet written about it, that is what I have been experiencing recently with Nigel. It’s not that he doesn’t want to learn anything, it’s just that he only wants to learn what he wants to learn. He loves science, especially earth science and weather, but he is also interested in biology, chemistry, and even introductory physics. His favorite subject, of course, is history. His concept of the ideal learning approach is to sit on the couch and read National Geographics all day or, better yet, watch a DVD about whatever historical topic he’s studying. “That’s how I learn things,” he says. He feels that there’s no need for him to write an essay about it because it’s all in his head. And on some level, I’m sure it is all there. But I’ve got to prepare him for high school. I’ve got to teach him to write an organized essay, site sources, etc. For the time being, I’ll say that he’s resistant and leave it at that.

He is also highly resistant to learning math. Nigel, in an un-stereotypically autistic way, hates math. Numbers are good for historical dates, calendars, times of movie listings, how much a Lego set costs, phone numbers and addresses, but other than that he has no use for them. Why learn multiplication tables when we have calculators? “Long division is for losers,” he loves to say. “I’m going to destroy it.”

He says he’s going to “destroy education,” too. And Charlemagne, since Nigel thinks that’s who “invented” it. He’s going to go back in time and assassinate Charlemagne because he apparently had something to do with promoting education.  This plan came about when I pointed out today that he is required by law to be educated. “You can be educated at Blank Middle School or here at home. Which do you prefer?” “Neither. I’ll destroy education,” he says, and purposefully presses down too hard on his pencil so the lead breaks.

It isn’t supposed to go this way, I tell myself. He should appreciate that I’m homeschooling him so he doesn’t have to go to the school he hates. Doesn’t he realize all the sacrifices I’ve made as a single parent to be able to homeschool him? Of course not, and I can’t expect him to. He’s a kid, an autistic kid at that. But there’s only so much I can take. Only so much talk of “destroying” things, non-tangible things that can’t be destroyed anyway. “That doesn’t make sense,” I tell him when I am at my wit’s end, unable to try to reason with him any longer.

And so, to the person who Googled “teen homeschooled and doesn’t want to learn,” I say the following:  

You’re in good company. Despair not. Take it one day at a time. I don’t know if your teen is autistic or not, but mine is and that’s how I manage things. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to manage it – one day at a time. That’s the only advice I’m able to offer. Some days they’ll listen and some days they won’t. Some days they get it, and some days they throw their math books across the room. And yeah, some days we want to throw the math book across the room too. Some days we want to yell, “This isn’t fun for me, either!” But we just keep at it. Yes, it is hard. What I call the “hurdle days” are especially hard. But it’s also worth it. Even though I’m making this up as I go along, I know that it’s worth it.

All Done IEP

When Nigel was about six and seven and using some spontaneous speech, he would tell me when he wasn’t comfortable with a situation. “All done rafting,” he said when I took him rafting on a mild part of a local river. “All done doctor,” “All done wash face,” and “All done vacuum” were heard frequently, or just “All done” between hiccupping sobs when something really upset him. It is in this spirit that I attended his IEP meeting today.

I know they mean well, the IEP team. Of course they do. One of them has known and worked with Nigel for ten years. But when I tell them the poignant story about Nigel doing art therapy in his yearbook, drawing ape faces on all the faces of the kids who had bullied him at that school, and the IEP team tells me that “a lot” of it was Nigel’s “perception” that the kids were bullying him, it makes me want to scream. It makes me want to knock a few skulls, okay? And then they suggest that maybe in a couple of months Nigel might be able to come back part-time (since I am currently homeschooling him). So I try to diplomatically reply, “Nigel really does not want to set foot in this school again. It’ll be all I can do to get him to agree to come to the once-a-week social skills class.”

IEP meetings tend to be the bane of every special needs parent’s existence. Until just a few years ago, I had two kids on IEPs. I thought I was tough. I thought I could do an IEP in my sleep. Seven years ago, my children’s father moved 700 miles away, and so I have attended these IEP meetings alone. And no matter what, no matter how many of these I have attended in the last eleven years, I still feel just as vulnerable. I still feel myself on the verge of tears, trying to hold it together, trying to convey to them No, it WASN’T just Nigel’s PERCEPTION that he was being bullied. How could they say that to me? After all that my child has been through? After all the calls they made to me at work, telling me I had to pick him up because of some behavioral issue they couldn’t handle. Because the constant bullying had driven him to such an agitated state that he could not even function. He could not make it through the day. It was not just his “perception.” That much I knew, as I breathed in sharply and felt my heart rate increase and my blood race through my veins at 8:15 this morning. I just looked at the person who said it. And then I looked away.

After that, we discussed his IEP goals, we talked about the social skills class, they asked how he was doing (much better now that he doesn’t perceive himself to be bullied anymore, thank you!), and they provided some math and writing materials that will be helpful for homeschooling. We discussed the benchmark testing he will need to do in the spring. We touched on options for high school next year.  We signed the papers. Said Thank you for coming. Went through the motions.

But at the end of the hour, as I walked out to my car, I realized that even though I had been upset by someone’s insensitive remark, my mantra pulled me through. “In an hour this will be over, and Nigel’s needs will be met.” This is what I say to myself before every IEP meeting. And somehow, no matter what happens, it works. All done IEP.