My oldest child was in the 2nd grade when we decided to homeschool him. It was a difficult decision, one fraught with fear and anxiety. Jack, who has autism, was barely verbal. He had to be taught one on one, required a schedule, and couldn’t entertain himself. I wondered where I would even begin when it came to curriculum. Among the many questions I had, the most ominous was: Could I give that much of myself? Was there enough of me to go around? Jack’s autism was going to make things complicated, and I wasn’t sure I was qualified. I did have four other children at home to consider: a kindergartener and first grader, whom I was already enjoyably homeschooling, as well as a toddler and a baby. How on earth could I balance all of this?
The school was trying the best they could, but it was crystal clear that the system was not designed for children with moderate- to low-functioning autism. They were constantly asking for advice in their effort to improve Jack’s school experience. We worked together to come up with rewards, picture schedules, and adaptations to the curriculum and the environment.
Still, the stress on Jack was causing nonstop meltdowns every morning and afternoon. Jack was refusing to eat at school. He was miserable, we were miserable. I felt sometimes as if I barely knew who Jack was. The only peaceful time we had was at bedtime. I wasn’t sure bringing him home full-time was the answer to a better life for Jack, or if it would just multiply all of our miseries. I prayed fervently about it. One thing was certain: I, as his mother, who knew Jack intimately, was more in tune with his needs than strangers, even if they were well-intentioned strangers.
Just one year, I thought. I mustered all the courage I could, then I launched off into the unknown.
The first year was an experiment. My main focus was to find out how Jack learned, and what he was interested in learning, and using that to motivate him. It took trying out a few different curriculums and a variety of household schedules to find something that worked. I had to adjust what I was doing with my other children as well, to accommodate Jack and his needs. Nothing is ever perfect, but we found a place where we could function, remain sane, and even have clean underwear. Who says you can’t have it all?
In my search I found that some curriculums were too wordy, others were too abstract. I hunted down the most concrete and simple math and language arts curriculum I could find. This curriculum-hopping was a bit expensive at first, but I didn’t get too attached to any one curriculum. It was still cheaper than the private school tuition we had paid in previous years. I left science and social studies to what I could find for free, and that included mostly student-lead, hands-on activities. I then plugged them into a schedule.
Through trial and error I learned that it worked best to have a “flow” chart rather than a schedule with specific times. Remarkably, Jack’s most peaceful and focused time was in the evening when his siblings were all in bed, and we would sit down and work on math and language arts. This first year was the biggest learning curve, but on the whole, it was a success. I had a happy kiddo whose tantrums had decreased by 75%. He started interacting more with his sisters and brothers, learned how to help around the house, and started making jokes and laughing more.
I learned more about myself that year as well. I learned that, while I disliked schedules in the beginning, they actually helped me be more productive during large chunks of the day. I discovered that Jack needed everyone’s behaviors to be predictable, which meant we all had to be on a schedule. The day-to-day had been difficult at times, but the year on a whole saw many improvements in Jack’s quality of life, as well as ours. So we committed to a second year.
The second year had a different focus. I knew what curriculum I felt most comfortable with and how to use it as a tool to aid me in educating Jack. I knew much more about Jack’s personality and what made him tick. I wanted this year to be the one that saw growth in his independent work habits and found activities where he could work with his siblings. I needed to find ways to combine materials so that I could work with my 1st and 2nd grader at the same time, on the same thing. I wanted to transfer the chunk of school time that had been previously happening at night to early morning.
I also learned to humble myself and ask for help. I reached out to friends of friends who knew quite a bit about autism. I let other people help me. I discovered that my insurance company would cover ABA therapy in my home, so I had therapists come in and help with areas I knew I couldn’t reach, such as increasing Jack’s vocabulary and independent self-help skills. I also enlisted my other children to help me teach Jack some basic games.
Homeschooling isn’t singularly about academics. It is about developing the personhood in each of our children; it is about relationships, and fostering virtue, within our family setting, to create successful adults. This year I worried less about whether or not Jack was keeping up in the academic sense, and concerned myself more about the adult he would become. I had to redefine what I considered to be of value (and what I considered a reflection on myself) by letting the house be less “kept” than I would like. This is humbling when a therapist is coming to your house every day!
Our second year was also an overall success. So…we committed to a third year, and a fourth.
At various times over these years, our homeschool theme could have been taken from G.K. Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” However, as we come to the close of our fourth year, one that even included the birth of a baby, I consider it all to be a success. Every trial and failure taught us all a little bit more about ourselves. All of us have grown, academically and spiritually. We are closer together than ever. We are all a little tougher, a little stronger.
Recently I had the opportunity to enjoy a sunrise with Jack, as we shared some humorous banter over my coffee. Jack was laughing, the rising sun was warming our living room, and my heart suddenly overflowed with gratitude for the opportunity to be there, sharing that moment with my son. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.
Jodi is mom to six kids, ages 12 years to 11 months. She has been homeschooling for five years, four of them have included her son with autism. Her interests and hobbies include allergy-free cooking, reading, hiking, canoeing, and camping. It is more likely that you will find her buried in laundry, however, than doing any one of these.