Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
My husband and I had made the decision to homeschool our son beginning with his 5th grade year. I am not a teacher and had no idea where to begin, so we researched everything from private curriculum to co-op programs to online schools. My son worked very well independently, when he was not distracted or overwhelmed, and was already an avid computer user. After looking at the options, we chose the K12 program run through our state. While it would not be a true 'homeschool' program because it is actually state-funded public school online, we believed it would best meet his needs.
Over the next few months, I learned to balance working from home (telecommuting 80% of the time) and assisting my son on his projects and lessons as a 'learning coach.' I had always known he was intelligent and capable, but I began to see how the lack of distraction, the lower anxiety, and the limited sensory challenges afforded him a real opportunity to focus on the academics and really begin to enjoy learning.
While we were thrilled with the lowered anxiety and the increased focus on learning, we soon started to notice that our son was withdrawing more and more from social situations. He would attend his usual activities (taekwondo, social skills groups, and the occasional get-togethers with friends), but he began to resist going anywhere and really began to verbalize how he was feeling. He understood he was 'safe' at home and could control his anxiety better. But we all agreed that social growth, even when it feels a little uncomfortable, is important and just was not happening with the online education program alone.
We joined a homeschool group and attended some activities and field trips with other families. At the same time, we really came to understand how fortunate we were to live in a community where alternative education is valued and encouraged. We found out more about some other programs in our area and really became excited to find a school in the area that combined homeschool with public school.
By the end of his 5th grade year, we had registered our son for 6th grade at this new school. He would attend the program 2.5 days each week and work from home 2.5 days. He would have the experience of working with multiple teachers, just like in a typical middle school, and would be able to meet new friends of all ages. The school was small, catered to kids from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and had the ability to be creative and flexible in accommodating and modifying for kids with special needs. Families are encouraged and expected to be part of the program, even attending classes with their children. The elective options were extensive, and he could register for robotics, physical education, gardening, art, computer programming, and more if he chose. This program was also run by a local school system, so it would be another tuition-free option, just like the online school.
After nearly a year and a half at this school, I have few complaints about our choice. My son has friends at school. He has had many of the same teachers both years, and they have been very accepting and understanding of his learning differences and personality quirks. Many of the kids at this school left other public schools due to academic issues, bullying, special needs, or a desire to have a homeschool/school experience, so we are far from alone in our negative experiences and journey to find the right educational options for our children. Since families are so involved, we have found an empathetic, supportive environment for him to learn and socialize.
Because he only spends a portion of the week in classes, he finds that he can decompress and avoid the constant anxiety and sensory overload he experienced in a typical school situation. He is able to take the higher-level math classes where he excels and has become more comfortable with reading and expressing himself through writing after being with teachers and tutors who are able to take more time to work individually with students who need specialized instruction.
As with everything, our experience is unique and certainly would not be available to, or ideal for, everyone. Not all communities have programs available that allow for such flexibility. Not all families can afford to give up full-time employment in order to do what we have been able to do. To be honest, the financial burden has not always been easy. We have had to trade vacations and expensive electronics for lower-stress days at home that are focused on education and family time. We do not own our home and have only one working vehicle. It is not a perfect solution in any way. But for us, the years of searching for the right place have finally paid off. Our children are happier and are enjoying their learning experiences, and we have all learned to value money and family in ways I never thought possible. Educating our child with Asperger's has been as much an education for our entire family as it has been for him individually.