Words of “wisdom” on homeschooling an autistic child

Grant and me on a recent, early-morning hike. He’s my best hiker, always willing to go further, faster, higher.

Some days, I almost forget — ALMOST — that I have an autistic child.  My son Grant will be 13 in August, and was diagnosed more than nine years ago with Nonverbal Learning Disorder, which many consider to be on the autistic spectrum.  It is very akin to Asperger Syndrome, but with fewer of Aspies’ fixations, and with added fine and gross motor skill problems.  (An EXCELLENT article, differentiating between NLD, ADHD, and Bipolar Disorder, concentrating on NLD can be found here — it’s a PDF.)

From the bottom of my heart, even though we have ongoing difficulties with Grant (see below), I believe he is so, so, so, so, so, so, so much better than he could be, as a 13-year-old*, and the biggest reasons for that are:

  1. The presence of God in Grant’s life, and
  2. We homeschool.

A reader just asked me a question on an old post.  I don’t know if anyone really tracks comments via the sidebar on the right, so I thought I’d turn it into a full-on post.  I’ll quote her first, then quote my response.  What I replied is kind of sloppy;  not as carefully-written as if it were a “real” post… But I thought it merited its own blog entry.

From reader Canadian Mom:

I am in Canada and stopped hs’ling my son after 3 months of grade 1, before that Kindergarten. I found a sweet country school to place him in with just over 100 students and he is just finishing grade 2. He has NLD, ADHD and DCD (developmental coordination disorder). I love him dearly but he is a handful, he’s not diagnosed with but I think he is ODD. He fights me and resists me on nearly everything. It’s very challenging, I’ve had to do a lot of personal growth just to handle him.

I did put him on med’s and his teacher thinks he is doing great at school in reading and related subjects, however math is his great weakness. In grade 4 they do the PsychEd tests so I am thinking of keeping him in until that test is done and we have a really clear picture of what we are dealing with. Ideally I would hs and if I have the guts to eventually I will take him out to hs again but I’m kind of waiting for him to “hit the wall”. He gets a lot of support at school and seems to enjoy it. However, because of his DCD he stays away from sports so is alienated from other boys at recess and lunch and plays with another girl who has some learning disabilities. I would love to know more about your methods for hs’ling your NLD boy. I want to hs my boy but am afraid of all the resistance I get and it effecting our learning outcomes.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My really long response:

CM ~ I’m not sure I have any amazing words of wisdom. I will confess that with my five children, aged 3 – 15 (my NLD boy is almost 13), he is my most challenging on just about every issue. Things are so much more peaceful, and everything — I mean EVERYTHING — goes so much more smoothly when he is not here. So, I’m not saying, “It’s SO EASY to homeschool your NLD child!!” I do maintain, though, that it is most often better for the child. This past school year, I came VERY close to putting my son in a special, advanced program, like a school-within-a-school, very hands-on, very science-oriented, low teacher-to-student ratio. I gathered all the info, talked with admin at the school, and they were VERY supportive of me sending in our app. In fact, when we didn’t, they called often to ask why we hadn’t. But, my husband said, “We’re not going to throw him to the wolves.” Meaning, for all his brilliance, and for all the difficulty he causes at home, and all the literal heartbreak and distress I go through…. he’s still so vulnerable. I finally had to agree with my husband’s statement. It would be throwing him to the wolves. Socially, he’s just not adapted to a school atmosphere. I could see the huge likelihood of us sifting through issues with children, teachers, admin, just the “system” of school, and coming up bloodied in every way. Know what I mean? For all that it would be a huge relief for me NOT to have to homeschool him (and I’m being really honest here), I just couldn’t, for his emotional and physical health, do it.

Grant isn’t diagnosed with ODD, but I’m sure I could obtain such a dx. His operational outlook is, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and it doesn’t matter who the other person is — parent, pastor, friend’s parent, policeman, whomever. He — deep in his heart — thinks that he is the most brilliant, best person in the whole world, and that his outlook is the only one right, and the only one valid. He’s certain that his ideas trump mine, and has no value, respect, or even acknowledgement of authority.

He’s not dx’ed with DCD, but he was in OT for YEARS due to fine and gross motor skill problems, and he is very uncoordinated. We’re more likely to call it PDD, here in the States, although I think that name was changed recently… But, same thing: He can’t do team anything. He’s eager and willing, but a liability to teams.

So. With that bleak picture, why do I homeschool? I still think it is his best chance to learn from someone who truly loves him and is FOR him. I can let him study ahead in some areas, and supplement him in areas where he lags. I can provide the structure and discipline he needs. I can help bring out his BEST and weed the garden of his heart to help his character develop, something that schools don’t really do; they just want kids to be functional within a classroom setting. I want him to be much better than “functional”. I want him to flourish. AND, while I will say that we still very often struggle with his lack of respect and his preschool-like behavior, we have had LOADS of break-throughs this past year, and he’s doing better in many areas in which I had previously nearly despaired. He is *healthy*, emotionally. He has lots of friends. Most of them are younger than him, but still, lots of friends. He truly loves God. He is eager and willing in so many areas, and is so often an encouragement to me. He TRIES in many areas. For instance, he’ll often ask me, “How are you doing Mom?” with a rub on my shoulder, and a soft face, and cocked head. Now, he’s asking that because I’ve taught him that people like others to care for them, and he needs to take time to be attentive to others. I can see him mentally go down the check list: Ask Mom how she’s doing; give her a soft smile; rub her shoulder; look into her eyes. Check, check, check. IOW, it doesn’t come naturally to him. But, in many ways, that makes it MORE valuable, because the things we’ve taught him — often repeating it THOUSANDS of times, to no effect — are finally bearing fruit. I can actually look at his future, and see some hope and if we can keep his shoulders pointed in the right direction, he’s not going to self-destruct; he’s going to be a tremendous asset to his future family, to his community, to the Body of Christ, and to the world in general.

Please don’t wait for your child to “hit the wall”. It’s so much easier (not that it’s easy) to practice “preventative medicine” than to rehab hearts and behaviors.


*Nonverbal Learning Disorder has the highest rate of suicide of all learning disorders, and it spikes radically higher in the teen and young adult years.  I can’t find numbers on it right now, but I’ve read that the rate is as high as 60%.  By the grace of God, and with the wisdom He has given to my husband and me, and through love and understanding, that WILL NOT be my child.

About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on June 6, 2012, in Character Development, Christian Living, Encouragement, Family, Homeschooling, Medical Stuff, Motherhood, Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Parenting, Scary stuff, Science, The Kids. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Karen,
    The link for the article doesn’t seem to work. Could you put the link in the comments maybe — I am very interested in reading this

  2. i think i might cry… i have been really really really struggling all week and have had many people telling me especially this last week to put my 11 yo very challenging adhd/aspie/odd-ish (but not really)/ hearing impaired kid in school. I have been pouring out my heart to God. “I don’t want to God but I will if that is what you want.” So this is so timely for me. I am still struggling w/ what to do specifically b/c i need respite.. and my son loves people and he is an only child. Anythign i do for him outside the house is difficult and orchestrated by me. So anyway i don’t know where we will end up… but thank you for writing this. You didn’t write it just for the person who asked the uestion (cue button broken.) I haven’t read your blog in a long long time.. maybe at Christmas for the big batch cookie recipe. So here i am today finding this. Whisper from God. Blessings to you today.

    • I think *I* might cry, reading this. I have been ministered to, many times, by others’ writing, and I am so very happy to have done this for you… no matter WHERE your son ends up for school next year. God’s richest blessings to YOU today, in return, Amy.

  3. That was a great article that you linked. I have NLD, and I found it very accurate, and an interesting read. I particularly liked the section on NLD versus AS. Some people (diagnosticians, coworkers/supervisors) have brought up Asperger’s Syndrome to me in the past, and the person who diagnosed me with NLD said she discounted Asperger’s Syndrome mainly because I didn’t have intense interests. But the truth is, that I do go through frequent, short periods of super-intense interests, and this was more pronounced when I was a kid. I didn’t think I had AS anyway though, so I didn’t correct her. This article mentioned that short-lived, intense interests are actually common for people with NLD, which is the first time I had seen that mentioned. Also I like that it mentioned the difficulty with sense of direction, which is one of my most long-lived and frustrating symptoms. Back in elementary school I used to come home crying because I couldn’t find my way around, and now I still get lost very frequently, and disoriented easily because I have trouble recognizing even familiar environments. My brother says he “doesn’t know I function”- the answer is “with difficulty”. But anyway, I got off pretty lightly in the motor skills department with only mild impairment in visual-motor coordination, and most articles about NLD tend to focus on that a lot, as well as the social deficits, which are also only mild for me. For me, my visual-spatial and executive functioning deficits loom much larger than the motor or social issues. The visual-spatial issues in navigation are often overlooked in articles about NLD, but that is a daily challenge for me, and has even caused problems at work (I was fired from one job because I couldn’t find my way around the building and everything took me ages). So I enjoyed this article because I thought it brought up some of the more commonly overlooked aspects of NLD. I am curious about whether your son also has extreme difficulty finding his way around. I’ve only met one person in my life with a sense of direction as impaired as mine, and I was super-excited about it because most people just really, really don’t get it and they have very weird reactions. One supervisor thought I must have brain damage because of the level of difficulty that I was having.

    Also, although I’ve only read a few blog entries, I just wanted to say that I think your son is very lucky to have you as a mom. I especially like how you are able to identify progress that he has made which might seem small to an outside observer, but which is very significant for you and your son. I also like how you value the things that he does which he has learned by rote, such as touching your shoulder and smiling, and don’t discount them just because he has to consciously remember to do them and they are not spontaneous. When I first started to read your description of his mental checklist, I have to say that I started feeling somewhat defensive, because I thought you were going to portray his actions as less genuine just because he is doing them from a mental checklist. I also have an array of behaviors that I have built up over the years in order to improve my social skills. I still remember the epiphany I had at age 23 (I’m 28 now) when I realized that people like it when you remember things they have told you about themselves, and then ask about them later. Now I always try to do that, along with other things like asking people how they are, and making eye contact. I tend to be more goal-focused when I am interacting with people, and can easily forget those kinds of social behaviors when I am not careful. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like the person and don’t care for them. It’s just that those behaviors are not things that I do naturally.

    Anyway, good luck to you and your son, and also to the woman who is struggling with her son’s school situation.

    • THANK YOU for the comment and for the encouragement, Lindsey. I loved reading it and I’m glad the article was an encouragement to you, as well.

      My son has less trouble finding his way around than he used to; he’s better at memorizing paths than he used to be. However, we have to be really careful in new environments; he will get lost almost immediately. There are times when I am afraid he will get lost in our neighborhood… For instance, we live a little less than a mile from our church. He enjoys walking on Sunday mornings. But, he’ll often say, “Do I turn to the right? Or to the left when I leave our house?” That makes me concerned that he won’t show up at church… But, he has made it, every time, once I get his shoulders pointed in the right direction!!

      I practice a lot when we’re driving, helping him orient himself to landmarks… I’ve done that his whole life, and now I think he does it on his own.

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