It has been three months since my husband and I made the decision to not send our high functioning autistic 6yo daughter back to school after the half term break. Although her autism wasn’t diagnosed until last year, I’d long had my suspicions that something more than the usual was at the bottom of her incredibly poor sleep and challenging behaviour.
Lots of well meaning friends told me that school had been the turning point for their kids, the magic cure that equated to a happier child. One who was so exhausted from all the learning that their sleep problems disappeared overnight. That external discipline was just what they needed to nip those challenges in the bud.
The lions den
To be honest I had a strong haunch that this wouldn’t be the case for us. Also being a July babe and significantly smaller than her peers (children do most of their growing while they’re asleep after all) it felt like we were throwing her into the lions den in September 2013 when she joined reception.
It probably didn’t help that this was the year the government raised the expectations of reception aged kids. These four and five year olds would now be doing a lot of the work that wasn’t previously being done until they went into year one. I remember her teacher at the time telling me that the days of reception being an extension of nursery were long gone.
We sent her to school in good faith though, and I mostly kept my mouth shut about my reservations. We weren’t in a financial position for me to stop working until quite recently anyway, so I wouldn’t have been able to home ed back then even if I’d wanted to.
It’s worth saying that I believe for some families school is a wonderful thing, and I can see it might be the magic bullet for minor problems. Unfortunately for us, it quickly became apparent that school was too overwhelming for our girl. Being so high functioning and sociable, her autism largely slipped through the net, but even after diagnosis it wasn’t taken very seriously.
Bullying, safety and other concerns
Reception year was tough, but we also had our third baby mid way through, so put most of our difficulties down to that. Then came the bullying issues – in year one, involving two mean boys, and in year two involving one of her so-called best friends. She was forever being pushed over in the playground and coming home with injuries, and the week before we pulled her out she’d been pushed off a tall climbing frame and hurt her back.
She’s a bright spark who coped with the work for the most part, and was capable of holding it together while she was there, but she would take out her frustrations on us when she came home. Her behaviour got steadily worse – the pinching, name calling and spitefulness towards her younger brother and sister broke my heart on a daily basis. The post-school meltdowns became all consuming, and would last up to two hours.
We were in a perpetual cycle of sleep and behaviour slowly getting worse as the end of term neared; then hubby and I would plough all our energies into getting her back on track during the holidays, only to dread sending her in again. We were living our lives in anticipation of what state she would be in come 3:30pm, and her mood dictated the happiness of the entire family.
Ultimately, with two younger children to factor into the equation, and her getting more violent with them with each day that passed, we’d all had enough of dealing with the fallout of school.
What to do when you’re part of David Cameron’s ‘squeezed middle’, earning too much to qualify for help, but not nearly enough to pay for a private education?
The answer is exactly what we did. Our story wasn’t nearly as horrendous as others that I’ve heard, but there was only one way it was heading, and we weren’t prepared to stand by and watch it happen. As the writing had been on the wall for as long as it had, it gave me the chance to orchestrate voluntary redundancy from my part time job. We also carried out a ton of research, so should we go down this road, we were fully prepared.
As soon as the decision was made it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The first few weeks took me by surprise with P pushing to do her work, and being very willing to learn. It didn’t last long though, and over the course of the following month it got to the point where even the mention of learning was causing her anxiety, so I declared Christmas holidays almost two weeks before the schools broke up.
It was a lesson in flexibility for me, and recognising the need to change tact. I’m very pleased to report that a nice long break was what we all needed, and since resuming our learning at the beginning of January, we’ve had a whole load of ups as well as downs on this little roller coaster of ours.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re still having plenty of moments. P is still autistic, and I still have two younger children to also care for, but progress is being made in the right direction, and that’s all we can ask for. I’ve found reading other parents stories invaluable, so I thought it might be useful to share some of my main insights.
Trust your gut
First and foremost trust your instincts, and do not let anyone rail road you into not doing so. My daughter is smart, outwardly confident and articulate, yet she has only recently been able to put into words how difficult she found school. I truly believe that our parental instincts are one of our most valuable tools, and we should listen to them more often.
Don’t let others opinions influence your decisions
As soon as I put it out there that we were thinking of home ed, everyone had an opinion. From worries about socialisation; to concerns that we would limit future career options. Being six, four and two, we aren’t even thinking that far into the future. We have always been a sociable family, and are blessed with lots of great friends who have children similar ages to ours, so there are certainly no qualms there. Our biggest priority right now is repairing the damage that has been done to our family, and encouraging the three children to play and bond as much as possible.
Don’t disregard or under estimate the need to de-school
If your child was previously attending mainstream education, chances are they will have issues of some description which must be considered. You’ll always have an adjustment period, and pushing them to achieve academically during this time can do even more damage. Everyone is different, but avoiding sensory overload at all costs is hugely important for us at the moment. What’s working is keeping life low key, slow paced and often child led. Absolutely nothing is as important as their mental health well being.
Which brings me onto my next point. It is vital to be gentle on yourself and everyone else, while the whole family gets to grips with their new situation. Regardless of the family dynamic, the need to be kind to ourselves and each other will be a common theme. Eating well and being mindful helps us tremendously.
As any parent will know, you can’t give your child/ren undivided attention every second of every day, but you can give it to them in short bursts. I’ve found this is the best way to aid learning, and sitting with P while she is doing her workbooks helps with her productivity.
Create the rules together
P likes to know what’s coming next, so we sat down together, along with my husband, and devised a timetable which has been a real success. Like many other children her age, if she helps to create the rules she’s more likely to stick to them. We don’t have times on our schedule, which means we can be flexible. If we’re having an off day we can compress all the core learning into the morning, and chill out and watch films in the afternoon, or go and run around in the park. This is the beauty of being able to do things on our own terms.
So, what do you do all day?
We spend around two hours doing focussed learning spread across the day; prioritising numeracy and literacy which is done first thing in the morning. As well as workbooks to progress P’s understanding of the English language, we’ve been spelling useful words such as months and days; practising her handwriting and she’s been getting to grips with typing emails. She did do a touch typing lesson but said it made her hands hurt, so we scrapped it for the time being.
We’ve signed up to computer based maths lessons, which P loves and could sit and do all day (but I limit to an hour max). If she’s having an off day though, I prefer her to stay away from the screen, and we have maths workbooks and games we play instead.
We then alternate every other day between Spanish, places in the world, people of the past and animals. This was borne from going through her old school timetable and picking out her favourite things, because we want her to be as engaged as possible. As well as this, all three children help me in the kitchen and we’ve just started prepping the garden for seed sowing. It’ll be our first attempt at growing food, and I want them to be as involved as possible.
What we do is very basic – for example I printed a Spanish memory game that I found on Pinterest where you have to match two cards; one is a picture and the other is the Spanish word. We have various printouts stuck around the house – such as Spanish numbers 1-20 – and the kids love listening to Spanish songs. It’s all very simple, yet very effective, and the bonus is that everyone is learning not just P.
Hopes for a happier family
Ultimately, my main priority and biggest goal right now is to get our family working more harmoniously together. We were in a terrible way three months ago, and have made huge leaps forward since we’ve been home educating. It’s still early days for us, and life isn’t perfect – but honestly when would it be with three kids?
If we continue making this sort of progress for the rest of the year, I’ll be one happy mama!