The strains of being at school and the magic of summer holidays
It’s now been almost six months since Penguin stopped going to school, as we started homeschooling, or Elective Home Education as it’s formally called here in the UK. The were several reasons for why we thought this would be a better fit for him (and in some ways also for us as parents) than to keep going to school. One of the main reasons is that Penguin’s stress levels from being in a school environment – with all the different people, movements, sounds, smells etc, which all take a massive effort for him to attempt to process – left him exhausted and unfocused. And without engergy or focus, no great deal of learning will happen.
As a contrast, during the summer holidays throughout his nursery years and since starting school, Penguin would make promising strides forward in his development. And then the progress would slow down again during the autumn… Now, I’d be lying if I said there was no development at all while at nursery or school, there definitely was, but it wasn’t at the rate of which we saw the potential of during the summer holidays.
“…to feel safe, accepted, and confident”
There could be many reasons for these spurts of development in the summers. Maybe it was the sunshine, giving a much needed injection of vitamin D? Increasingly though, I’ve come to believe that the reasons are mainly to do with what Bill Nason (of Autism Discussion Page) repeatedly emphasizes, which is to help these kids “feel safe, accepted and confident”. In a school environment with too much input to process, where you’re usually told to do things you don’t understand the purpose of or just cannot do, and where your “behaviours” don’t really fit in, the child is likely to feel an often overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety. And that will be hindering his learning and development. In fact, many children (as well as teens and adults) with autism get diagnosed with burn-out from the stresses of being at school. (I’d like to add here that I’m not “anti-school” in general. And as a child, I loved going to school, for the most part. But when it comes to schooling, one size definitely doesn’t fit all, and when the environment doesn’t fit the child, the focus needs to be manily on changing the environment, not the child.)
What about those 7 significant (non-academic) steps forward?
So, in our first few months of home education, it has to a large extent been about de-stressing and following Penguins lead. That doesn’t mean him being completely left to his own devices, but to give him enough time and space to figure things out, to find his interests and motivations, as well as his own rythm. All in all, doing what we can to help him “feel safe, accepted, and confident”. With this, Penguin seems to thrive, and now does quite a few things he didn’t do before. These things may not all seem a lot to parents of neurotypical children, but to me, they are worth celebrating and cherishing. And although these examples are mainly non-academic, they bring promise of further development in every aspect, cognitively, physically, socially and more:
- Swimming: Penguin has always had a fascination with water, and has enjoyed playing in pools, but recently this love of water has gone to a whole new level. He’s no longer hesitant to get in, and even LOVES to get into the sea, which he previously always refused (except for one single time, on a hot day at the end of last summer). For me, who’s always loved swimming in the sea, this means that I can now finally share one of my most favourite things in life with my child. That’s big. And although he hasn’t yet learnt to swim, he’s really trying to, and I’ve gone from worrying about him ever becoming a swimmer, to feeling hopeful that it could happen this year (but if it takes longer that’s OK too, no rush, right?)
- Making choices: Many parents of children with autism will recognize this as something that can be frustratingly difficult. When Penguin was younger, and in an “intensive training” programme, we were trying to teach him to make choices by offering two things of which we knew he’d only like one, and detest the other. You’d have thought it would be an easy choice to make, but no. Most of the time he just seemed confused and/or distracted, or even annoyed. So we pretty much gave up on choice-making, thinking we’ll get back to that at some point later on… But now, without us working on this, he’ll frequently choose between two things that he likes (this was to be the much more difficult level, which we were told there was no real point trying until he’d choose between a preferred and disliked alternative). I can ask him if he wants rice OR pasta for his tea, and yesterday when I asked him if he would like lemon curd OR marmite on his toast, he shook his head at the lemon curd, but nodded at the marmite – and even echoed “marma”! That’s huge for us, with Penguin being pretty much non-verbal, so far.
- Reading by torch light: This might seem a bit crazy. But just like swimming in the sea, reading by torch light, snuggled up in bed at night, was one of those things I really enjoyed as a kid. My previous attempts at showing Penguin how cosy this could be have been met mostly with indifference, but recently he’s started doing it, pretty much on his own initiative. I think one thing which has made this development possible, is that his motor skills (both fine and gross) and coordination have got so much better lately. So now he can hold the book and aim the torch to where he wants it. Lovely 🙂
- Eating: Another familiar issue for many autism families is difficulties with food and eating. In Penguin’s case, he’s very selective in what he will eat, and he’s always been our “string bean”. Some days he would only have a couple of carrot pieces for lunch, and it was only a couple of years ago that his doctor referred him to a dietitian due to him not putting on any wheight at all for a whole year. (We never got see the dietitian though, as they said he “wasn’t starving himself”. But that’s another story altogether.) Now, over the last six months, Penguin has developed an appetite unlike anything we’ve seen since he was a baby! I never thought we’d be thinking about having to restrict his eating. And not only is he eating a greater amount of food, but he’s also trying so many different things – and liking many of them! Also, due to his improving motor skills, he’s starting to warm to the use of cutlery, which previously has been on our list of struggles. Okay, he’s not ready for fine dining any time soon, but food and eating is now not as big an issue at it has been for us. And although there could be set backs in the future, for now I’m celebrating!
- Going to the toilet (and general body awareness): When Penguin was still in my belly, I remember saying that I could see no reason why he wouldn’t be out of nappies within a year. We got a potty and started training when he was a few months old, but despite some early successes (which I proudly photographed…), we gave up fairly soon, and decided we’d probably been a bit too optimistic. However, I never expected to still be changing nappies five years later, or six, or seven… Even though he learnt to do his “number ones” in the toilet, and stopped wearing nappies, the “number twos” continued to be an issue. He’d go to the toilet if he needed a number one, but fetch himself a nappy if it was a number two coming. I guess I can’t say that being fully “toilet trained” is now due to homeschooling, as it’s been a gradual process, but since a few months back, it looks as if we’ll never have to buy another packet of nappies (touch wood!!). It’s not unusual for autistic adults, especially when also diagnosed with learning difficulties, to still have a need for nappies. So this feels like another big win, and I can tell that Penguin is enjoying becoming more independant, with his confidence growing. He also seems to be more “in tune” with his body in general, realising when to eat, drink, go to the toilet, or get out of the water, etc. All these are things which, until now, we’ve had to decide for him most of the time, as he just wouldn’t pick up his body’s signals.
- Interest in toys: Kids with ASD will often not have a “normal” interest in toys, and this is another area which I’m happy to have seen some development in recently, on Penguin’s part. After ten years by his side, his trusty cuddly donkey is finally getting some attention, mostly in the form of cuddles at night. And when other children on the beach or in the pool have brought some animal shaped floating devices, balls etc, his face has lit up and he’s gone to “borrow” them (and has no real sense of personal space or belongings, so we’ve had to step in ;-)).
- Shared interest: Another trait of “classic autism” is a clear lack of ability when it comes to sharing interests. This is part of why these kids have sometimes been described as “living in a bubble”, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. And we have often had to fight to get Penguin’s attention, desperately trying to share things with him. Now, I’m not saying that someone’s waved a magic wand here, he’s still very much in the moment and “in his own world”, but there has been a significant change. It has become much easier to get his attention, and he listens to us more now than before. He’ll also seek our attention much more frequently, taking an interest in what we’re doing (for example coming over to me to see what I’m doing on the computer at the moment). Related to this, he’s also showing a greater overall curiosity, which I find very promising for more learning to come!
For now though, we’re celebrating what has been achieved so far. Many of these things come without much effort for most children, but when they don’t, you cherish every little step forward ❤