Unschooling Autism

One of the things I love about blogging (writing) is that often a question that has been floating around in my mind gets answered in the process of putting my thoughts into text. Today’s post is a perfect example of this: I began writing this post thinking I needed some answers, but ended up discovering that I was answering my own questions with what I wrote.

Since realizing that my kids are “on the spectrum” I’ve begun to think about unschooling and how that may apply to kids like mine as they get older and move beyond play-based learning to learning in a more applied fashion. The fundamental premise of unschooling is that children are hard-wired to be curious about their world, to seek out information, to acquire the skills they will need to function in their society as adults. When not coerced, when given the freedom to follow their instincts, Natural Learning ensures that children will learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed unschooling my kids, and the years so far have been, in my opinion, a success. My kids can both read and write. They can do basic math and have are interested in a variety of topics related to science and history, for example. Importantly, they ask lots of questions, initiate interesting conversations about things in their world, are curious and have a desire to understand those things that draw their attention.

These are good starts, to be sure, but they are getting older and, knowing that they are dealing with certain issues that neurotypical kids are not, I began to wonder for how much longer unschooling would serve them. With Daughter, I worried that her anxiety and rigid thinking would limit her experiences and exposure to things that could broaden her horizons. Would it be time to start gently insisting on tackling new subjects? With Son, I worried that his narrow focus on things computer and video game related would give him an unbalanced scope of knowledge and skills. Would it be time to put limits on his exploration of those subjects?

I began to write a list of what they are into these days, and was somewhat surprised to see that it wasn’t as limited as I’d thought. They aren’t the selection of things that other kids their age may necessarily be doing, but there is definitely a diversity there. I also realized that I’d fallen victim to the ingrained way of thinking that all of us raised in a school culture are subject to, in comparing the subjects that my kids learn about to their peers in school. The truth is, learning can happen at any age and there is no inherent value in being forced to learn about, say, social studies at a certain grade level when the topic might be explored eagerly at a later age when the interest sparks from within.

I believe that what’s most important for children is to continue to expose them to a variety of topics, but to let them choose what is relevant and meaningful for them at any given time in their life. There is no better way to master any topic than to have it ignite a fire in you, and to have the confidence to pursue that knowledge. My kids have that confidence – they are not afraid of doing their own research, seeking out books and videos and other sources of information to satisfy their intrinsic curiosity. Unschooling is about trusting kids to learn what they need to know, what is relevant for them at that time in their life, and to trust that there are many things out there to learn and that learning takes a lifetime. What’s important is not what selection of facts they know, but that they are curious enough to desire information, have the skills to seek out that information (either on their own or by asking for assistance) and have access to resources to find that information. Being autistic simply means that sometimes they are going to need assistance where another child might not. Daughter may need help overcoming anxiety in order to further explore a topic she finds interesting. Son might need an aid to assist him when working in group settings, or a special class that is designed for kids like him. None of this precludes unschooling.

When I pondered all this I was reminded that one of the best things about unschooling is that, by definition, the individual is the standard. There is no expectation that kids of a certain age are going to know the same things, be skilled to the same extent in the same subjects, or even be interested in the same subjects. When I first began to understand that Son might have some developmental issues, unschooling was the salve that soothed my worries. When I worried that he might fall “behind” in his learning, I then asked myself “behind compared to whom?”. Wherever Son is, that is where he is supposed to be and reminding myself of that was a wonderful relief. His job is to reach his full potential, not some agency’s idea of his potential based on some mythical “average” child of his age and ability.


Unscooling parents have an important job to do, and that often gets overlooked in discussions about unschooling. We are facilitators and that requires us to be observant. In our homeschool program, as part of our funding requirements, we submit weekly reports entitled “Observing for Learning”. It’s an exercise of sorts for parents. It’s easy for a busy mum to use that precious time when the kids are playing quietly (or not so quietly) without you to focus on household tasks. But I have trained myself over the years to pay attention – not in the “make sure nobody gets hurt or nothing gets destroyed” sense that is part and parcel of the job of motherhood, but rather listening to what they are saying and take a closer look at what they are doing. Then ask them about it. There are many benefits to engaging in this practice, one of which is being able to facilitate learning further. You notice your child is showing an interest in ladybugs and so you go find a book or a toy or a movie that your kid might not know about. Or you organize a science experiment, or facilitate a biology project. Or, if you notice that your child is struggling, you find resources to help them. That is where I leave off today. I’ve seen where my kids are struggling, I’m beginning to understand what they need to continue to grow in their learning, but it’s not about restricting them or taking over control of their learning. It’s about finding support for them so they can continue on their own, unique learning paths.

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