Over the years that we have been homeschooling, I have tried taking Mr. Boo to any number of classes, activities, clubs, and field trip groups and we have always ended up dropping out. Gymnastics, swimming lessons, kung fu, clay, therapeutic riding, young naturalists’ club…you name it, we’ve probably tried it, and the pattern goes a little something like this.
“Hey, Mr. Boo, do you think you would like to do [insert activity here]?”
“Yeah, that would be awesome!”
At the first lesson or outing, he would be all excited and enthusiastic. By the third lesson he’d be lukewarm, by the fifth or sixth lesson we’d have constant battles just to get him out the door, and his behaviour would become really disruptive for the rest of the class/group. Eventually the stress of it all would get too much for us and we’d quit. I kept thinking that time and maturity would solve these issues, but the pattern just kept repeating.
Two years ago he started attending an after-school program for kids with autism at a local centre for people with disabilities. The staff there are amazing. When his behaviour became a problem, they saw it as an opportunity to learn how to better support him. He was always accepted, never judged, and always supported. Eventually we made it past the “I hate it” stage, and the battles to get out the door, and he began to enjoy going there. He made friends, and now he looks forward to seeing them each week.
He goes twice a week for 3 hours each time. They often go to the park or some local venue, and on days when the kids get out of school early for teacher training, they take field trips to fun places like the indoor playground in the neighbouring “big city”. I used to take my kids there and places like it when they were younger, and it was always a very stressful experience for me. I had to stick so close to Mr. Boo, when what I really wanted was to sit with all the other mums and socialize. Plus, when Mr. Boo inevitably would shove some kid down a slide or whatever, it was extremely stressful for me (I am a very non-confrontational person) and I often ended up in tears dragging my crying child to the car. With the after-school program, he got to have a blast at one of his favourite places and I didn’t have to deal with the stress (the staff, not being as emotionally involved as a parent, deal with this stuff as part of their job and handle it well).
With the success of the after-school program, I felt he was ready to expand his horizons a bit more, get out in the world more, but I was stumped. I felt like we had tried and tried and nothing seemed to work for him, and I was tired of the struggles and battles. It was slowly dawning on me that perhaps I was in over my head when it came to giving him “more”. Project-based homeschooling is great, and we’ve all got this life-at-home thing down pat; it’s relatively peaceful at home for the most part (given that we have two kids on the spectrum). But it has seemed clear lately that he is ready for more, perhaps even eager for it without knowing exactly what “it” is. It’s that parental instinct that tells you it’s time to move to the next level, that your kid is ready. But I didn’t know what that would look like, or how to do it.
The answer came in the form of a new learning centre in our area for kids with autism, which I learned about through one of my facebook groups. While they offer 5 full days a week, families have the option of attending as few as 2 days a week, which is about as much as we felt Mr. Boo could handle right now (and honestly, 5 days a week is just too much time away from the family for our liking). Turns out the lady running the program is a registered provider with our homeschool program’s special ed division and I was able to get feedback from other families in the program – it was all promising.
So last week, Hubby and I toured the learning centre and met the head instructor, a behavioural therapist with a resume a mile long. While her extensive years of work with kids and adults with disabilities was impressive, Hubby and I were much more impressed with the answers she gave to our questions and what we saw of how the program was run. It was apparent that this lady understood these kids and their needs as well as us parents do (and, in some ways, probably better). When I confided in her that our son can become physically aggressive when he is driven past his coping point, she confided to me that every child in the program had come with that same note on their file, and not once had they had any incidences of violent behaviours. She emphasized that their days are designed to give the kids plenty of breaks and opportunities to recharge (they have a sensory room, for example), so that each child meets their full potential. With only six kids in the program, and an assistant or therapist there each day with the head instructor, you can’t beat the adult:child ratio, and we loved that it was a small group.
For those of you not familiar with a learning centre and/or who may be wondering how that fits into homeschooling or unschooling, I plan to write a post on that topic soon. In short, this one is essentially a very small private school for homeschoolers, paid for with our autism funding. The educational philosophy is very consistent with our own – the kids do their academic work through project-based learning, in which the kids direct the project and participate to the full extent of their abilities. Some examples of current projects are: expanding the treehouse in the forest play area with the assistance of a licensed carpenter; converting a garden shed to a chicken coop, building a run, and raising layer chicks (the learning centre is on a 5-acre property); and putting on a play.
Hubby and I left the tour full of joy and excitement at the wonderful new world that is about to open up for our son. He had his first day this week and it went very well – he made friends, he participated in the group discussions and activities, he played, and he even made it through the afternoon martial arts class (they do a different class each afternoon: swimming, skating, and music are also offered). He is excited about going back tomorrow, and we are thrilled about all the new experiences that await him.
I do expect that there may be a transitional period where he decides he wants to quit, where we will struggle to get him out the door, and where he may try the patience of everyone around him. I am determined to make it through! But my gut tells me that it might just go differently this time. The instructor said the children are very supportive of one another, and Mr. Boo is now at an age where he forms meaningful friendships with other kids – perhaps enough to keep him motivated to stick with the group through the tougher parts of adjusting to new routines and expectations.
I’ve been thinking about the implications of our decision to enroll him in the learning centre, and what that means for us, or says about us, as homeschoolers. I don’t think these things are incompatible at all, and I’ll expand on that in my next post. But I’m also coming to accept that I need help and there is nothing wrong with admitting it. Raising a child with autism is no easy task (that’s a subject for yet another post!), and homeschooling such a child presents its own challenges. I’m responsible not just for making sure he is in an environment that is conducive to learning, but also for making sure that he has real world experiences. This is relatively easy for most homeschoolers: the number of activities, classes, clubs, and field trip offerings in our small community alone are impressive, and as homeschooling grows so do the myriad choices and opportunities for homeschooling families. But for me and my son, such opportunities come with particular challenges and I am ready and willing to admit that I am not always cut out for them.
I have much more to say about all of this, but for now I’m going to end by saying that my mama heart is very full this week. I’m so excited for Mr. Boo and all that awaits him. I feel blessed that we have found such good people to bring into his life, and that he is about to be part of something really special.