By Terri Brogan
As the mother of a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I have always known I would homeschool my son. Within three months of his birth, my husband and I firmly made the decision to homeschool, after much prayer, thought, and consideration. Our decision did not change three years later when he received a diagnosis of autism. We knew it would be more challenging, but we also knew we were not willing to relinquish our God-given right and responsibility to homeschool our child because of his diagnosis.
However, the decision to homeschool is typically not as straightforward for some parents of children with autism. Instead, homeschooling a child on the autism spectrum is often a hasty decision that is made after disparaging trials experienced in the public school system. As a result, these parents may become quickly frustrated and often doubt whether they made the right decision to homeschool.
Typically, the reservations about this educational option are focused on the age-old concern of “socialization”. If this is the case, their doubts and fears are even more pronounced, because they are now charged with the task of finding appropriate ways to socialize a child with a social disorder. While their anxiety is well-founded, their energy is often misspent on rummaging through the wrong resources trying to find the right answers.
Instead, the practical solution is to prayerfully consider the best methods for socializing a child on the spectrum. In doing so, a few factors should be examined. First, it is important to evaluate the purpose of socialization. Second, it is vital to consider the role that the child’s overall health will play in his or her ability to properly socialize with others. Third, it is crucial to set measureable and attainable goals for finding the right kind of amenable social environments for the child.
The Purpose of Socialization
When looking for a means to socialize any child, we must first understand the purpose and goal of socialization. The purpose of socialization is to modify an individual’s behavior so that it complies with social norms. The primary goals of socialization are for an individual to be able to properly function and to become a productive member in society.
In order to accomplish these goals with an autistic child, it is necessary to expose the child to a variety of social settings, particularly ones that are suitable for helping the child acquire the requisite skills to adequately interact with other individuals. In which case, appropriate settings for autistic children are often significantly different than settings that are appropriate for neuro-typical children. This is due to the unique social and health challenges that a child with ASD faces.
Health and Socialization
Once parents or caretakers understand the purpose of socialization, they should investigate the impact that the child’s health will have on his ability to understand and reciprocate social cues. It is important for caretakers to understand these dynamics before placing ASD children in social environments. This is because children on the spectrum often have sensory integration issues, developmental and cognitive delays, and self-stimulatory behaviors that can seriously impede their ability to communicate with others.
Therefore, it may be necessary for caretakers to consider treatments that focus on recovering the child’s physiological, psychological and emotional health before visiting the issue of socialization. In doing so, caretakers will be able to provide the child with the proper foundation for processing and engaging with social stimuli, thus, improving social transitions and interactions for the child.
This is something that we experienced with our son. When he was initially diagnosed, the early intervention specialists from our state’s program for developmental delays were primarily focused on his socialization. They were adamant about him needing to be around age-appropriate peers so that he could learn social skills. Thus, they repeatedly implored us to send him to a school-based early intervention program so that he could be socialized with other pre-school aged children.
Fortunately, we maintained our stance and kept him at home. However, instead of focusing on socialization during the initial phases of his treatment, God revealed to us that we needed to attend to his health concerns first. Therefore, we started using biomedical treatments that helped restore his physiological, psychological and emotional well-being.
In particular, we concentrated on alleviating his allergies, eczema, and self-stimulatory
behaviors. Thankfully, within about six months he made significant gains in his speech, language and social development as well. It was at this point that he was better equipped to handle sensory stimuli and social cues, which resulted in him being able to more adequately communicate with others.
Thus, parents should consider the role that health plays in their child’s social development. Enrolling the child in school won’t fix these issues, especially if the child’s social challenges are rooted in underlying health conditions such as allergies or yeast infections. Instead, doing so may actually exacerbate these social challenges by increasing sensory integration problems and self-stimulatory behaviors.
Setting Socialization Goals
The final step that parents or caretakers should consider is to set socialization goals for their child. This step helps to ensure that the child is being placed in amicable social settings that will foster positive social development. Thus, one of the primary goals of socializing an autistic individual should be to find suitable environments in which the child can properly grow and develop his social skills.
As mentioned earlier, children with ASD typically have diverse health concerns, which can interfere with their sensory processing abilities. As such, these individuals will generally not thrive in loud or noisy settings, or with large numbers of people. Therefore, special care and attention must be paid in selecting more hospitable environments in which to engage children on the spectrum.
Such settings will be comprised of individuals who can teach and model appropriate social interaction in a loving and patient atmosphere. Typically, this will not be in classrooms filled with large numbers of students. In fact, schools can often be counter-productive for autistic children because they can overwhelm the child, resulting in behavioral problems.
Conversely, children on the spectrum tend to thrive in settings where mature and responsive caretakers are present. In this way the child can be monitored and assisted when making social exchanges. This component will vary based on the child’s age and level of development.
Obviously, older and/or higher functioning kids will typically require less guidance than younger and/or lower functioning children. Either way, these environments will provide the child with a buffer against social settings that are replete with overwhelming and confusing social stimuli.
Parents will also need to seek out places where their child can interact with others in smaller groups and in quieter settings until the child can adequately process sensory feedback. This is why the homeschool environment is generally more suitable for managing the social needs of autistic children. In essence, home education allows caretakers to gently introduce the ASD child to social settings in a way that is conducive to the child’s individual strengths and unique challenges.
Teri Brogan is a blessed wife and homeschooling mother of two children. Her 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of three, which makes her family’s homeschooling journey especially interesting. She also teaches college-level health science students and in her spare time maintains her blog Natural Homeschooling, where she shares helpful ideas about autism homeschooling and many other diverse topics. She is also the author of the book “Recovering from Autism: Our Family’s Journey of Hope and Healing” in which she details her son’s recovery from autism.
Copyright 2018, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms. Read TOS Magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com, or download the free reader apps at www.TOSApps.com for mobile devices. Read the STORY of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine and how it came to be.