Sunday, June 17, 2007

Homeschooling Asperger Kids

Someone left a message in the combox last week about my experience homeschooling a child with Asperger syndrome. If you're not familiar with Asperger, it is a high functioning form of autism.

The last time I visited St. Louis, my sister Eileen really insisted I need to write on this topic. She brought it up several times to drive home her point. You see, she's seen such great progress in my son Sparky that she believes my experience will help others. And, quite honestly, that has been the center of my writing - to share my personal experience in an effort to help others in similar situations.

However, Sparky is only nine and we still have so long to go in this journey. This is why I haven't written on the topic before. But Eileen made some very good points to me that I didn't recognize myself. I see and live with Sparky everyday. The changes I see are so gradual and I also see there is so far to go yet. The changes Eileen sees are three to six months apart and are drastic. She is totally blown away by Sparky's progress.

And then I get the message in the combox. So, for now, until I can write more in-depth, I will share the part of my God's Wildflowers speech about Sparky and Asperger Syndrome:

My husband and I first noticed something when he was about 20 months old. We brought it up to a couple of doctors we were seeing for other issues, but they blew it off. After all, he had already had a lot of intrusive medical procedures performed at his young age. This would surely create some backsliding in his development and in his behavior. He seemed autistic to me, though mildly so, but I trusted the doctors’ assessment. Plus, his seemingly autistic behavior came and went. I was told that an autistic child would always display autistic behavior – it didn’t come and go.

Then God sent a messenger, so to speak. I was putting together The Catholic Homeschool Companion, which is a compilation of essays written by a variety of homeschoolers. One of the authors wrote about her son with Asperger Syndrome. I still didn’t get it after reading her essay, because you know the doctors told me that my son didn’t have autism. However, in the process of editing this essay, I went to the library and borrowed a book the author recommended, Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments. I didn’t want a book recommendation in The Companion that I hadn’t read myself. Well, I sat down to read Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments on the couch next to my husband, and I was only a few pages into it when I began to cry. I turned to my husband and said, “This book is about Sparky!” I couldn’t believe it.

I went to our family doctor and he confirmed my suspicion that my son has Asperger syndrome. I began to read everything that I could find on the subject and talking to other parents of Asperger kids. This was really helpful. But the most helpful thing was a seminar I attended for school personnel and parents on autism and Asperger. My husband works at a charter school and made arrangements for me attend. The teachers brought videos of their Asperger students to share. These kids seemed so lonely it broke my heart. They sat alone in the farthest corner or in the doorway or at a table by themselves.

The teachers and counselors I met were wonderfully loving people. They really cared about these kids, but there was little the teachers and counselors could do for them. Several teachers told me my son was lucky to be homeschooled because no matter how much help these kids get from their teachers, there is little that can be done about the torment they receive at the hands of their peers. Kids can be terribly cruel and in an environment where there are 25 kids to every adult, a kid who is perceived as weird isn’t going to get a break.

In my home, my son is loved unconditionally. I admit that there are days when he brings us to our knees. But then, maybe being brought to prayer isn’t an entirely bad thing. He requires a lot of attention, but as parents we do what we have to do.

Probably the best advice I’ve gotten so far is the importance of humor. This child is prone to meltdowns. If things don’t go his way he can’t deal with it. He is a creature of habit. When a day doesn’t go as planned, or when something doesn’t happened that was promised, he will completely lose it. Once he is into a meltdown, all you can do is wait it out. The key is to stop it before it gets out of hand.

I’ve learned over the years how to recognize a meltdown is coming. To head it off, I take a deep breath and say something funny. For example, I’ll say to him, “Sparky, no laughing! We don’t allow no stinkin laughing in this house.” And pretty soon his scowl will begin to soften. Then I’ll go on, “If you even think of smiling, you’ll be in huge trouble. I mean HUGE trouble Buddy.” By now he’s laughing out loud and I’m still going on, “You better stop that laughing or I’ll give you something to laugh about Mister.” Then I grab him up and give him a big hug. By now, he’s forgotten that just seconds ago his whole entire life was in a shamble because we couldn’t go to the baseball game on account of rain.

Also, I can’t discipline this child like the other children. Just raising my voice will upset him and any words spoken in the process will be completely lost. I need to keep calm and get him focused. I need to make sure discipline is swift so he makes the connection between his transgression and the punishment. Usually a time-out, putting a toy in time-out, or a chore. If the transgression is against a sibling, I usually have to give him some instruction on showing compassion. He doesn’t seem to understand that his actions can hurt other human beings. We’re still working on this and probably will be for a while yet.

As for homeschooling, he is very bright and is light years ahead. However, reading is another story. It's different from his dyslexic siblings, it is more like he just wasn’t ready. Then suddenly, just last summer he started to show readiness. I used Orton-Gillingham with him this year, along with his younger sister, and he took off quickly. He's now a pretty fluent reader.


Suzanne said...

Thank you so much for responding.
My grandson doesn't lose it quite as badly when things change unexpectedly and that part is a blessing, however, he does have many of the other similar symptoms. I know there are variations, but it is special that I have you to write to and I will let my daughter know about your blog too, just in case she'd like to write to you sometime. She is going to have him tested and evaluated to make sure of what is going on, but I do believe this is the closest thing to what seems like the diagnosis might be. I'll keep reading and when you think of it, please continue on. God bless you and hugs to Sparky..what a name for a sparky kind of guy! :) Suzanne
PS I think you know a mutual friend...Joan S. the authoress of historical fiction on American saints. We were in the same homeschool support group until she recently moved again. :( Miss her. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Maureen, I loved this post! I also have an Asperger's child I homeschool, so I can relate to waht you've experienced. Please, if you can and you get the chance, share what works with your Sparky. We have really had our ups and downs with our little Aspie. The good news is that they're often extremely bright and go on to be very successful adults.

Anonymous said...

Your tip on how you deal with impending melt downs is a gem. Thank you.

How old was your Sparky when he "got" reading? My son is 9.5yo now in early 2008 but struggled for many years to understand phonics. He is more sight reading now and guessing.

Homeschooling and reading Better Late than Early was his saving grace. I have given him time and he is getting it. I guess though that he will always be the sort of kid who has to do things his way or not at all.

I hope you have posted more about Sparky. I am off to explore your blog.

Best wishes,
Jen in Oz

Biblescopes said...

I love the way you handle meltdowns! I can't wait to try it.

My 9 year old grandson (2008) showed signs of autism since he was 2. He was diagnosed when he was three. We were very discouraged until he attended preK and soaked up the learning experience like a Bounty paper towel. It help so much with his social skills. However, this third grade year of public school took its toll. He failed third grade in every subject. There were many factors such as self-defeating behavior, inexperienced teacher, his going through a divorce and his father leaving him without a goodbye. That was two years ago. He's been living with us (grandparents) & his mom & 3 brothers.
We're considering homeschooling to encourage him with one-on-one instruction and unconditional love. I'm a retired high school teacher and I'm disabled with MS so I'm always at home. I love to teach and I know he'll respond to my teaching. I look forward to sharing with you his response to home schooling.
PS His reading his excellent. It's his math that challenges him.

Denise said...

This is a very belated comment, but just to say, "Thank you" for sharing your story. I also hope you share more about Sparky's ups and downs and your successes at homeschooling. (I found this by a search of "asperger" on your website.) I love love love "For the Love of Literature" and feel uplifted somehow just by the connection of another homeschool mom with an Aspie, especially one I respect so much.

If you have time: Does your son struggle with reading comprehension? J. is reading above grade level, word-wise, but his comprehension is poor. I am working through having him answer increasingly complicated questions about what we read together, but it is slow going with a lot of resistance. I wondered if there are better techniques to tackle this critical area.