March-April 2000 - Columns
Notes from a Homeschooling Dad
Quirks of Fate:
A Homeschooling Look at Being Different
It came on with all the subtly of a sledgehammer.
"I like Mom more than you," Myles announced one evening in a rather matter-of-fact tone.
"Oh? Why is that?" I inquired, feeling a little injured but trying not to let it show.
"Well, you're too stern."
Now where was I supposed to go with this one? What subject do I look under in the family literature? Popular parenting, dare to discipline? It might have been humorous in the old Calvin and Hobbs comic strip when Calvin offered up unsolicited parent opinion polls, but in real life it was a little hard to swallow.
It wasn't the fact that Myles holds a special affection for Deborah that caught me so off guard. She is, unquestionably, a very compassionate and empathetic spirit. But let's face it, Deb's no pushover. In fact, on the "stern-o-meter" I'd say we're about evenly matched, both of us pretty easy going, but straight up with the kids when something's off the mark. So why was I the one getting the two thumbs down? The scales of parental justice were definitely not tilting in my favor.
For a little while I managed to let it go. I tried to convince myself that Myles' proclamation was just a normal kid thing, a phase that would soon pass. After all, who could really find fault with such a self-effacing, boating, biking, wrestling, reading, model plane building, all-around homeschooling dad like me? Every kid should be so lucky - so I thought. But something was definitely amiss. It wasn't just the occasional blunt criticism. Lately there were fewer hugs with Myles, fewer wrestling matches and fewer laughs together. He had even begun to stiffen ever so slightly when I would lean over for a goodnight kiss.
How could this be happening? Wasn't it supposed to be me and the kids forever - one for all, all for one, four peas in a pod, the captain and his crew? But try as I might to simply will the thing away, a sort of gray cloud had settled between Myles and I.
About the time that I was becoming aware of the growing distance between us, I was also becoming conscious of what I deemed to be increasingly quirky eight-year-old behavior. For instance, Myles hopped. He always had. It was easy to dismiss when he was young, but now as a strapping almost nine-year-old, it gave me pause. Similarly, from time to time, Myles would vigorously wave or flap his hands. And it seemed he was having some difficulty relating to his peers. Other kids his age had buddies, but Myles more often than not would be off on his own. Not discontent, just off on his own. And while his peers were branching into music, sports and other interests, Myles remained focused almost exclusively on the pursuit of history.
Now don't get me wrong here. Myles is a terrific kid - bright, inquisitive, a voracious reader and sweet as can be. He just had these, well, quirks. I reasoned, therefore, that it was my fatherly duty to de-quirk my son. So I began to gently ask Myles to refrain from hopping or to keep his hands at his side. To this, I added periodic lectures about annoying mannerisms. Despite these concerted efforts, however, nothing seemed to work for very long; my de-quirking campaign was clearly ineffective. Naturally, rather than seek insight, I merely redoubled my efforts. The admonitions and lectures became more frequent. And I suppose you could characterize my temperament as having shifted from gentle to, dare I say it, stern.
The thoughtful reader will have begun, of course, to put two and two together by now. In view of the onslaught of my constant nagging, who could blame Myles for keeping his emotional distance from me? But hindsight is always 20-20 and this sort of self-defeating pattern might have gone on for some time were it not for the perceptiveness of a close friend.
It turns out that our friend, a nurse-practitioner and a keen observer of children, was acquainted with a boy Myles' age who shared many of the same distinct behaviors. She recounted to us that this boy had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Asperger's Syndrome. A neurological disorder? Finally it had been said. At last something that had been dangling obliquely in the back of our minds had been brought to the clarity of day. Could it be that Myles' "quirks" were not random at all, but really belonged to a larger class of behavior?
Deb immediately began an intensive review of the literature. Gratefully there was a good deal of information readily available on the web and in print. Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is a neurological disorder that impairs a child's ability to read and internalize normal social cues, the sort of thing that most of us learn unconsciously. They may, for instance, blurt out perfectly accurate but entirely inappropriate remarks such "You are very fat." They may also approach acquaintances and begin a topic in mid-stream, leaving the listener somewhat bewildered. As a result, AS kids often have difficulty sustaining friendships. In addition to the social component, AS kids frequently exhibit repetitive motor behaviors such as hopping or hand waving and have generally poor coordination. They may also develop a singular focus of interest - in Myles' case, history - and have a tremendous capacity for retaining information. AS kids are predominantly boys of above average intelligence. Often their ability to focus on a single interest can translate into high levels of professional achievement. Many have hypothesized, for instance, that Albert Einstein was affected by AS.
Together, Deb and I reviewed the characteristics of AS and to our astonishment, it was as if we were reading a story written expressly about Myles. Relief and sadness welled over us all at the same time - relief to know there was an identifiable antecedent to Myles' unique behavior and some sadness to realize that we faced a potentially life-long challenge.
Nevertheless, an immediate and significant change in my approach toward Myles accompanied the recognition that his quirks were, in fact, quirks of a genetic nature. My program of incessant nagging came to an abrupt halt. I realized that my son's distinct behavior is part and parcel of who he is, no more separable from the person of Myles than the color of his eyes, the shape of his chin or the depth of his curiosity. My program of nagging was replaced by something far more effective - simple, unconditional acceptance. Some people cough, some people twitch, some people jog and some people hop - we are all the same, we are all different.
For the last eight years in my role as a homeschooling father I thought I knew the meaning of acceptance, thought I knew how to revere the essence of an individual. But it wasn't until recently, when measured against the crucible of "different," that I began to fathom what it means to fully honor and accept the individual.
Hopping is no longer discouraged in our household. In fact, with the Christmas acquisition of a trampoline, hopping and bouncing are celebrated by the whole family. Tigger is our inspiration. And gratefully, hugs and laughter and kissing have returned. The cloud that threatened to engulf my relationship with Myles has lifted, not because he changed, but because I changed. Quirks of fate grew into quirks of love.
Asperger's Syndrome is not a cognitive impairment in the traditional sense. Asperger kids are typically above average learners who often have a tremendous facility with selected subjects. What causes these kids the greatest difficulty is their impaired ability to process and integrate social information. This makes AS kids different and being different in our culture is not easy, particularly in school. Being different in a school setting usually spells disaster for special needs children in the form of teasing, taunting and ostracism. It is for this reason that Tony Attwood, a prominent researcher in the field of Asperger's Syndrome, refers to school as a "social minefield"1 for AS kids.
Homeschooling offers an important alternative to institutional instruction and has two potent benefits for the special needs child. First, and foremost, it provides an environment of acceptance in which a child is free to be his or her self without fear of ostracism. A child needs to feel safe, accepted and rooted in order to expand intellectually and emotionally. This is, of course, true of all children, but it is particularly important for an AS child who will often battle as much with the despair of not readily making friends as they do with the AS characteristics themselves. Family and close community support offers a safe training ground for acquiring those social skills that come naturally to most children.
Second, homeschoolers have the flexibility to concentrate on the acquisition of "friendship skills" as they have been referred to by Attwood and Gray 2. The typical response in a school setting to inappropriate social interaction is public criticism. The underlying assumption is that the interaction was entirely of the child's own volition. In a homeschool setting, on the other hand, ineffectual social behavior can be viewed as opportunities for replaying and correcting the interaction in a completely non-judgmental and didactic way. Reading material that illustrates friendship behaviors can be stressed, journals of successful social activities can be kept and specific, mutually supportive playmates can be encouraged.
We take the acquisition of social and friendship skills largely for granted, but for AS kids, and kids with related Autistic Spectrum Disorders, these skills do not come naturally. Gratefully homeschooling offers a wonderful environment for nurturing these critical life skills.
For more information on Asperger's Syndrome and related Autistic Spectrum Disorders, refer to the resource list below.
© 2000, Jeff Kelety
ASLearning at home. A list for families homeschooling their Asperger children: ASLearningAtHomefirstname.lastname@example.org
The AUT-2B-HOME list for families who homeschool their autistics spectrum kids. Contact Tammy Glaser at email@example.com
Willey, Liane H. (1999) "Pretending To Be Normal." London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Attwood, Tony. (1998) "Asperger's Syndrome: A guide for Parents and Professionals." London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Myles, Brenda. S and Southwick, Jack. (1999). "Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments." Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.
1. Attwood, Tony. (1998) Asperger's Syndrome: A guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
2. Attwood, Tony & Gray, Carol, Understanding and Teaching Friendship Skills. Available on http://www.tonyattwood.com
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