Working with doctors when your homeschooler has special needs

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Written by Shawna Wingert of Not the Former Things

“You’re probably going to have to put him back in public school,” my son’s pediatrician said as she referred us for testing. “Then the experts can help him.”

My son went to public school through the end of second grade. After three years, it was clear that although he was in the top one percent of second graders in the school district and had perfect grades, he was miserable every single day.

It was also clear that, because he was so advanced academically, he was not learning anything new at all.

It took seeing him painfully try to fit in, hearing kids tease him about his advanced reading level, watching him have meltdowns every morning over having to put on shoes and socks, his teacher telling me that she didn’t need my input, the constant threat of bells ringing, crowded cafeterias, PE on the prickly grass … it took all of this for me to finally take a step back and say, maybe this isn’t working.

Two years later, my son was medically evaluated and we received his diagnoses – High Functioning Autism, Acute Sensory Processing Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder all coupled with a genius level IQ.

All the struggles he had in school finally made sense … and now the doctor was telling us we needed to put him back in?

It wasn’t the first time a doctor had questioned my decision to homeschool.

Another pediatrician told me my sons would be at greater risk for obesity because we homeschooled. When I looked surprised, she said it was because they would not be getting the regular exercise that kids get in school.

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In the two years since we began to seek out doctors and other professionals to help my son, I have been in many situations that were clearly not “homeschool friendly.” I have learned a few things that did not work (FYI – bursting into tears at every appointment was one of them).

So, what can we do when we have a doctor who is not supportive of homeschooling?

Create talking points

When the pediatrician said my son would need to go back into the school system where “experts” could help, I was at a loss. Although I had read enough books to know that there were valid reasons to consider keeping him at home, in the moment, I felt unprepared.

Creating a set of basic “talking points” as to why we have chosen to homeschool, and more importantly the success we have seen, has been very helpful in these situations.

I literally have a few bullet points written out in my planner. I read them prior to any appointment to make sure I am ready to respond if necessary.

Take a professional approach

Whether it’s fair or not, I have found that the way I carry myself when dealing with doctors and other therapists is essential. Because they are working professionals, I have found it helpful to relate to them more as a work colleague than a mom needing help.

I sometimes will discuss new research that has surfaced regarding autism or homeschooling with special needs. This is a language your doctor is comfortable speaking, and it establishes you as a valuable resource.

I have also seen success in dressing professionally for appointments. On the days when I have just made it out of the house, hair a mess and yesterday’s sweat pants on, I find I am more easily dismissed.

However, on the days when I have taken time to dress as if I am going to work (and for all intents and purposes, I am – this is my “job”), I find it much easier to be seen as an equal.

It might not be fair, but it has been true every time.

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Share what is necessary

Oh boy, this one has been difficult for me. Once I get started talking, it is hard for me to stop (especially when I have been home with the kids all week and now there is another adult in the room – it’s like my mouth finally has the freedom to run). This has not served me well in these settings.

I have to remember the doctor is there for a specific purpose.

For example, if I am going to see the doctor regarding an issue with eating that my son is experiencing, unless specifically asked, I will not bring up anything related to our school environment.

Not only is it not pertinent to the reason we are there, but my doctor is not my family therapist. She does not need to know all the things that we are struggling with, nor do I really need to share them.

If I am specifically asked about something school related, like social interactions or learning differences, I answer as honestly but succinctly as possible.

I make sure the doctor has the information she needs, but only the information she needs.

I make sure she has the information she needs to provide her expertise and then we move on.

Make a change

After working with a doctor or other professional for a while, it may become clear that it is just time to make a change.

If you are not feeling heard, or being treated as a valuable resource as the parent and person closest to your child, I would encourage you to seek out another doctor if possible.

In my experience, if a doctor and I just can’t see eye-to-eye or agree to disagree about homeschooling, it also is true about other aspects of my son’s care.

I am so grateful we live in a time and place where we have access to quality care with well-trained doctors and professionals.

By intentionally thinking through how best to interact with them, we have been able to work through most homeschooling differences, and just get back to what is most important – helping my son.

Do you have experience working with doctors as part of homeschooling a child with special needs?

About Shawna Wingert

Shawna Wingert is the creator of Not The Former Things, a blog dedicated to homeschooling children with learning differences and special needs. She loves finding out-of-the-box ways for out-of-the-box learners to thrive. She is the author of two books, Special Education at Home and Everyday Autism. You can follow Shawna and Not The Former Things on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.

Comments

  1. Yes to all of this! One of my children has a chronic health condition and sees many specialists some of whom are not particularly homeschool friendly. It sometimes helps me to remember that while this physician may know a great deal about children in general, they actually don’t know much about my child specifically. They know lots about a disease that my child happens to have, but her condition is just a small part of her entire self. I am the true expert when it comes to knowing the totality of my child – not someone who sees her a couple of times a year. Finally, if the doc just won’t let it go I have a stock phrase – “well, you’ve given me a lot to think about and made some very good points, thank you.” And then hit the road fast. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. We don’t have any special needs, but I’ve still found that dressing professionally and only sharing what’s necessary goes a long way toward working well with our kids’ doctors. I have noticed that after homeschooling inevitably comes up, they’re suddenly asking many more questions. I too am so glad we have access to many different doctors…we’ve had great ones and one particularly difficult one who I was extremely grateful we could switch from.
    Steph’s latest post: What I’m Into (October 2014)

    • I am glad you mentioned that it is not just about special needs, Steph. I think that we might deal with doctors a little bit more, because of our circumstances, but most of these “awkward moments” came up because of homeschooling (not their diagnoses). Thank you!

  3. YES! My distant cousin is a pediatrician in a different state. When I announced at a family reunion a few summers ago that I would be homeschooling, he quickly came over to chat with me privately. After answering some questions about my reasons, my choices in curriculum, and how I was going to involve my children in the community, he visibly relaxed. He said he supports a parent’s right to homeschool and that some of the brightest and most academically advanced patients in his practice are homeschool…but some of his most needy and lowest patients are also homeschooled. He mentioned one family with a 10 yr old son who couldn’t read, nor do simple math, who said that they did not “like reading or books, but watched a lot of educational TV.” He’s honestly concerned for the child and has no recourse within the laws of the state to help him. I think its important to remember that doctors are often genuinely looking out for the best interest of their patients and when they ask a lot of questions or seem judgmental, they’ve seen a lot of sad cases. I always try to give professionals the benefit of the doubt and answer their questions fully, assuming it comes from a place of curiosity and caring. Of course, if after answering their questions, I still get a feeling that they do not support our decisions, we leave and find someone else.

  4. Beautifully said, Kristen. Thank you for sharing!

  5. We homeschool our son with ADHD and our daughter with cerebral palsy. There’s a tacit assumption that professional educators are acting based on the best expert advice, but that is plainly not the case. For example, ADHD experts recommend a 10-minute recess every hour for physical activity. Recommend that to a school and they will laugh and say there’s no way they can do that and still cover all the standards that will be on the test.
    Because of the need to teach many students at once, schools are full of compromises that homeschoolers don’t have to make. The pace is set so the slowest students struggle and the best students are bored. Breaks are given based on the average student’s ability to sit still, not the ADHD student’s ability. The further away your child is from the average child his age, the worse school is suited for him.
    In other words, for our individual children with special needs, we can and do follow more expert advice than their schools are structurally able to. That’s what medical professionals should understand.
    The other thing to realize is most medical professionals have very little experience with homeschoolers, and haven’t done as much research on it as we have. Take Kristen’s example of a 10 year-old who can’t read. That would be disastrous in a public school where every assignment after first grade depends on reading. In a conscientious unschooling home, reading that late is a little unusual, but no obstacle to learning. Sure, it’s possible his education is being neglected. However, most pediatricians probably haven’t done enough research on unschooling to make that determination. In a way, their expertise blinds them to solutions outside their own realm of experience.

    • I agree with you that in many instances, it is just a lack of knowledge and experience with homeschooling. I feel strongly that as parents, we can be great advocates in these types of situations, particularly when we prepare in advance and approach the conversation with poise and professionalism.
      Thank you for your comment, Karl.
      Shawna

  6. I have not had to deal with this yet; but since I intend on homeschooling in the coming years, I appreciate this post.
    As a current 4th grade teacher, I find the doctor’s obesity reasoning to be laughable. My students get approximately 30 minutes a day for recess and 1 hour a week for PE. (This is IF they get their whole recess, weren’t late getting out, etc.) Additionally, the majority of them go home and play video games at the end of the day because we have tested them so much that they are mentally exhausted. I fail to see how going to school will keep your child from being obese.
    And, I know that this wasn’t the whole point of your post, but it really got under my skin! 🙂
    Mary Renee’s latest post: Raising My Daughter to Be More Than Just Pretty

  7. Very helpful article for me! I have gotten push back from one professional so far but I expect more. My son has been losing weight since we started homeschooling. I think he was stress eating after school. Also, he is not exposed to the unhealthy cafeteria food and all the extras available for purchase every day.

    • I will say that it is possible and probable that you will also find professionals who are super encouraging and supportive. Although my experience has been mixed, they are out there! Wishing you all the best, Debbie as you continue helping your son learn at home.
      Shawna

  8. Julie Turnbull says:

    Here in the UK home education is fairly low profile, some professionals still seem to be at the “can you do that?” stage. When we HEed our children back in the 80’s and 90’s the only professional who was really negative was our solicitor, when we asked for help with a difficult Local Education Authority. We got help (free) from the legal advisors for the HE group and let him go back to dealing with our house purchases.

    Coming up to date we are now full time carers for three of our grandchildren. Excessive abuse by their father left their mother unable to cope and them with some specific emotional needs, the two oldest needed regular therapy. Initially they had to go to school as part of our ‘care package’. Once we had full court appointed guardianship we tried hard to carry on with school – we are not as young as we were! – but it was becoming more and more obvious that it was not working for them.

    A year later and my grandson’s therapist was including how lucky he was that his nana recognised his need to be at home in his sessions!

    More than two years on and our family doctors rarely mention it (they all know the situation) and new doctors, consultants, opticians, waitresses, receptionists, etc etc all say positive things about their behaviour. That’s with one with mild ADHD and all having been brought through attachment disorder issues.

    It helps that I am older than most of the professionals, well spoken and apparently present as well educated. Like you I find how I dress (usually a bit hippy-dippy, so dark skirts, no jewellery for new doctors etc) makes a difference. The best thing is to have the well rehearsed defence of socialisation aspects, examples of successful home education (my own kids and well known national figures), plus a strong “I am doing the best for my children” attitude.

    Actually, attitude. Yes, after three and a half decades as a HEer I have attitude. Lots of it. Especially when it comes to my kids. Helps with everything.

  9. I shut down long, negative conversations (that are almost always full of misinformation) with “it might not be for everyone, but home education really works for us”. If they want to keep arguing the point I ask if school has ever cured any of their other patients with ASD. I’m not being nice at this point because we are going to find another professional 😉

  10. Thank you for sharing Shawna! What you have shared is helpful.

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