4 things that have helped us homeschool a child with Asperger’s
~ Written by Kari Patterson of Sacred Mundane
It’s been almost six years since I last shared about our adventure with Asperger’s — so much has changed!
This December Dutch turned 14, and I marveled as I watched him joyfully interact with a great group of friends, playing games around the dining room table (see pic above). Poetically, it was at a playdate with these same kids, seven years earlier, when his struggles surfaced in such a way that we realized he had Asperger’s syndrome.
Now, as I watched him, it was hard to believe this was the same kid who seven years ago was so overwhelmed that he thrashed in my arms and cried out that he couldn’t make his brain work.
He is truly transformed in so many ways, so I’d love to share a bit of our story and four things that have helped us along the way.
4 things that have helped us homeschool a child with Asperger’s
1. Be his advocate without making excuses
No matter what quirk or diagnoses your child has, you know him best. Yes, we can learn from books, podcasts, therapists, experts. Absolutely! But at the end of the day, you know that look he gets when he’s feeling scared. You know that thing he does with his hands when he’s trying to calm himself down. You know why he carries that certain item everywhere he goes. You know how that seemingly innocent situation causes him to panic, or shut down, or act out.
I remember a Sunday School situation where after church I found Dutch huddled in the corner, red-faced, angry and sobbing, crying, “They’re mocking me! They’re mocking me!”
He said he never wanted to come to church again. I knew the teacher and the children and couldn’t imagine them mocking him, so I tried to learn more about the situation.
I learned that he had not wanted to play a certain game they were playing (common), and so they’d sung a song about him (at him) to get him to play. It was meant to be humorous, but children with Asperger’s have a hard time picking up on sarcasm, or understanding well-intended joking. In his little brain his teacher and the entire classroom were singing in unison to make fun of him. Of course that was not the intent, but knowing how Dutch’s brain works helped me to enter into the situation and be his advocate. No one else knows our children like we do, so no one is better able to advocate for them.
That said, I have tried to never use Asperger’s as an excuse for misbehavior. When Dutch was eight he was very disrespectful and disobedient and I found myself making excuses for him. I met with a mature mom and educator and asked for her advice. She was kind, but firm, as she said,
“The standard is the same, you will just have to work harder to reach it. He will still need to be obedient and respectful. You can be empathetic but you cannot allow Asperger’s to be an excuse for poor behavior.”
2. Celebrate his “trait” and give him examples to follow
When Dutch was seven we sat him down and explained what we’d discovered. We told him about a special “trait” (we didn’t call it a syndrome or disorder) he had, called Asperger’s, that many great people in history probably had (though it wasn’t named yet). We talked about Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, even Bill Gates.
We explained that because he had this trait some things were going to be much easier for him, and some things were going to be much harder.
I told him some of the ways that his brain was special and strong, and some of the ways that he might struggle. Then we affirmed that we were committed to helping him, loving him, teaching him, training him, doing whatever was needed to help him succeed as a boy with Asperger’s.
Then we never mentioned it again.
Of course we read, we learned, we prayed, but we just wanted him to be a uniquely gifted kid without worrying about labels.
As he grew, we also tried to give him examples of godly, well-adjusted people with Asperger’s. Several years ago my husband Jeff began listening to Brant Hansen (who has Asperger’s) with Dutch. Dutch LOVED him. So we bought him Brant’s books. Blessed Are the Misfits was profoundly impacting and helped Dutch understand himself in the context of church and even his relationship with God.
Interestingly, this year of restrictions (due to COVID) has actually been a blessing in disguise for Dutch as we adopted a House Church model. He gets less overwhelmed (no crowds, no loud amplification) and the format lends itself to frank, deep discussion with people he knows (his fav) rather than surface-level small talk (he loathes).
3. Let him lead when it comes to learning about himself
One day this year I was standing in the kitchen, and Dutch was hunched over his computer, intent on something, for quite awhile. Occasionally, he would ask me questions about himself: “Do you think I get easily overwhelmed in crowds?” Or, “Do you think it’s hard for me to pick up on sarcasm?” I answered his questions, and after awhile he finished his task and announced with a huge smile,
“Guess what? I think I have Asperger’s!”
I laughed to myself because of course we had told him he had Asperger’s 7 years ago, but apparently he didn’t remember that! This was hilarious to me!
We had not mentioned it all these years, but just from him following, listening to, and reading material by Brant Hansen, he was able to identify many of the same qualities in himself. I loved that he took it upon himself to take a diagnostic quiz, and that he saw the results as such a positive thing, because it made him that much more similar to his hero Brant.
I think we can all identify with this. Most of us enjoy taking personality tests or learning more about our uniqueness, when we initiate the interest. But most of us don’t like being labeled or diagnosed by others. Seems reasonable that kids are the same.
4. Choose stresses carefully
We didn’t want to coddle Dutch and make the world revolve around him, since that isn’t how real life works. I had even read once that since a church setting can be particularly stressful for children with Asperger’s that parents shouldn’t make these children attend church. I respectfully disagree.
However, I learned the hard way we needed to choose his stresses carefully. That is, making him do baseball practice, a baseball game, piano lessons, a playdate, a trip to Costco AND church all in one week was a disaster.
For us, church is a non-negotiable and so are close friendships, so the answer was to ditch baseball and piano (which he disliked anyway). Admittedly, a part of me felt like a failure that my child wasn’t doing any extra-curriculars, but removing those two things brought him back into balance.
Life has stress. That’s inevitable. All of us introverts know that there are situations that are stressful but still worth doing. So we try to choose those stresses carefully.
Now, at 14, Dutch is an absolute delight to our family. He patiently counsels his sister when she’s anxious. He helps her with math. He plays with and babysits his toddler brother for hours. When our baby was born this fall Dutch would hold him for hours and soothe him when he was fussy. He constantly helps me around the house, he carries in the groceries, he’s like having another full-grown man around the house! I just never dreamed that the struggling little boy thrashing in my arms would become a confident, capable young man. We still have a lot of room for growth, but I thank God for all He has done so far.
So, if you ever want to talk more about homeschooling a child with Asperger’s, please reach out! I’m certainly no expert, but I can empathize. I’ve cried more over this kid than the others combined!
Are you also walking this same journey – to homeschool a child with Asperger’s? What has helped you along the way? What has been most challenging? Let’s encourage each other!
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