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Life Learning with Asperger’s
By Susan McLeod-Harrison

unschooling with Aspergers
Photo © Jaimie Duplass/Shutterstock

Can a child with Asperger’s or another special need be unschooled? I suppose the question really is, “Is life learning for everyone?” It depends on whether or not unschooling is for you, the parent. Recently, Life Learning Magazines editor Wendy Priesnitz wrote a blog post about how unschooling should be about doing what works for your own family, rather than following an idea about what unschooling is or isn’t. She noted that some unschooling parents were disengaging from their child’s learning, including learning about what is and isn’t socially helpful or appropriate. Staying engaged as a parent means life learning can work for anyone. I would like to share how it works for us.

My seven-year-old son Micah loves trains and plants. It’s hard to say which he loves more. Every child with Asperger’s is different, as every child is different. But it’s likely that your child is passionate about something, and that they know a great deal about what they love. You may have a child who has already unschooled themself, because they are determined, above all, to learn about what interests them. And it may be that they will not learn much else. That refusal may be one reason that traditional schooling isn’t working for your child.

But what does work? As I write, son is making train engine sounds in the hallway on a Saturday morning. It is 10:30, and he has been up since 5:00, learning in his own way. (I got to sleep in.) He has poured over a model train catalogue and watched garden model trains on YouTube. My husband has read to him from an encyclopedia of exotic plants, and he is looking forward to going to a new plant store called Bamboo Garden two cities away this afternoon. He has drawn pictures of both trains and exotic plants.

Like many kids with Asperger’s, Micah’s mind thirsts for details, and he visualizes them all. But is this good for him? Doesn’t a child who gets wrapped up in minutiae need to have their worldview broadened? That’s what I have asked sometimes, as someone who has never found God in the details.

It turns out that the tiny blocks of information that Micah loves eventually build a path to the wider world. For example, every time we read about trains, he learns geography, because trains go places. Every time we read about plants, he travels in his mind to the places they come from. So, he has learned to love our maps and globe. He knows all the continents, and explores all the interesting places along the equator. He asks about clusters of tiny islands and what is the quickest way to Japan, which you can see more clearly on a globe than on a map. Just yesterday, we discovered a symbol for shipping routes in the Pacific on our globe, and discussed the fruits that grow in Hawaii. Micah’s visual memory means that he sounds well-traveled and savvy when he speaks about the world, even though the only place he has traveled to is the beach. By following his passions, he has discovered the delights of variety and difference in places and even cultures.

I believe following Micah’s passions is the key to overcoming his fears. The bigger his loves, the more fears he will conquer to get to what he loves. Sitting in a school room for six hours feeling forced to learn things he has no interest in could never do that for him.

Because he (probably) has Auditory Processing Disorder, other languages are uncomfortable for him. But differences in culture have delighted his mind with new details. Although his many fears make far-away travel formidable right now, some day our life learning may expand via car, RV, rail, and plane. He will want to see in person what he has so often visualized: the towering Saguaro cacti in Arizona, the Sierra Madre Express train that would take us into an ancient culture where the Tarahumara people make their homes in caves.

I believe following Micah’s passions is the key to overcoming his fears. Allowing him to access the things he loves, like through a new plant store or model train shop, gives him a taste of what it might be like to go to San Francisco to visit the Botanical Gardens someday. The bigger his loves, the more fears he will conquer to get to what he loves. Sitting in a school room for six hours feeling forced to learn things he has no interest in could never do that for him.

But what about reading? What about math? Believe me, I have asked these questions myself and still do, some days. Yet, he is learning to read on his own terms—the sides of trains, for example. And when he was taking piano lessons, one time he spent ten minutes just reading all the instrument brand names in the room. He doesn’t like to write, but he writes everything “fancy” when he does. So the other day I showed him the handwriting alphabet, and we talked about writing in code, which I used to do when I was a kid. Those things interest him. Perhaps he will choose to write in cursive instead of printing. I am intrigued to see how he will learn.

And math. I’d like a bumper sticker that says, “Math Happens”—and especially for a child who loves details, which can easily result in quantities and measurements. Micah often asks about equations, embedded in conversations about anything from building a garden bed to time zones. Bedtime discussions sometimes center on prime numbers and the fascination around the indivisible. Micah knows both the metric system and the U.S. traditional system for measurement, since we read both in his plant books and he wants to know what they mean. We have a ruler handy to show equivalencies. Trains go distances, and so he also has a sense of how far places are from one another. Every number we talk about has a context for him. That is not to say that someday he will not need to sit down and “do” math, but if we can instill a love for math, a familiarity and comfort with it, the paper and pencil may seem a more natural extension for him to get the answers he wants.

And he does want answers. Like many kids with high functioning ASD, Micah wants reasons for everything. His latest fun question was, “Why does the dictionary have words in it that everyone already knows?” That led me to look up the word “plant,” for which there are several definitions he had never thought of. Then he remembered the words “homonym” and “synonym” and so we looked those up. That led to “acronym” and me being stumped to come up with one that he would relate to. That little spurt of learning occurred from one question. And the bigger lesson we all learned is that the dictionary is a place to return to for answers.

Life learning has provided us with time as a family to develop great relationships with each other. However, too much family time can be underwhelming and not provide enough opportunity for kid-to-kid social skills building. For us, using the Internet has worked for creating social opportunities. I am on several Yahoo or Google lists for both homeschooling and ASD. Let me add that, with persistence, it has worked. I have reached out via email to many. We now have one family that all of us enjoy connecting with, even though that family is a forty-minute drive away. We also have an exciting opportunity with our occupational therapist for Micah to practice social skills with his friend in one of our homes. Just recently we tried an Open Gym time in our area for kids with sensory issues and immediately felt a sense of comfort and freedom. We suspect we will make friends there. I say “we” because everyone has to be comfortable with all family members for it to work, and because there is a natural connection between parents who have had a child diagnosed with a similar disorder. Developing our social world is in process and a high priority. It is both possible and necessary.

So, although I had my questions at first, unschooling my child with Asperger’s has come to make a lot of sense to me. Our son learns exponentially, every day. More than that, he loves to learn, like any life learning kid.

Susan McLeod-Harrison has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and is currently a writer and life learning mom. Her work has been published in Mutuality Magazine, Girlfriendz, as well as Natural Child Magazine.

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