Friday, 8 December 2017

The Taxonomy of Plants


Grandpa
If you wanted to talk to my grandpa, plant taxonomy was a good opener. He would take us for long walks in the forests of North Jersey. Be quiet now, don’t scare the wildlife.

“What kind of plant is that, Grandpa?” I would whisper. I never remembered the answer. But I liked to hear him talk to me.

Every July, us kids would stay at their house near the shore. Grandpa, who had been an inventor at Bell labs, kept the tidal charts taped to the side of the refrigerator so he knew when to fish, when to swim and when —at 4 in the morning— to take the six of us racing down the pebbly sidewalks to collect shells and walk the puddled moonscape of a Jersey low tide. 

Back home in his garage, he had set up aluminum tables with giant volumes for us to pore over: collected stamps from around the world, each crispy page a pageant of colour. On the other table, weighty blue tomes that told the story of money: year-by-year pennies, nickels, dimes. Silver dollars. $2 bills. Worn ancient coins he called “worthless” that I would shift and pour from hand to hand. “Where is this one from, Grandpa?” He would talk to me.

At 10:00am each day, the phone would ring. Grandpa’s chess partner calling in his move. Like two men in distant mirrors each would make a move on his own chess set, then bid goodbye and hang up. Grandma would go and cook. Grandpa would walk to the piano and play old standards for hours then. Not much in the mood for chit chat.

Upstairs at night on steel framed beds, we would listen to the roll of thunder and the clatter of rain as storms rolled through. Grandma and Grandpa, meanwhile, had retreated to their side of the hall. The storms, like the seas, turned us all into wilder children but no one ever came to say calm down or comfort us. My brother told me the thunder and lightening was “God bowling.” I pulled the damp sheets tight, fell asleep.

Grandpa never missed the name of a plant—ever. My brothers would marvel at his memory, as he recounted the history of plants, places, weather patterns, the old hurricanes, matters numismatic, philatalogical. At the end of July, we would bid them goodbye with quick hugs and pile into the station wagon back to the midwest. Our visits to Jersey were at once exotic and a kind of homecoming. These were the people my father had left behind.

Dad
When he was a young man, my father went to lunch with his uncle in the city. There, his uncle offered him a job in the family business. When my dad hesitated, his uncle shook his head and frowned. “You don’t want to turn out like your father,” he said.

My father left that fateful lunch and decided to move his young family to the countryside of Wisconsin. Took us all fishing, camping, hiking off to wander the hills like a troupe of semi-feral von Trapps, freed from the rigid city life of family business, barefoot and happy living in a house on “some land” with horseless stables and a million grasshoppers flicking our legs as we ran through summer weeds. On hot days we would line up in the garden to plant seeds in neat rows and Dad would talk to us about the life cycle of animals and fish, of plants and pollination. As with my grandfather, the outdoors was where I knew my father best.

My dad’s garage was different than Grandpa’s. He kept a couple vintage cars in it. My favourite one had a canvas roof and smelled beautifully musty. They had brand names and a lot of information attached to them which Dad told us but I forget. What I remember is the smell of sitting in that car, especially after a rain.

Sometimes Dad would go out to the garage and sit, too. In the years when he was unemployed, a phantom anger would overtake him -usually at dinnertime—and he would shout, throw things across the room, break chairs, lose all control in the house with us, then retreat to the garage and the car. Everyone would scatter from the dinner table but me. I could hear him out there wailing and crying through the screendoor. Then morning would come with an apology.

Script for a parent apology. 1. Listen. 2. Say “It’s ok, I understand.” 3. Stay still: here comes the hug.

David

My brother Mike was an engineer like Grandpa. He got married first, had kids first. His son, David, was diagnosed as autistic as a young child. Intensive therapy was prescribed and they said yes.

When my nephew was little, he used to like to run and throw himself onto me. I knew why; I remembered doing that too. But times had changed and with an officially “autistic” child present, we were all quickly versed in a new and uncomfortable way of responding. It was a whole new language of “Hands quiet.” “No repeats.”

David has loved the moon from the time he was very small. He can tell you about the cycles of the moon and when each kind of special moon is coming. I like to go outside away from the din of our family gatherings and look up with him. In the dark and the quiet he can ask me questions as many times as he wants; he can flap. I try to think of things that will bring on a flap. I try to stay connected in the dark under the moon.

Us
I ran too, like my Dad. We moved ourselves to Canada. My son was diagnosed autistic as a young child. Intensive therapy was prescribed and we said no. We chose to unschool and now travel with whatever time and money we have. Our most recent trip is to the Bay of Fundy, which has the largest tides in the world.

The tide schedule sits on the hotel dresser. I check and re-check it; then the alarm rings. We all scamper about in the dark, grabbing cameras, throwing on yesterday’s wet clothes, forgetting shoes, race-walking down to the shores. Under the light of the stars, it all looks like a stellar landscape with giant, exposed boulders covered in prickly crustaceans, tiny sleeping barnacles hanging off heavy curtains of seaweed, waiting to breathe when the waters rise again. I walk along cold spring water beds, searching the sand for ancient volcanic rock, petrified sea mammals and any kind of creature to touch and hold and share.

Kyle is up ahead of me, singing, running, jumping. He grabs a stick and draws into the wet sand: a giant map of Toronto’s subway system. “Next station is Spadina. Change here for Line Two!” The sun is a gold ball rising above us. Behind us lie the dark tunnels of St. Martins.

In a few hours’ time, the tidal boar will rush through, filling up Fundy. It is a sight to behold when that brown wave comes racing down the riverbed. After the tidal bore, the river settles into a lazy flow that is at once deep brown and yet silvery-reflective. The reflections are more focused than the sky and clouds above: the water’s surface like God’s finely tuned camera lens. We sit on the mucky shores and just look.

Back at the hotel now, the day has just begun but we are wiped out. Not much in the mood for chit chat. Kyle flips out the camera and looks at the photos we shot. Ron makes some coffee and checks his iPhone. I sit down in the quiet and write.














Sunday, 24 September 2017

Water and Light: On Parenting in the Age of Trump

Every day these days, we go to the beach. I feel like I’m the best mom there.

Since November 8th when my home country was taken by fascists, I haven’t been doing too well. I mean, who has? Each morning I wake up filled with anger and dread: emotions I need to put somewhere so I can be a good mum. I live in Canada now, which adds a layer of alienation mixed with privilege (I make calls to “my” Senator in Wisconsin to save health care… but no one is trying to take mine away.) I’m not in America anymore, yet a part of me is.

My son is seven years old. Some nights he wakes up to my husband and I yelling about politics. (We're not arguing; the topic just makes us yell). He wants us to stop; it frightens him. It’s hard to stop. But I don’t want him to be scared... like I am. So we're cautious with information. Even the newspaper we read together is carefully curated; flipping past the nuclear threat on page 2 to the story of the Brampton woman with 30 hummingbirds in her yard. I remind myself: it's the grownups' job to fix the world. Clean up your own mess please.

It takes work to stay calm. The news of the day is a manic teletype machine in our heads as we prepare dinner, talk about the small wonders of our day, tell bedtime stories. On too many nights after Kyle falls asleep, we flip out our phones in the cozy warmth of the family bed. We need to know: what new shitstorm of a bullshit horror show has transpired in America since we last checked? What can we do to help? Are the events of today the defining moment when all that hell will end? This is it, we say to each other. This is finally the end of it. But it never is.

Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat.

Today our friend took Kyle paddle-boarding on Lake Ontario. We got there early when the sun was just a pulsing yellow ball on the horizon. They paddled off to find a new swimming cove. Soon the guys were just a black dot, heading around rocks in the distance. I dove into the freezing water and swam in dappled light. A year ago, this swim would have been all water and light to me. It isn’t anymore. The teletype hums on.

Still, it was a beautiful sunrise. I recall that I raved about it when they came back. Then we stayed at the beach a long time. It’s always hard to leave. Kyle had so much fun that he didn’t want to take his swimsuit off all day. He marched down the grocery aisles shirtless in his red trunks, laying claim to a boyhood summer as the days grow shorter, the evenings cooler. He walked home barefoot, defiant and probably a bit chilly.

“It’s still summer, right Mom?”

“For sure! It’s late-summer.”

We have all been hit with the trauma of American fascism. It has changed us inside. Like any grief, there is no going back to an easier time, let alone an easier mind. But our grief isn't a legacy to pass on to our children. Let them walk barefoot in the late summer when they can. In turn, they will take us to the water and light. Perhaps with the grace of our children in our hearts, we can work to repair this broken world. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

2017 Survey of Parents who Homeschool their Autistic Children

I recently surveyed 60 parents who are homeschooling their autistic/neurodivergent children. (For methodology, read here). I asked respondents why they homeschool; how they feel about homeschooling; what supports they use; how inclusive their homeschool community is; and what their communities can do to be inclusive of autistic homeschoolers.

I am publishing their responses without much additional analysis. They speak for themselves. (For more general analysis, please see my other post.) If you have questions or would like to be involved in further research, my contact info is at the end of this post.

Why homeschool?
Fifty percent of respondents were lifelong homeschoolers and 50 percent had tried formal school. Of the latter, the average age children left formal school was 7.

Study participants, by and large, did not view homeschooling as one of many options but rather as the only viable option for educating their autistic children. Parents cited bullying by students/teachers and their child being beaten up by other students. Neglect in the classroom was also described; one parent wrote “He was literally ‘spinning’ all day long in the back of his classroom.” Another stated: “My son has a brain injury which left him susceptible to anxiety, school was 100 percent dismissive and I was so disappointed in them.”

Several parents were told by school authorities that their children would be better off somewhere else. One parent recalled: “They had a mindset of my son not being able to do things and basically ignored him. He wasn't progressing in school and he kept getting sent home. Eventually, the school said he could only come an hour a day.” 

Parents reported a lack of needed supports and accommodations at school for their autistic children. This extended from classroom supports to the relationship between teacher/staff and child. Several expressed that the teachers did not understand or show empathy; one respondent characterized her daughter’s teacher as “emotionally abusive”. Describing a “lack of understanding and empathy” from a teacher, another parent wrote that the teacher wouldn’t acknowledge that her son was autistic, despite his diagnosis by a professional. Another noted that “the school refused to follow his IEP and doctor's orders.”

Other parents identified environmental factors in the school that prohibited their child from integrating or enjoying the school experience. One parent who wrote that her son has sensory issues, concluded that the district “could not provide the right environment,” and thus chose to homeschool. Negative school experiences could affect the whole family as well. One parent wrote: “We found [the school] held him back and created much sadness in our family.” Another wrote about the classroom that it was “too overwhelming. Too much anxiety, meltdowns. Teachers not handling things well. Too much stress all the way around.” 

“Stress” “anxiety” and “distress” were common words to describe the formal school experience and the reasons for leaving the formal school environment. Other words used were “disastrous,” “dreadful,” “trauma” and “a nightmare.”

“Everything relating to school felt like a struggle,” wrote one parent.

Families that had never enrolled their children in formal school gave several reasons why they did not enroll. Objection to mandatory ABA in schools was cited by three parents as a reason they homeschool. Another wrote that “the public special ed was all about compliance training and we can't afford private school.”

Other parents who never enrolled their children wrote that they were pleased with their child’s progress in early childhood and did not want to disrupt a successful path by introducing the unstable variable of public school. As one parent put it, “she was doing so well at home (we didn't do preschool) that we just decided to try it and see, and she thrived the first year so we decided to continue.”

Was it the right choice?
Respondents were asked to choose between three responses that best describe their homeschooling life: “I am glad we homeschool;” “I feel ambivalent;” or “I made the wrong choice”. 

90.24 percent of respondents chose “I am glad we homeschool”.

9.76 percent chose ”I feel ambivalent.”

0 percent chose “I made the wrong choice.” 

“I believe it will provide the best education,” wrote one respondent. “Best school option for my kids.”

Parents cited improvements in family environment, mood, academics, speech and OT. One parent wrote: “We’re much calmer. My son's speech has improved dramatically.” Another wrote, “Homeschooling has been not only hugely successful for my son with ASD, but just as much for my other children.” “My son is ecstatic,” wrote one mom, “he loves homeschooling.”

With regard to ambivalence, several parents mentioned stressful economic factors, with their income halving as one parent left the workforce to homeschool their children. “It impacted us hugely,” wrote one parent, “I had a well-paying job.” Another wrote: “Having children has changed things a lot, but the choice to homeschool, not so much. Actually, we have less money.” “It has been a very good balance for us,” stated another, “and well worth the financial sacrifice that homeschooling has been.”

Homeschooling, which takes a lot of energy for parents, can exacerbate conflicts in the home as well. One respondent wrote, without elaborating: “The kids are happier but my marriage ended.”

Others observed that their children had increased energy once leaving formal school and that the home environment improved. “Our family is a lot less anxious and we do more activities as a family,” wrote one respondent.“My son has resumed making academic progress.” One respondent wrote that her children have “less stress, more time to socialize and go out and do things. Previously they were too exhausted and stressed after school and [on] weekends from coping with school to do anything.” “

“Felt relieved at not having to deal with a school system notorious for not dealing well with ASD,” wrote one mom. “It has its difficulties, but I think it's less stressful overall.” Another parent described his child as “calmer, more understanding, [having] better communication. He understands it is okay to be himself.” Another reported: “We have less stress and more positive social interactions.” “We understand each other much better now,” wrote another.

Supports and therapies used
More than half of respondents (51 percent) use formal autism-related therapies or social groups. Four respondents specified their children were currently enrolled in occupational therapy; 3 in  speech therapy. Most others said their children saw a “therapist” without specifying which type. Several were involved with social groups for autistic youth, including one for trans autistic youth and another in a group designed for homeschool youth with learning disabilities.

Some respondents expressed frustration at a lack of social groups or other programming for autistic youth outside of a “therapy” context. One parent wrote, “I wish there were more autistic led social groups. Currently all social groups are NT-led with very archaic and flawed foundational tenets.”

When asked how they paid for therapies and supports, 68 percent of those using these services selected the option “Out of pocket”. Seventeen percent said that their therapy/supports were “government subsidized” and fifteen percent said it was “a combination of self-funded and government subsidized.” It requires further study to determine whether it is the type of therapy preferred, lack of access or other factors that account for so many homeschool parents having to pay out of pocket for their children’s supports.

Does the homeschool community accommodate autistic youth?
Respondents were asked whether their homeschool community was more accommodating than formal school, less accommodating or about the same.

60 percent or respondents selected “more accommodating than school.”

36 percent chose “about the same.”

4 per cent chose “less accommodating.”

“The homeschool community here has been very flexible and understanding,” wrote one parent. 
“The co-op we were part of included many autistic kids and were inclusive,” wrote another, “However, it could have offered some more stimulating classes for gifted kids.” 

Some parents identified the need for greater education and autism acceptance in their homeschool community.“I think [homeschool] parents could make more effort to teach their children how to accept differences in other children,” wrote one parent.  Another wrote: “Many homeschooling parents seem unwilling to encourage their children to be friends with atypical children.”

“We have been in one group for eight years now and nobody wants to understand why we can't do large group outings,” wrote a parent. Others responded that homeschool co-op leaders need to better gear programs to individuals. “Just like an IEP, find out what a child needs individually to be able to participate,” suggested one respondent.

Parents shared their ideas on how their homeschool community could be more accommodating. “Create small groups that meet frequently,” wrote one. “My son does better in smaller groups of people and with people he knows and trusts.” Another parent mentioned that some events require a drop-off, which was not feasible for their child.

Other ideas included quiet areas or sensory rooms in the homeschool co-op space and local adaptive classes, sports programs, social skills classes and job advocacy programs for autistic teens run by the broader community. 
One parent suggested more activities "at centers that are knowledgeable about different mental health issues.” Another wished there were “more fun programs that are geared towards autistic kids that are not done by an autism centre for therapy, but are just about having fun together.”

Challenges and rewards 
Parents wrote about the challenges and the rewards of homeschooling in their additional comments.

“Homeschooling special needs kids is so lonely sometimes,” wrote one parent. “There must be a better way to support parents.” Another parent wrote about social challenges: “With an only child it takes extra work. Other [homeschooled children] have a built-in social network with their siblings.”

One parent, who wrote that his daughter’s sensory needs were not met at school, wrote: “Home is the right environment and I'm glad she has the benefits of attending live classes with real teachers online, it's the best solution for her.”

Parents also reported that their children had less stress at home than they did when enrolled in formal school. “No more meltdowns all the time when not in school,” wrote one parent. 
Another stated: “Both my daughters (both autistic) have done wonderfully, and I definitely think homeschool has had a lot to do with that.”

Autistic homeschoolers are freer to follow their own academic curve without being measured against their peers in a grade/level system. One parent highlighted the advantage of this flexibility. “Homeschooling allows my son to explore his interests at his own level. He can be ahead in science and math but still work at his own pace in language arts. It also allows us to keep him from needing as many therapies due to decreased overstimulation.”

One mom summed up a common sentiment of participants: relief. “My son doesn't feel different at home,” she wrote. “He is happy with who he is.”


Contact me
I welcome inquiry from researchers who seek to collaborate on further research about homeschooling autistic and neurodivergent children. Please email me at hannahrkking@gmail.com. (please note the extra “rk”). Or find me on Facebook and Twitter @hannahkingblog. Thanks!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

How to raise butterflies: a story in 3 parts

1.
We find their eggs in August under milkweed leaves. We march through the brush along the Don River with a jar and sharp scissors. The eggs are unlike the others you see under the leaves: they’re ridged, luminous, oblong, so tiny. We clip the branch and tuck it in the jar.

At home, they hatch one by one and devour their own eggshells. They’re just the size of a poppy seed then, but with all the features of a grown caterpillar. At this stage they are very vulnerable to predators, so keep them in a translucent mesh enclosure, zipped tight to keep flies or silverfish from the breach. 

Each morning we gather their food—milkweed branches—along the river. It’s quiet there: songbirds call, muskrats trudge about. Occasionally a biker zooms by. We walk back home under the shade of the Gardiner Expressway, our sandals sticking in the dark mud, eyes fixed on the old grain elevators, the stoplight, our street ahead. 

Feed them, love them, watch them grow. The caterpillars munch their way through the milkweed stalks that we’ve bulldog clipped to the top of the enclosure. It is mesmerizing to watch them eat. After a couple weeks, the caterpillars are full-grown. They creep to the top and attach to the branches. We peek in on them often then. It only takes 3 minutes to spin a chrysalis and you don’t want to miss it.

2.
My son attended preschool for exactly two days. On the third day there was no class—just a meeting in a grey shuttered office where the director said don’t come back. I was too stunned to process it, struggled to find my way over to the playground where my son and husband were waiting. “How did the talk go?” my husband asked. His face a blur.

The next morning I sat with Kyle on the couch. We had a worn picture book called Baby Animals and were lifting the flaps for expected surprises. A warm breeze blew through the house. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move: one of our caterpillars was beginning to spin its chrysalis.

We raced over to watch the metamorphosis. 
It was 9am and everybody else was starting school.

3.
It only takes 3 minutes to spin a cocoon and you don’t want to miss it. The caterpillar whirls and sheds its skin, balls up into a tiny thing and seals itself in a pale green sack with a dotted, golden seam.

After a week or so, the cocoon becomes translucent. You can even see the orange and black outline of the butterfly within! Soon it will burst forth as a monarch.

It takes a couple days for them to dry their wings. They hang at the top like fluttering jewels. Down below, put a plate with fruit slices. Once their wings are dry they will fly down to sip. Then you know it’s time to go over to the field. Open the enclosure, take out the milkweed branch and hold it up to the sun. They fly.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

What we can learn from homeschoolers: Neurodiversity, flexibility and education reform

I recently surveyed 60 parents who are homeschooling their autistic/neurodivergent children. I’m excited to report that I will publish the survey results on Wednesday! For now, here are my notes on methods, research applications and why this area of study is crucial to education research.

Methodology and purpose
To get respondents, I put out the call on social media by homeschoolers and parents of autistic children. The survey call was also tweeted and shared on my blog and others’ social media feeds. I chose this organic method as the best way to reach homeschoolers, who are usually not affiliated with traditional institutions such as schools or other public service agencies. As a homeschooler myself, I am also a participant within these social media streams. I used a relatively informal survey method with a number of open-ended questions. This serves the main purpose of the survey —to share homeschoolers' experiences and open a dialogue on homeschooling, neurodiversity and accommodation.

Homeschoolers are an under-studied population. This may be in part due to institutional bias, but probably also due to data gathering challenges (outlined below). Despite challenges, the homeschool phenomenon can be studied - and needs to be.

Below I discuss how providers and schools can learn from studying homeschoolers’ methods, as well as the need to identify service gaps for homeschool families. I also look at how new research can be integrated into schools of education to create new models of flexibility in our public system.

Homeschoolers: Disconnected from research
We do not know how many homeschoolers there are, but we do know that the number of homeschoolers is increasing based on current data collection methods in the UK, US and Canada
In all of these jurisdictions, of course, homeschooling is legal — but the degree to which the state funding agencies and school districts provide support or even communicate with homeschoolers varies widely. 

The lack of a true census of homeschoolers is due a combination of spotty record-keeping across jurisdictions and parental disinterest in self-reporting. In districts where families are not required to report, districts are relying on volunteers (a small percentage of homeschoolers). In districts that require reporting, some families choose not to report. For example, families who are associated with a satellite (online) school or a learning co-op, or who are road schooling or live in two different locales may not report. Other families opt out or reporting where the state/province’s online curricula or standards are not appropriate for their child, as is the case with many autistic children. In many cases, neither the district nor the family prioritize reporting or follow-up because there is no other cause for interaction between the two.

Learning from homeschoolers
While often marginalized in pedagogical research, the experiences of homeschool families are as much a reflection of the contemporary public education system as are the experiences of those enrolled in the school system. When it comes to autism, schools can learn a lot from homeschoolers about where the public system has underperformed and how it could do better serve its autistic students. 

Homeschool families are a rich resource for adaptive modes of teaching neurodivergent children. Some parents and co-op teachers are neurodivergent themselves; others bring a fresh perspective (for example, from STEM careers) into the learning environment. Knowledge is freely shared through co-ops and social media, building best practices in academics as well as OT. There are hundreds of thousands of homeschoolers on social media, sharing info on curricula, OT, accessibility and learning strategies from a decidedly different perspective than the “school readiness checklist” methodology of much early childhood OT or the lettergrade system of public education.

Homeschoolers’ best practices can be adopted into the public school classroom with modifications. Although the homeschool and co-op environment has different parameters than a typical classroom, educators can draw from it to improve accessibility for autistic/neurodivergent students with modifications such as flexible hours of attendance and diverse methods of study and evaluation. By looking at what works for autistic kids in homeschool, public school educators can find solutions to the problems in their environment.

Research potential
Homeschoolers are also a good resource for researchers interested in OT, particularly alternatives to ABA/behaviourism. Once “school readiness” is removed as a pressure on their toddlers, some families eschew ABA and instead adopt progressive OT approaches, de-emphasizing rote compliance in favour of connection and communication.

Homeschoolers that do not use ABA/behaviourism are in some sense an organic control group for comparative study of “early behaviour interventions”. We can ask: when the mandate for intensive, therapist-led programs is removed, do the children still thrive? What happens to autistic preschoolers who don’t go to an OT centre to learn to use scissors for “school readiness” but instead spend those hours playing with family and friends? If a child doesn’t learn to play along through “scripts”, how does their play evolve into elementary-age play? What are the longitudinal outcomes of children without intensive school-focused interventions versus their peers who are in traditional autism therapy? Finally and most importantly: how does quality of life differ between the two groups?

Identifying service gaps
Most neurodivergent homeschoolers will not be returning to public school. Thus, policymakers need to understand and meet these families where they are. Researchers in education should no longer be sidelining homeschoolers, but rather identifying the services needed by homeschool families to support young learners — such as stipends, educational supports or cooperative projects. 
Because homeschoolers are paying taxes into the public education system that they do not/cannot use, a fairness in access argument can also be made.

Right now, equal access happens only on an ad hoc basis. For example, some districts welcome homeschoolers into intramural sports programs... but many others don't. By contrast, private companies (such as nature programs, STEM and Maker workshops, museums and tutoring centres) have been creating integrated opportunities for homeschoolers for at least a decade. The private sector’s embrace of homeschoolers, wonderful as it is, comes at a cost. Most homeschool families are by necessity single income and struggle to pay for private programs. In regions where there is a dearth of public programming at libraries or schools, it is felt most by lower-income homeschoolers. 

When school districts see homeschoolers as part of their community, they open up their spaces and resources more readily to homeschoolers. But this is often a big leap; indeed it goes against NEA Resolution B-83 which states that "home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools." (ouch!) It means a change in the culture, where school districts and teachers’ professional associations begin to see homeschoolers as a part of their community rather than as interlopers or competitors.

Curriculum development
Universities do not often include homeschooling in the required curricula for Education or Special Education majors, but if they did, new teachers could better facilitate partnerships between schools and homeschool communities. As well, they would be more open to hybrid programs, student-driven services and accommodations. 


Neurodivergence is poorly understood by some teachers as a set of behaviours to modify; too often, a Band-Aid approach is applied. ("Give that kid a fidget spinner," rather than "ask Michael what he needs.") Indeed, the life chances of an autistic student in school are over-determined by their teacher’s knowledge--or lack thereof--about neurodiversity. If Education students were given a clear understanding of why today's public school environment can be challenging for autistic students (and that there are alternatives), new graduates would begin to build classrooms and curricula that better address the sensory needs of autistic students. 

Homeschool families should be a part of the research and dialogue on creating more inclusive education for autistic students. Because while it is noble for autistic students and their families to work within the system for change, it is also understandable when they give up on public school and decide to do it for themselves. By understanding the rates of attrition by autistic students and some of the reasons why, the next generation of teachers can strive do better. 

Inclusion and flexibility
Public education is a right worth fighting for. So is inclusion. But what does true inclusion in public education look like? Does it mean every student doing the same thing? Does every student need to have the same interface with schools in terms of the number of hours spent within its walls or the way that time is spent? What would it look like if autistic children had a say in the way their educational experience is organized? To find the answer look to homeschool families, where that approach to education is being lived.

Research into homeschooling isn’t just about making schools better, it is also about creating an optimal environment for home learners and a healthy relationship between the schools and homeschool communities. The first step towards this is to accept that homeschooling is here to stay, that it is a legitimate method of learning and that for some it’s currently a better alternative than public school. It is time that all schools open up to hybrid models for learning and expand their definition of community beyond the four cinderblock walls. True inclusion means flexibility. 

Contact me
I welcome inquiry from researchers who seek to collaborate on further research. Please email me at hannahrkking@gmail.com. (please note the extra “rk” in my address). Or find me on Facebook and Twitter @hannahkingblog. Thanks!

 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Survey: Homeschooling a Neurodivergent Child

Hi everyone,

I've created a survey for parents who are homeschooling autistic/ND children. (Link below.)

I hope you'll take a few minutes to do the survey, which is confidential.

Results and comments will be posted  here (in a month or so) and in other homeschool publications.

Thanks so much :)

Survey Link: 


Saturday, 12 August 2017

My Buddy: An Assigned Friendship

In Grade 7, I was assigned a “buddy” at school. Her name was Kris and she was a popular girl who played on the soccer, basketball and softball teams. She was told to look out for me, help me to understand various things, probably to introduce me to new friends, too. 

But she mainly fulfilled two roles: protecting me from bullies and helping me open my locker in the morning.

Her friends made fun of her sometimes when she helped me with my locker (a built in combination lock that got stuck all the time). The hall monitor, Mr. Anderson, used to chide her for helping me too. I was supposed to be learning to do things for myself. Persistence and all that. But the big lesson I learned through knowing Kris was that it’s okay sometimes to ask for help. After Kris’s magic hands would spin the dials I got my jacket in, got off to class and didn’t have to stand in the hall crying. Mission accomplished.

It was easy for Kris to open the locker, so she helped me. It probably wasn’t easy for her to defend me from bullies — but that was her job and she took her job seriously. It wasn’t a “friendship” in the traditional sense of the word I guess. But it was a working relationship among peers.

Do-Gooders Doing Good
I thought of Kris when I recently read a blog post by parent Leah Kelley about “assigned friendships”. She calls them “stigmatizing” and “ableist” and states that “it reinforces the underlying message that this other child should be pitied and doesn’t merit being included as they are – as our equal – as a human being  – but instead – as a project…” 

Sure thing. Okay. But doesn’t every seventh grade girl deserve a decent, heaping-helping amount of pity? And if the “project” is protecting a 13 year old girl from bullies, isn’t that a truly worthy project? Please: allow seventh-grade-me to be someone’s project, a project entitled “Not Getting My Ass Kicked.”

I suppose my buddy Kris was a classic do-gooder in some reading of this story. She never invited me to her home, didn’t tell me her troubles, didn’t pull me out onto the soccer field with her at recess. But she did good things and fulfilled an authentic role in my life. For that I am grateful.

Because the alternative to the “do-gooder” actions of my protector in the harsh middle school I attended wasn’t the development of organic friendships and natural connections with my classmates. (Because who was going to facilitate that exactly? A teacher?) I knew at 13 that my friendships were occurring off-site…with the veterinary clinic staff up the street from my house, with my Danish pen pal, with my brother, with my cat, with Simon LeBon. I was pretty okay with that. I just wanted to make it through my school day so I could get home to my friends.

An Aftermath
One day that summer my brother ran up to me with the newspaper, crying. Kris had been killed in a tornado while camping. A week later my mom dropped me off at the funeral to grieve beside Kris' family at the horrific loss of this beautiful person. I walked the long boulevards home and wrote a letter to my pen pal about it. Those summer nights, I dreamed of Kris.

The following year my support network at school was gone. Because Kris had been it. Yeah. You can say that schools should reform and create better networks for kids to build authentic friendships that aren’t based on social hierarchy, but come on: that is a liberal argument that spins like a dog chasing its own tail. Schools reinforce social hierarchy every time they issue grades, provide extrinsic reward and punishment, discourage true collaboration or emphasize independence at the cost of connection.  

So if your kid is enrolled and she has the choice between an assigned friend and no friend, please think long and hard about what those two options could look like.

I didn’t get an “assigned friend” for grade eight. Instead I got punched in the mouth by a girl named Stacy and sexually harassed almost daily by several boys. So many more bad things happened when I was alone in that awful place. Only a peer could have protected me. And my buddy was gone.

I think of Kris sometimes, especially in quiet moments. We don’t realize the full weight of such a young loss until we are older, I don’t think. As children, we can still abstract it a bit. But as  adults, sitting by the lake or hiking down the trail, our old friends come to us. They sit a while and we remember who they were. We grieve what they could have done, could have had, could have been. We relive the terrible loss through the eyes of a future self they never became. Amidst the grief, we remember their warmth and kindness — and whisper out gratitude for the good that they did.