I wrote this piece for a Catholic homeschool newsletter in early 2008.
Homeschooling was something I had always been interested in, but I did wonder if I would ever have the patience to actually do it! But as our son who was in year one, began to show signs of struggling academically and generally being unhappy, we started to consider our options more closely. Noises were being made by teachers that Bilby needed to be tested for learning difficulties because he rarely finished his work and was easily distracted. This unsettled me, as I didn’t want him to be labelled when he was so young. I also knew that most of his difficulties could be attributed to the distractions inherent of a teacher student ratio of 1:26.
I was also disappointed that although he was attending a Catholic school, very few of his classmates attended Mass. Good friends of ours with a child the same age as Bilby told us that when their daughter gave a speech about the rosary, she was ridiculed by some children. Alarm bells started ringing. Incidentally this family have also decided to homeschool. We wanted our children to be immersed in their faith and not have to feel like the odd ones out for living a Christian life.
I lived and breathed homeschooling for six months before I was willing to make a firm commitment. This was such a huge decision for all of us that I didn’t want to rush into it only to throw up my hands and quit in term one. For me this would be a permanent decision, and I wanted to be as prepared as possible.
After much angst we decided to bring Bilby home right away rather than wait and see if things improved. I was very apprehensive, but also extremely excited. What excited me most was the faith journey we would take. Like many of my generation who are Catholic and had been educated in Catholic schools, there was much that I was ignorant of. My faith had recently begun to blossom after having attended a Celebrate Love weekend with my husband, and a Cursillo weekend. I had finally made a conscience decision to leap into my faith. I knew that homeschooling would only deepen my commitment and understanding of my faith.
And so our journey began. For the first time in my life I felt like I was exactly where God wanted me. After years of trying to find my place, as it were, I was deliciously content. Swimming against the stream had never felt so right.
We had made the decision to bring only one child home. Our second son Koala had just started kinder and loved every minute. We had two reasons for keeping him at school. The first being that he seemed to enjoy it so much, however the second reason troubled me a little more. I just didn’t think that I would be able to cope with him all day, every day. Koala had always been more of a challenge than our two other children. He was very easily upset and was generally a hand full. As time progressed things seemed to get worse rather than better. So it was easier to have a peaceful day and send him to school.
During term two I approached Koala’s teacher to inquire about his behaviour at school, as he had become quite difficult at home. She reported that he was an angel at school, but that she had noticed some things that were concerning her. I casually commented that I often wondered if he was autistic, but would then dismiss it because he did do so many things that autistic children could not. Her next comment marked a turning point in our lives.
" He’s certainly not autistic, but I have wondered if he could have Asperger Syndrome."
When he was a toddler, I had had almost the same conversation with a friend who was studying to become a teacher, but I had taken no further action. Now it could no longer be conveniently forgotten. We no longer had the luxury of thinking that he was just a little more eccentric than other children.
What followed was the most difficult year of my life, thus far.
I began to read anything I could get my hands on about Aspergers. I instantly recognised Koala in the descriptions of Aspergers. This gave me both a sense of relief and fear. Relief at the possibility of finally getting some answers and concrete help for our little boy, to intense grief at the loss that Aspergers then represented to me. My faith gave me strength, as I firmly believed that the Lord would not have given us Koala if he didn’t think we could do a good enough job! Even though I came close to doubting his choice at times.
Both my husband and I drew great comfort from a close friend who prayed with us during this time of waiting. Each of us had a strong feeling that Jesus had a special plan for our boy. We could picture Jesus tenderly embracing Koala, and surrounding him with his divine love. This image gave me great strength at my lowest points.
Koala was diagnosed with mild Aspergers three days before we embarked on a 400km move! The roller coaster ride began. We finally knew why he wasn’t like other kids, which helped us tremendously in parenting him. With each new book I read I began to feel as if I was getting to know what made my son tick. However, reading those books was very difficult. Every time I encountered the word "disability" I physically recoiled.
At home things steadily got worse. Koala had intense meltdowns. He would scream, throw things and hurl verbal and physical abuse at all the family. I still bear a scar from one of his meltdowns during Mass. Most Masses were a complete disaster. I often wondered if our family would be able to withstand the difficulties that Campbell’s behaviour presented. There were many times when James or I would have to leave the room during a meltdown to weep. We even lost who we thought were close friends because they were unwilling to accept that Koala’s behaviour was the result of Aspergers, not poor parenting.
Despite these challenges thoughts of homeschooling him were still constantly on my mind. Most of my conversations with close friends would soon turn to this topic. I’m certain that I bored them to tears, although they were gracious enough to listen to the same concerns time and time again without complaint! I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly bring him home and manage in safety. But I also knew that many people did homeschool Aspergers children and reported that their children’s behaviour dramatically improved as a result.
As his behaviour deteriorated, and my confidence in homeschooling and my understanding of Aspergers improved, I began to think that things couldn’t get worse even with him at home. We were ready to trust what others who had been down our road had said. That it would be easier. We decided to try homeschooling him. I was learning to trust in my abilities and to lean on the Lord. The Scripture "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me." often came to mind. All the same I was scared witless!
Koala has been home for three terms. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we have a different child. The meltdowns have all but ceased and he no longer chews his clothes or become physically ill due to anxiety. The anxiety of the school environment was undoubtedly the cause of his negative behaviour. He was able to hold it all together at school, but once home, he released all the anxiety that had built up over the day. He is now a happy little boy once again. One regret I have is that we didn’t bring him home sooner.
I am now at peace with his diagnosis. Many of the things we dearly love about Koala can be attributed to Aspergers. He looks at the world in a unique way. He has a wonderful sense of humour.
People with Aspergers are very literal in their interpretation of language. Upon asking Bilby to keep an eye open for something, Koala asked if he could use two eyes! Or another time when I was purchasing a coffee, he asked why there were three different size cups on the counter. After explaining that coffee was a drink for grown-ups and that they were the three sizes you could buy, he asked if the smallest cup was for short grown-ups!
His intense (some would say obsessive) interest of the moment is penguins. Consequently we all know lots about penguins. We also share our home with 15 or more toy penguins of varying size!
I share our story in the hope that it may encourage someone who is considering homeschooling a child with special needs. Often these are the children who most need to be educated at home, away from the bullies and pressures of school. As parents I think we need to believe that we are the experts when it comes to our children. We also need to trust that if the Lord places something on our heart, that He will give us everything we need to fulfil His perfect plan for our lives.