Autism and home education

Even across the immeasurable gulf of cyberspace, I fancy I can hear the sharp intake of breath and see the narrowing of eyes and shaking of heads which the very title of this post is liable to be causing. What sort of insensitive claptrap is the man planning to come out with now? Does he have an autistic child? What does he know about it then?

All fair questions indeed. I am not proposing to write about the actual home education of autistic children, about which I know nothing. Instead, I am going to talk a little about autistic children and adults of whom I have a good deal of experience and see how this might relate to styles of home education. I will be propounding no dogmata, really doing nothing more than inviting those who do know about this subject first hand to comment.

I used to work for Alice Hoffmann Homes in the 1980s, which is now the Hoffmann foundation. This was when the long stay institutions were being emptied and I was involved in doing assessments of adults from places like Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. The idea was to get them into small residential units. At about the same time I was doing this, I was undertaking short term fostering for Barnados of children on the autistic spectrum. Actually, I met my present wife while working for Alice Hoffmann. Going off at a slight tangent, something I have noticed is that people who choose to work with autistic adults are often a bit peculiar; I don't think it's the kind of work that a normal person could do for long! In fact a lot of people associated in whatever capacity with autistic people come across as being a little strange. This includes many parents. At one time this was of course thought to be the cause of their children's problem; weird parents produced weird children. Kanner, who first defined the syndrome, had no doubt at all about this and some readers are probably familiar with the notorious idea of the so-called 'Refrigerator Mother'. My own feeling is that this is muddling up cause and effect and that the experience of having a child with autistic features most probably changes parents and makes them a bit prickly and tough. This is necessary to protect their children from all the ill informed nonsense which they encounter in the world. In other words it is the experience of having a child who is different which causes parents to be different, not the other way round.

One thing which I noticed about the adults with whom I dealt, all of whom were non-verbal and had severe learning difficulties, is that a lot of them had some special interest or other. One would be attracted by shiny things; jewellery, coins and human eyes, at which he used to grab. Another was fascinated by wheels and other spinning objects. He would stare endlessly at vehicles in the street and had a toy car whose wheels he would spin round, just in order to watch them. It was a large part of the support workers' job to try and distract them from these obsessions and get them to do other things. With higher functioning children, on the other hand, special interests were usually mental rather than purely physical. I remember two boys in particular. One was twelve and his main interest in life was London bus routes. If he met anybody he would ask how they had arrived. His opening gambit would be along the lines of, 'Did you get the 254 here?' or if he knew that one had come from Ilford, he might ask, 'Do you ever get the 86 from Ilford high Road to Romford?' Another boy who took A levels and went to university was very bright but with two passions. These were mountains and the technical specifications of ocean going boats.

Why am I talking about these two young men? For this reason. Much of the education they received was devoted to training them to fit in with everybody else in ordinary society. Just as with the non-verbal adults there was a lot of work in getting them to stop spending all day staring at spinning wheels and live a more 'normal' life, so too with the children who had an over-riding pasion for some obscure topic. Obviously, when I hear that somebody comes from Hackney, the first question I ask is not about what buses they can catch from Mare Street. This would frankly be a bit weird. So we have to try and get a kid like this to change his conversational style a little. We also have to get him if possible to think a little less about buses and a bit more about all sorts of other things. The same goes for a boy whose real interests are mountains and ocean liners. I have to say that I can perfectly understand the attraction of simply collecting facts about things in this way. People are messy, complicated and unpredictable, but the bus route from Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road is something you can rely upon! Just like the height of Snowden or the cubic capacity of the Titanic's water tanks. I have been accused of preferring books to people before now and there is some truth in this. You can depend upon books in a way that you can't really do with people. You never know what people are going to do next and so there is something comforting about just associating with books and facts. They are safe and predictable.

Many home educated children have special educational needs of one kind and another. According to the recently published Ofsted survey of Local authorities and home educators, a quarter of the children whose parents they spoke to either had statements or had been at the stage of 'school action plus' before they were de-registered. Many of these kids are on the autistic spectrum. Judging by what is said on the Internet lists, not a few of these children are autonomously educated at home. Now here is where I am curious and would be grateful for any information. As I said above, when one has an autistic child at school, a lot of the efforts are to get him to talk and behave like everybody else. No rocking to and fro if he is stressed or bored, not too much conversation about buses, no wiggling your fingers in front of your face to observe the interesting effects of the flickering shadows. Children at school often have pretty detailed programmes about such things. They also have rounded educations which take their minds off any special obsessions which they might have. I am wondering if home educating parents often follow the same approach.

In other words, I can imagine that in the case of the boy who was fascinated by bus routes that if given the choice and allowed to follow his own interests, he would have studied nothing but timetables. Who knows, he might have branched out into train routes and times, but I doubt he would have studied science or mathematics. These would have been an unnecessary distraction from the proper business of timetables and routes. What would a parent who practiced autonomous education do about this? Would she give the child freedom to decide only to study buses? I am also interested to know about behaviour modification, a lot of which takes place in both schools and residential units. I wonder if home educating parents run programmes like this at home. Do they insist that their children conform to certain norms and so on? For instance are they always saying things like, 'Good sitting Robert! Put your hands down. Look at me!' and stuff like that? I have to say, this would sound really strange in a domestic setting as opposed to a school or day centre.

I am not saying that this would be either good or bad, I am just wondering if it happens? I have no doubt that the work done at schools and so on to change the behaviour of some young people can help them to fit into society better. On the other hand, I have seen such children and adults becoming very stressed because some comforting behaviour has been forbidden them. Sometimes, I have thought this cruel although I understand the rationale behind the prohibition. Is anybody aware of any comparisons which have been done, or even any anecdotal evidence about the difference between school and home education for children on the autistic spectrum?