Helping My Daughter With Autism Manage Home School on Her Own Terms

Rebecca Brand
·5 min read
Rebecca's daughter reading in bed.
Rebecca's daughter reading in bed.

As is my way and occasional downfall, I tell myself we are doing great in the first few weeks of distance learning during the quarantine. Just look at how my children cuddle up and open their school-provided laptops in the morning! Only the teenager drags his feet. As for Sophie, my 11-year-old daughter with autism, I think this might even be her optimal way to learn.

For once her obsession with screens seems to be a bonus. She can get up to run and hum whenever she wants, so long as she doesn’t bother her brothers. Whereas at school she expended energy paying attention, following somebody else’s schedule, keeping still her body that needs to move as quickly and constantly as the second hand of a clock, here I can watch all of that energy take flight in her laps back and forth outside the kitchen window. Then when she is ready, she can settle in and work at her pace.

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She attacks her online math assignments with the casual intensity of a coder, fingers bouncing across the keys with her knees propped against her desk. I feel relief, like I could be glimpsing her future. Each day I ask her if her work is done and she says “yes.” I never check. She has never been adept at dissembling.

The first week is probably easier because we skip Sophie’s Individualized Education Program. It is hard to figure out how to do it with the classroom teacher also providing a full day’s work. It looks as though Sophie has double the work of her typical brothers. In a video conference with other moms of kids in special ed worried about how they will provide for their kids with educational supports at home, I practically boast about the break I am giving all of us from the full weight of her resources work, speech and occupational therapy and social skills training. I do not go so far as to tell them I even dared to think she is doing fine with the regular fifth-grade curriculum. This was maybe just the push we needed to see it! I must know my friends would see through the mirage.

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When the school is able to provide a full daily program, Sophie’s team can check in more on how she is doing. Of course, she was not supposed to only be reading the Babysitter’s Club books over and over again. Of course, her written work was supposed to be submitted online and not just scribbled onto her bubblegum pink ruled paper and cast onto the floor. I almost tearfully confess to her teachers that two weeks of learning have not actually been learning. I commit to sitting with her and monitoring her work. She seems to accept that she had a good run shirking through the beginning of distance learning and recognizes that now she will have to change tactics.

When I begin to hover around her, I see the challenges part of me — the honest part that has been to all of the PPT meetings for the last six years — knew was there. Writing an essay is a struggle. She can give me an argument and reasons, but cannot organize them. I end up writing them for her into an outline her teacher has provided. School is hard not just for the routine and physical constraints, but the rigor. I fear my most tantalizing dream will be crushed: that she will be able to take care of herself and thrive without me.

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None of Sophie’s differences with communication or relating to people are a problem for me as a mother. I could happily share a home with her forever. She is my teacher. She is joyful and free, and has flashes of brilliance. One morning she is resisting getting in her chair and starting her day and I swing between despair and frustration, but then she smiles at me and starts the principal’s morning message at 2x speed. I laugh. Problem solved for the moment; homeschooling can be on her terms. Later, she takes the outline we made and types an essay into the computer. I do not read it.

This step backward in my involvement feels like progress for both of us. We don’t have room in quarantine for my panic about today or the future. As impossible as it is to re-create the work Sophie’s wonderful team at her school does every day, dropping into her IEP and confronting how hard she has to work and how far she has to go with every assignment adds another layer of impossibility. Next week, my daughter’s whole team will work with her via Google meeting. Sophie and I will go through her checklist, but I will also return to my wonder and enjoyment at how happy she is at home rather than wondering where we will end up.

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