Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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For more on homeschooling highschoolers, check out the GHF Blog Hop. 

“Time to get off the computer.”

I don’t know how often I say that to my boys. I say it politely, adding a please. I say it with a time attached, giving a number of minutes. I say it with fewer words, each a sentence of its own: “Get. Off. Now.”  I say it with more: “If you continue to sit at that computer after I’ve asked you to get off, you’ll not see that game tomorrow (or this week, this month, in a lifetime of Thursdays).” I’ve yelled it. I’ve written it as a note or passed it as a text. Some I’ve even cried while saying it.

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

When I started this gig at the start of 2005, mom to one seven-year-old and one three-year-old, we had one computer, and we used it minimally. I checked my email. My older son might play a game for 30 minutes a day. I sometimes sought out homeschooling information and read through the archives of the TAGMAX and the like. My cell phone was a pay-as-you go, and texting wasn’t a verb I knew. As a family, we were fairly strict about “screen time.” We had a few educational games (remember Zoombinis?), and TV watching was limited to documentaries and other overtly educational programing. Our internet connection was slow, and our cable line nonexistent. We were largely unplugged.

We’ve come a long way on the technology train since then. As I write this, my older son, almost 17,  is in the basement on the computer he built, an “ancient” laptop (5 years old) nearby on the floor, sporting an operating system that isn’t familiar to me and being used for purposes I don’t understand. He’s doing his biology using online software from Plato Courseware. Before that, he worked on his 3D Programming course and his Intro to Statistics course, both free offerings through Udacity, one of several available MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Later, he’ll log into his course on the local community college’s website to work on his Advanced C++ programming class or English 101 course. At some point, he’ll turn to his Java homework, and while the homeschooling group class he attends this week is a live, in-person experience, the programming work is all on the computer, of course. After that, he’ll click through to  Codeacademy, his go-to site for informally picking up computer languages, where he’s picking up Ruby, a language, he tells me, that is something like Python, which still means little to a mom who learned Basic and Pascal decades ago. Then have an IRL human experience in the afternoon: real teens chatting and eating while real moms drink coffee and chat. Then, after an IRL dinner at the kitchen table, he’s likely back down to his computer to Skype with either programming online friends from the college or to Skype/Minecraft with a good buddies (most whom he knows in their human form).

His brother, twelve, who’s at another machine built by his brother, is on the main floor, working (I hope) on his Marine Biology Coursera course, another MOOC offering, or perhaps on one of his literature classes from Online G3. He could be checking in on what’s due for Biology, an IRL class I teach but that has assignments posted on the web and sites to visit on the web. Perhaps he’s honing his latest essay about aquariums and fish-keeping, using Google Drive for writing and the internet for research. Either way, after practicing the very real piano, tending to his water-, fish-, and plant-filled aquarium, and reading a book made of paper, he’ll spend an hour or two on Skype with a friend he knows in human form and play Minecraft. Loudly. Then we’re off to fencing — the live type, with foils, epees, sabers, and real humans.

As I read through those paragraphs, those ones that plant my children, for hours a day, a foot or two from a screen, I’m filled with a mix of awe, sadness, and concern. I’m awed at the offerings my kids have. Homeschooling has never been deeper in its offerings than it is now. While my younger still spends a few hours a day at the proverbial kitchen table with books, papers, and a real pencil, working with Mom, more and more the picture of homeschooling is more akin to partaking in a buffet than the family-style meal it used to be, and the buffet includes some incredible online offerings.

This metaphor, introduced to me by a friend as she related how she explained their eclectic homeschooling style to friends and the Powers that Be on the college Common App (meaning even the college application process has gone digital), fits how many families now homeschool. I can’t think of a more apt comparison. This monstrous buffet caters to learners of all styles and with all sensibilities. There are endless choices: traditional texts and workbooks, online classes for free, online courses for more than free, homeschool classes via co-op or even school district, in-school electives, DVD programs, subscription classes, field trips created for homeschoolers, individualized instruction online or live, dual enrollment classes at local colleges and universities — or online, and much, much more. It’s overwhelming, frankly.

A decade ago, when homeschooling was the back-up plan if the second school in two years failed, I talked to friends and paged through catalogues. I dog-eared pages and took trips to the local teacher’s store. I attended used curriculum sales, frequented used curriculum sites, and purchased the leftovers of my friends. We were at the library weekly, often with dozens of books exchanging residence during the visit. Our homeschooling day was a mix of reading aloud, discussing any variety of topics, working through math workbooks, doing science experiments, watching science videos, and playing. The computer had little to do with it.

Today, our internet connection is our lifeline. It links my younger son, who has Asperger’s and finds real-life interaction fatiguing and bewildering,  to classes, friends, and aquarium enthusiasts (he’s a bit fish-obsessed). I’ve seen his social skills grow, interestingly, and I attribute some of that to the practice with people without bodies that he gets through audio-only Skyping with friends. (Facial expressions and body language can overwhelm some people on the autism spectrum. He does experience people live often enough to be building skills in this area of communication as well.) It connects my older son with friends, other programmers, a few mentors, and even to students who can benefit from his programming knowledge. It brings him classes he can’t get from a book and encourages the rabbit trails that have brought him to find himself fascinated with computer engineering and programming.

And yet I remain uncertain about my sons’ relationship with their computers and the worlds they open to them. It’s hard to manage the lure of the online world, full of stimulation and distraction. I struggle myself, and I’m far from my impulse-driven teens. As a forty-something adult, I find myself checking email, online Scrabble, text messages, and Facebook far often than I likely should, distracted from writing and assorted computer-based obligations. Those temptations threaten the rest of my time, with a smart phone that makes access to diversions way too easy. So if I struggle, an adult with a (theoretically) fully developed frontal lobe with no deficits of executive function except those induced by child-rearing and homeschooling, how hard must it be for them, with their developing teen brains, to manage the Siren’s song of the digital world, balancing work and pleasure with habit and addiction?

Mighty hard. And so I set limits. I insist on meals at the kitchen table and time away from screens.  I plan time for them away from the screen and with live humans. But as my children age, I give them more say in how they manage their time, on the computer and off. This is part of their education, the management of whims and work, the balance of life offline with life (and often work) online. With practice, support, judicious limits, plenty of reminders, and some missteps on my part and theirs, I’m confident they can move healthily from homeschooling teens to working adults while living in the digital age.

Seventh Grade: Plans for 2013/2014

School is underway for my seventh grader (whatever that means when you homeschool), now twelve. As I write, he’s working on math, and once that’s done, he needs to spend time on a project for an online class. Our early start wasn’t my choosing, but since his online classes started last week and he does better when occupied, here we are.

Math (mean, median, and mode today) picks up where we left off in the Spring. Rabbit trails, anxiety, and a textbook switch means he’s still a few chapters short of finishing Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics 7B (Common Core edition).This seriesweaves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and miscellaneous math topics across four years of texts, meaning that we’re likely trapped in this series of four books until we see our way to the other side. That’s fine, Singapore has served us well for many years, and we’re both happy while he’s learning.

Biology is our science this semester, and I’m thrilled. I’ve spent weeks reworking the high school level biology course I used for his brother and a friend when they were technically in  seventh grade. (Syllabus here.) Centered around Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland) and Biology: Concepts and Connections (Campbell), this is a rigorous study with plenty of labs, reading, and writing, as well as explicit teaching of note taking skills.We have two weeks before our first class, and I can’t wait.

Much of my twelve year old’s learning is online this semester. He’s taking two classes from Online G3, an impressively taught source of real-time classes for younger learners ready for big ideas and dialogue. He’ll take Current Events, where a portion of each session is in the hands of a student who takes fifteen minutes to present on an event he or she finds interesting. (My younger son is taking on Common Core and presents next week. That should be interesting.) Also from G3, he’s studying Shakespeare’s Comedies, a high school level literature course using Lightening Literature’s text by the same name. For second semester, he’s hoping to take Shakespeare’s Tragedies and perhaps British Literature. My children couldn’t be more different.

New this year is Latin. We played with Latin in the spring, using Linney’s Getting Started with Latin, which provided a gentle introduction to the language. He’s enrolled in Lone Pine Classical School’s Latin 100, an intense course requiring strong study skills. What he does not have now he’ll hopefully develop along the way without too much drama or trauma for either one of us. He’s also plotting his language learning course, debating the benefits of four years of one language then two of another versus two years each of three different language. That’s my child. Planning years ahead when there is absolutely no need.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month — write a novel in a month) will keep him busy come November, although he’s not decided on a word count goal. He’s participated two other years, with a published book coming out of his first experience. While I love his dedication to the project and accompanying word goal (25,000 this year, he says), it does take a good-sized chunk out of each day. Our only flexible point this semester is math, so we’ll likely take a break from that for November. He’s not complaining.

Social skills are my hidden agenda for him. Asperger’s doesn’t go away with age, and he’s struggling more again as he approaches his teens. There is more to miss, more subtext, and more to feel anxious about. We’ve not had an easy time, and I’ll admit that homeschooling has buffered us from not just the perils he’d face at school but  also made me a bit complacent about his lagging social skills. He has good friends who accept him as is. I’m grateful. But he needs some assistance in the everyday sorts of relations: small talk, meeting new people, even emailing a friend. So we’ll be hitting these harder at home and enrolling in a live class for homeschooling  middle-schoolers, Jury Trial. He adores the topic, and I’m glad to have him try some of those skills in a live classroom. We’ll see how it goes.

His extracurriculars remain the same: fencing with Salle d’Etroit  and piano with a private instructor. He makes slow but steady process in both. Neither come naturally to him, and I’m some mix of pleased and surprised that he’s not daunted by that. As he says, he’s not sure where his body is in space. He simply can’t feel it, and both endeavors are far easier for those who have access to that internal wisdom. I hold my breath when he struggles over and over with each, hoping he’ll stick with it despite the struggles. That can be hard for gifted folks. When so much comes so easily, persevering in what doesn’t (fencing, piano, social skills), takes a good deal of sense of self outside of one’s natural intelligence. I admire his persistence.

Reading through our plans, I realize my role is gradually shifting from teacher to facilitator. This didn’t happen with my older son until tenth grade, when he started dual enrollment courses and a few online classes. I can’t say I mind, since my younger definitely does well learning online, and the options for that mode of learning expand by the day, but it does remind me that we are closer to the end of our homeschooling journey, which started nine and a half years back, than the beginning. As I somewhat reluctantly look at our schedules and the waning days of August, I find that a bit of a relief.

Twelve

IMG_0591It’s hard to say when my drift away from childhood started. It can’t be at the point where each thought isn’t spoken and shared, for I can recall private success and shame from age three onward. We work to separate from parents from our first step. But at some point, the move isn’t just to more autonomy but away from childhood and toward all that comes next.

It might have started at twelve, in the basement of a new friend from my new junior high. Being the new kid in seventh grade may not really be any worse than being any kid in seventh grade. Almost everyone swings and sways the hormonal winds of puberty, starting each morning trying to dress a body that isn’t one’s own only to face crowds of kids in the same predicament, each deciding to flaunt or conceal nature’s most recent trick. But I weathered this storm with three girls who provided sure shelter in this period of shift, and with them, I found myself in the basement, music blaring.

Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind. oh, Mickey! 

I can’t recall the dance moves paired with that unfortunate pop song of the early 1980s with lyrics I am sure I didn’t entirely understand at twelve. But the sense of experiencing and embracing what was mine — that made perfect sense. This wasn’t the music of my childhood – the classical, folk, and show tunes that had been the soundtrack of my first dozen years. This was…something else. Toni Basil’s Mickey begat Top 40 radio stations, followed mix tapes of favorites of the radio and long conversations over the phone or behind the bedroom doors of my girlfriends about school,music, books, mean girls, and cute boys. These were conversations for girlfriends only — no parents allowed.

His twelve is of course different. He parks himself in front of Minecraft videos and the game itself for hours, if left unchecked. (And sometimes, because I need the peace or I know he needs the same, I turn my head.) His siren song has riffs of zombie attacks and choruses of spawning cats and horses.  Sometimes he plays with a friend beside him, their loud voices exhorting each other to gather arms or resources or just to get out of the way. It’s public and loud, their banter and games.

His friendships look the same at twelve as they did a few years back, lacking the confidences and collusion of my version twelve. Sword fights and fantasy play dominate his offline time with friends, and his play still screams little boy. His conversations with buddies revolve around video games and trading cards, with occasional plots to bother siblings. He holds all the spirit of eight with his friends, although with an ability to compromise and apologize that are just beginning to bloom.

Twelve brought me changes to my body that bewildered and irritated me more than brought me delight. There seemed more to hide and disguise during that year, and too much time was spent in front of my closet’s full-length mirror trying to determine if my bra’s straps showed under my short sleeve white uniform blouse, and, if they seemed to, deciding whether to sweat out the day with a sweater to cover said straps, in a thicker long sleeve blouse, or wearing a t-shirt under my uniform blouse. Braces. Deodorant. Glasses. Hair that suddenly needed something done to it. My twelve was a constant tug between the desire to be invisible and to be seen.

His twelve smells sweetly sweaty, lacking the pungency of adolescence. His clothing choices revolve only around what is comfortable and within reach — the mirror in his bathroom receives little attention. His voice has gradually lowered in pitch to the point where callers confuse it with mine, a curse of the preteen boy. And while he is firmly, passionately male, his golden hair, which sweeps below his shoulder blades, throws off almost all strangers, who ask about my daughter. He’s confident in his masculinity, reminding me that after puberty, no one will make the mistake again. He is still far more boy than almost teen, from the soft curves of his cheeks to the bounce in his step, but the autumn of childhood is here.

At twelve, my father read to me most nights. Sitting on the edge of my bed as he had done since as early as I can remember, he introduced me to classic and contemporary literature. Whatever growing up I did during the day, I was still glad to have my father’s voice bring me mystery, adventure, fantasy, and a bit of childhood in the hour before I went to sleep. An affectionate child raised by affectionate parents, twelve brought less exuberant demonstrations of love, but goodnight hugs and kisses persisted at a point where physical reassurances that you are real and loved and still your parents’ child despite the churning changes you can’t control.

Firmly attached to mom, at least at the end of the day, he still waits for the snuggle before bed, greeting me with purrs and meows, rubs of his head against mine, feline behavior being his only way to express his affection and love for many years. This ritual tugs some nights, and sometimes my eyes fill. At twelve, we are reaching the end of this scene of childhood, and I don’t know which purr and rub will be the last. Each “good night” leaves me wondering. In daylight hours, I’ll just sometimes find his hand in mine as we walk somewhere. I hold his back with equal strength, allowing his to slip out as quickly as it came. Grasping works no better here than when a child learns to walk. Letting go at the loosening of their hands is part of the deal.

My twelve is only available to me in snippets, like the trailer for a movie. Sleepovers with girlfriends. Gut-knotting moments on the playground with girls who met puberty with vitriol. First crushes on oblivious boys. Math tests. Books that introduced me to the adult world, tantalizing and cautioning at the same time. Time home alone, similarly exciting and frightening. Homework on weekends. The constant tug of childhood and adolescence, with the latter winning out thanks to the unrelenting forces of nature.

I cannot recover the inner narrative of being twelve anymore than I can guess that of my son’s at twelve. His twelve is knowable only by what he tells me, and that is very little. I have no doubt his interior life is rich, but temperament and gender and Asperger’s keep it within his heart and mind. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can make a guess at what is behind his increasingly irritable tone, guess at worry and anxiety at a world that just holds too much mystery. Then bits come out, but still just glimpses at what it means to be him at twelve. In all ways, his twelve seems bigger than his eleven, with more talkback, more hair, more brilliance, more negligence, more sideways humor, more misunderstandings about the world, and even more tears. How does his still small body carry all that bigness?

Perhaps its hubris to try to understand his twelve through the lens of mine, over 30 years buried in my brain, but it’s the only lens I have. We share neither gender or life experience, but our temperaments are similar, and so I try to extrapolate — to guess, really — what might be inside. And for what? A chance to understand him a bit better before the throes of adolescence consume him even more. It’s coming. My little boy is going. But for now, we have twelve.

Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 

An Education in Humor: Keep it SOFT

My younger son (now 11) is working on telling jokes. He’s working on being funny overall, but specifically, he’s creating his own jokes. I’d like to report they are hilarious, appropriate works of humor art, but they aren’t. Yes, he says some hilarious stuff. Some of that is even intended to be funny. He has an odd sense of humor based on obscure historical references, plays on words, politics, and body humor, sometimes all in the same joke.

After a few months of watching his joke telling in horror and fascination, I decided it was time to take action and help the boy along with this budding desire to be intentionally funny. Together, we created a screening tool for jokes, which, with a bit of creativity, lent itself to a memorable acronym:  SOFT. Each humor intent is screened for SOFT criteria, with input from any impartial observers who are in on the system welcome.

S: Does the joke make sense? So many jokes fail this first test. Like most of us, my younger’s mind wanders to odd places that make sense to him but not to others. Like a few less of us, he fails to see that what makes sense to him might not make sense to someone else. That’s a hard skill to teach, and while he is growing in his understanding that different people think different thoughts, his sense of humor has yet to reflect that new knowledge. Now, I’m okay with not fully understanding the sense of humor of an eleven year old boy. I also understand that sometimes I’m missing something, so I ask my older son, 15, if the joke makes sense to him. If it fails both of us, no dice.

O: Is the joke offensive? Oh, this is a minefield. There are two questions here: Is the joke potentially offensive in content to anyone anywhere? If so, the second question is asked. Is the joke potentially offensive to anyone in listening range? When you assume everyone around you shares your political views and it’s election season, one can make frequent mistakes with the second question. I’ve leaned toward giving very specific feedback on this point, such as, “This is a joke you can tell around your brother and I at home when no one else is in the house.” Before we have house guests, we’ll often review what passes and what doesn’t by genre: body humor (not with Grandma), politics (yes, I give names), religion (similar list, but with additions) and current events (generally the same set of names as politics). He’s made strides in this area but tends to err on the side that everyone he knows shares his opinion on the above issues unless he’s been expressly told they don’t. Let me just apologize now.

F: Is the joke funny? Sometimes they just aren’t. Often the ones that aren’t funny also don’t make sense, but there are many that meet one criteria but not the other. This is definitely subjective and not a terribly big deal, as long as the lack of funniness isn’t because someone found the joke offensive. This is a minor criteria, given getting a blank look from his audience doesn’t really faze him. Score one for underdeveloped facial expression reading. Unless he’s told, he’s pretty sure he was funny, no matter how people respond.

T: Does the joke have good timing? A joke told about a conversation that ended five minutes earlier (or even two minutes earlier) falls flat, and given his rather reflective thinking style, this happens quite a bit. That timing faux pas isn’t a big deal but is worth gentle guidance. (Late jokes are an interruption in the conversation at hand. We’re working on interrupting, too.) Timing matters in other ways. A joke told in the middle of class may be funny, make sense, and not be offensive, but it doesn’t belong in the middle of class.  Along a similar vein, some (okay, most) body humor jokes just don’t have a place at the dinner table.

These four easy-to-remember criteria aren’t a miracle cure for all humor errors, but they are providing guidance. When he’s on the verge of a joke, I’ll sometimes interrupt and ask, “Is it SOFT?” That can sometimes be enough to avoid serious social discomfort for the mother of the teller and the recipient. Is this a selfish system, designed to protect me from embarrassment? A bit, perhaps. But it also informs him of the very social norms that elude him so often. It’s another reminder that all of our minds work differently as well as a gentle nudge to a more gentle, considerate way of being in the world. Asperger’s or not, it’s likely helpful for plenty of kids and some adults who might want to make sure a joke is appropriate before launching it. Try it with your own kids or someone else in your life in need of guidance, and let me know how it goes.

Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Younger

It’s that time of year. May. The time of year when I can’t stand one more minute of homeschooling and just want to be done. It’s the point when we’re almost done with most of the books and classes we started the semester with and have even moved on to new material in some, vamping a bit for the last few months of the school year. (This always seems to happen with math.) It’s also the time to set the fall schedule for the classes and events that happen outside of our walls, and given that’s going on, I might as well make some selections for home, too. Here’s what I have so far.

A.B. (11, 6th grade)

Math: After a fair amount of angst, we settled on continuing with Singapore Math for secondary mathematics study.  We’re a few chapters into Discovering Mathematics 1A, which contains a fair amount of review for him on subjects covered in The Algebra Survival Guide but with far more depth and extensions. Our pace is a lesson a day, with a day at the end of each chapter to play with the more challenging problems in the workbook and a day for the end of chapter test.  Taking tests is new for him, and he’s still pretty anxious about that process, but since that’s the only hiccup thus far, I’m giving DM a thumbs up.  We’re still plugging away at Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6 as well, and I keep a stack of alternative math options on the shelf for his more anxious days when “regular” math just isn’t doable.

Language Arts:  A.B. will continue with Michael Clay Thompson’s Word Within the Word and Magic Lens series via Online G3, this year studying the second level. This program of study (both the books and online class) work wonderfully for him. For literature, he’ll pick one the Hewitt Lightning Literature classes Online G3 offers, most likely Mid to Late 19th Century American Literature.  That course’s reading selections seem accessible given his age (and I’m fairly sure some of the selections in British Lit, like Jane Eyre, would not be enjoyable reads for him). He’s determined to participate in NaNoWriMo 2012 and plans to continue to write on his blog. I’ll likely try to broaden his writing beyond these forums, but he’s a strong enough writer that I’m willing to largely follow his lead and work my agenda into his.  I’m considering signing him up for WriteGuide for the second half of the school year with the aim of strengthening his fiction writing.  Finally, since he enjoys Steck Vaughn Spelling, he’ll proceed to level six in that series.

History: In fall, he’ll take the last of the American History classes from Online G3 this fall. This course covers the Civil War and the rest of the last half of the 19th century using Joy Hakim’s History of US books.  He has his eyes on her Government class for the following spring. The first semester, he’ll also take Coursera’s A History of the World Since 1300, a free online class from Princeton University.  History is his favorite subject and one of his career aspirations (historian and college professor vs lawyer), so plenty of new ideas in this area are key to his happiness.

Science: This year is physical science with a focus on physics. Middle School Chemistry provided a sound base in that portion of the physical sciences, so I’d like not to belabor that end of the subject. He’ll be studying with a friend, although what text or supports we’ll use are to be determined. Any suggestions for a text are welcome!

The Rest: He’ll continue piano lessons and daily practice, and at this point, he’d like to attend Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer of 2013 for further piano study. We’ll see where that drive goes come the new year. For physical education, he’ll continue to fence, a sport that replaces karate for him as of the last five months. Lessons are twice a week, and eventually, he should be ready for a few tournaments. He’s interested in becoming a fencing director (think ref), which is a path open to him as well. He loves rules and the enforcement of them, so this seems a reasonable pursuit. We’re still discussing foreign language options. He’s interested in German. I know none and have no desire to learn it. He might play with it via Rosetta Stone this summer and see if that mode of learning works for him. It was not a good match with my older son, but these boys are wired completely differently, so I’m willing to give it a try.

As always, we’re working on communication and social skills. I’m not using any formal materials for this but rather continually discussing the nuances of the conversation, friendships, and general relations between people. We have a few resources on the shelves for this purpose, but they just seem to sit. We do post-mortems on situations, with a mix of trouble-shooting and celebration of successes and will continue this process.

As always, ideas are welcome. What are your plans for fall?

Moving from Autism Awareness to Acceptance

Thanks, autismacceptanceday.blogspot.com.

April 2, 2012, was Autism Acceptance Day. Some people refer to it as World Autism Awareness Day or the start of Autism Awareness Month, but I prefer the first term. Awareness is the easy part, although it is necessary first step to acceptance. Acceptance is what causes people to struggle, but it’s the essential step to granting the dignity and respect each human being deserves.

I’ve written before about the relief that came with my son’s diagnosis of Aspergers a year and a half ago.  It was the day I stopped wondering if I was a bad parent, if he would just “outgrow” his challenges, if I was just getting it wrong. I’d wondered if he’d had a spot on the autistic spectrum prior to age nine. The question of a pervasive developmental disorder had been raised since he was four, discarded because of his prodigious vocabulary and high intelligence. I’d spent the previous few years “acting as if” to some degree, relying on books about parenting kids on the spectrum. I knew before I knew.

The formal pronouncement wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t devastating. It was a point of peace. It was the start of understanding my son better. Perhaps those are some of the reasons why I found Hannah Brown’s article in the Huffington Post bothersome. Her piece 10 Things To Do After An Autism Diagnosis treats an autism diagnosis like a death sentence for a parent. It removes focus from the child and places it on the parent.

Who has the diagnosis here? Yes, finding out your child is likely to need support and assistance on many fronts possibly for life is daunting and gives one pause. Even with the relief I found initially in my son’s diagnosis, I experienced (and still experience) a sense of the enormity parenting a child who’s wiring will always be quite different from that of the vast majority of other people. Helping him find his way through the world; aiding him in feeling comfortable in his own skin: these were the tasks that daunted me and brought (bring) me to tears.

This is, after all, the same child that one has been parenting all along.   Whomever gives the diagnosis isn’t changing a child’s biology just explaining it. The nine years of parenting my younger son before his diagnosis were harder in many ways than the year and a half that have followed.  With a diagnosis, it was easier to access help (although not the kind covered by insurance).  Just calling local psychologists and opening with, “My son was diagnosed with Aspergers,” made vetting therapists and getting appointments easier. Just having a schema to support my understanding my child’s behavior and mind helped me understand him a bit better. Information is empowering.  An accurate diagnosis on the autism spectrum provides information for a family and, depending on the age of the child, an opportunity for self-revelation for the child.

Brown’s first three items to do after diagnosis reek of negativity and doom.  Advising one to obtain Valium (#1 on Brown’s list) and reallocate assets to one’s own name to prepare for the inevitable divorce? (#2 and 3)? Please. (The stats show no difference in divorce rates between parents with spectrum kids and those without. I was divorced at the time of his diagnosis, and I assure you, it was not my child’s fault that my marriage imploded.) Not that parental needs and feelings don’t matter. Parental mental health contributes to the mental health of the child. If that’s Brown’s point, however, she’s missed the mark. Certainly any parent feeling overwhelmed or depressed should seek professional help and the support of others, but Brown’s drama and narcissism removes the focus from supporting the child. It is, after all, the child who is autistic.

So here’s my list, limited by my own experience with my child who is on the Aspergers end of the autistic spectrum but perhaps helpful for someone else.

  1. Remember this is the same child you had before the diagnosis, the one you’ve parented since the beginning. Nothing about being labelled autistic changes your child. The label provides information for you, your family, and those whose lives touch your family. For an older child, knowing one has autism can be empowering and peace-bringing. Schoolhouse Rock was right: knowledge is power.
  2. Breathe. Eat. Try to sleep. Brown’s suggestion to meditate was a good one (although sullied by her application of using the practice when comparing your kid to other kids). If you are the prayerful type, pray without looking for direction but rather in search of peace and inner quietude. All parents need plenty of that.
  3. Read. Read widely. Start with The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism book and blog. Continue reading the blogs of the parents and autistic people who post there. Start looking at autism from those who live it. Here’s a list that helped me: Reading Through Aspergers: Part I and Part II.
  4. Listen. Learn what self-advocates have to say, even when it hurts. Yes, there tends to be a tension from adult autistic self-advocates and parents of autistic children. It can be hard to read stories from those who grew up autistic even ten or twenty years ago. It’s even harder to be rebuked and corrected by these same adults when you’re trying your best to figure out how to help your own kid. Listen anyway, with as open mind as you can muster. Then open your mind just a bit more. There’s much to be learned.
  5. Think and research. Brown and I agree here. There are plenty of interventions, proven (a few) and not (a large number) for those with autism. The Autism Science Foundation and LBRB: Autism News, Science, and Opinion are fine places to start when investigating therapies and interventions. Avoid anything using curative language. There is no cure, although charlatans will be glad to try to sell one to you.
  6. Maintain relationships that support you and your child. It may be tempting to reduce your world to those with autistic children, but don’t. It’s a big world out there, and autism isn’t all of it. Your matter-of-fact presence in that world with your child on the spectrum can benefit your child, you, and that big world.
  7. Teach others about the autism spectrum and about the needs of your child. Not the preachy kind of teaching but rather the more spur-of-the-moment sort of teaching. Pass on books or internet links to those who are interested. A world that understands autism is far more likely to appreciate and support your child now and into adulthood.
  8. Vote. Vote for public officials who work to expand insurance coverage of autism therapies. Vote for health care coverage for all, coverage that includes mental health care.
  9. Remember the rest of the family. It’s easy for the autistic child’s needs to be so great that the needs of the “easier” members of the family become lost. While your time might not be spread equally across all the family, your care and love can be. I remind myself (and have reminded my older son) that fair treatment doesn’t always mean equal time. Remember that just because your other children may have quieter needs, their needs are no less important. Nurture that relationship with your partner, too. A loving teammate can make a difference.
  10. Accept autism. Start by accepting your child just as he or she is while continuing to help that child be all he or she can comfortably be. Acceptance isn’t passive. It’s an evolving spirit of support, love, and compassion. It also isn’t always easy, so be prepared to start over with acceptance on a regular basis. That’s okay.

Behavior is Communication

Behavior is communication.  That’s a maxim more recently held among many parents of autistic spectrum kids. It’s certainly true with my Aspie son.  His behavior is my best indicator of internal milieu.  While my younger son is verbally precocious and his output, um, prolific, it’s his behavior that tells me what’s really going on.  When I see him chewing his shirt or blanket, I know he’s needing to soothe himself.  That behavior isn’t random, and it isn’t there to drive me nuts.  It may appear to be both of those things, but it’s not.  It’s communication and coping mechanism wrapped into one.  Holes and soggy clothing aside, it’s not a terribly problematic behavior, and he’s glad to substitute a piece of gum when asked.

Some behaviors are less clear.  Breakdowns during lessons require more detective work and rarely related to the assigned work.  When he becomes teary during a page of math problems, fatigue and anxiety are often to blame.  The anxiety may be about an upcoming flu shot, global warming, or his birthday.  Even fun stuff causes anxiety, since it also entails change. But his behavior for all is pretty much the same — teariness for assignments he generally manages well and resistance to all demands.  In the last year, thanks to growth, good therapy, and low-dose medication, with prompting he’s often able to identify the problem and work through.   We didn’t have this a year ago, but not just because he was struggling to express himself.

I wasn’t listening as well then.  I was listening for words, words in response to, “What’s wrong?”  I was watching for body language that matched his words, and the match wasn’t there.  I wasn’t considering the behaviors themselves to be communication.  Oh, I knew that certain behaviors meant he was distressed.  But the tantrums and all tended to overwhelm me, making it hard for me to really listen to what his behavior was saying.  I saw the meltdown, the chewing, the foot tapping, and I just felt frustrated.  Frustrated that I didn’t know what was wrong.  Frustrated at the behavior, which was often loud and large. Frustrated at the interruption in our lives, which occurred nearly every day.

When I can remember that behavior is communication, I can respond initially to what is being communicated, not to the behavior.  No, I don’t tolerate violent acts to people or property.  And yes, behavior does have consequences.  But we do the best around here when I listen to what he’s really communicating.  When I recognize the anxiety, fear, anger, or sorrow behind the behavior, I can respond to that. When he identifies the emotions behind his behavior (which often takes help), he’s more likely to shift away from more problematic behaviors.    Also, there are some behaviors best let be.  I’m delighted my son has found ways to calm himself, even if one of those ways is chewing his shirts to pieces.  He spent more than half of his life without any of those independent mechanisms, requiring me to soothe him.  I still do help him out, cuddling or just being near when needed, but finding ways to manage that oneself is a task of growing up.

Behavior is communication.  This holds true for my older son.  At fourteen, he has plenty of ability to express his feelings, but, whether due to gender, age, or temperament, he often doesn’t say much.  He speaks volumes when he retreats to his room to read –again.  Even missed assignments and failed tests give me information as to his state of mind and mood.  It’s harder for me to see his behavior as communication, perhaps because, in general, he communicates his feelings in words more readily than his brother.  But his behavior towards his academic work or music studies are a window into his heart and mind, one that as a mom to a teen, I’m glad to have available.  As with my younger, I try to verify my understanding of a behavior.  Did he not finish work because it was too hard, because he was bored, or because he has bigger matters on his mind?  This isn’t an out to assignments he doesn’t want to do — life requires us to do plenty that we’d rather avoid.  (My examples to my boys include cleaning toilets, cooking meals each day, and showing up for work on time.)

It’s far too easy to jump on the behavior — the tantrum, the late or sloppy work, the retreat to a room — rather than to examine the communication behind the behavior.  It takes a fair amount of self-restraint to block the initial (often negative) reaction to the behavior and think for a moment and ask aloud what’s going on. It takes some patience to help a child sort through their hearts and minds, but it’s worth it.

The more I try to see behavior as communication, the less conflict we have around here.  It decreases my yelling and their whining.  And, to my delight, it increases their ability to identify and share their feelings before they wash over into their behavior.  That makes for a more peaceful home, which we all appreciate.

Secret:  This works with adults, too, but adults tend to be more guarded about their emotions and have stronger ego-defenses.  Strong reactions and grownup tantrums are rarely about anyone but the one having the snit. At least remembering that can help you de-escalate and keep your own behavior in check.

Word Games

That's my score on the right, making for three losses in row.

“Aren’t you proud of how well your children play Quiddler?” my older asked this morning.  

“Sure,” I replied while losing again to his ten-year-old brother.  Admittedly, I agreed through gritted teeth, since I like to win just as much as I like to be right.  However, my sons’ growing prowess with words delights me, wordsmith that I am.  At the start of our homeschooling experience, science and math ruled the house. Looking back, I can see they dominated our plans and energy at home mostly because they weren’t as easily available in school.  For years, science, math, and history were our subjects of focus.  I worked language arts into the edges for many years. However, in the last year, there’s been a swing toward all things wordy. Continue reading

A Bit of Self-Promotion

I’ve moved beyond my two personal blogs, Quarks and Quirks and Finding My Ground, and been published on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.  I’m delighted to have a spot on that very intelligent and informative blog on all things autism.  If you have a child on the spectrum, know a child on the spectrum, or just want to understand Asperger’s and Autism better (often with a scientific bent) peruse the site and learn a bit more.  I had a similar post (actually, two posts, given the length) with the same resources listed here, but have taken those off for now to keep that content on TPGA only.  They’ll reappear here in a few months.