If you are the parent of a child with autism, you may be feeling discouraged or disappointed with the UK school system. The school environment can be extremely challenging for autistic children, for several reasons, and this can lead to increased stress levels and unhappiness- increasingly parents of children with autism are choosing to skip traditional school and home educate instead after weighing up homeschool vs public school.
Choosing an alternative to mainstream or even specialist school is a completely valid and brilliant option- it is not a ‘second best’ choice. I have home educated my autistic daughter from birth (she is now 11) and I am very confident that it was, and still is, one of the best ways I can help her have the best life possible, and is the right choice for her childhood.
In this article I will outline the benefits of home education for autistic children (I am writing this from the perspective of living in the UK; in other countries this may be different). If you are the parent of an autistic child, there is some helpful information about Autism from the National Autistic Society. and I have also written a popular post on the best sensory toys for children with Autism.
Prevent Sensory Overwhelm For Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Homeschool vs Public School
The traditional classroom in mainstream schools is generally bright, busy, noisy and crowded. If your autistic child struggles with sensory overwhelm, classrooms can be a recipe for disaster as they do not meet a child’s needs for peace, quiet and calm.
My daughter often struggles with the hum of the fridge and is frequently frustrated to tears by the background noise of her two siblings, so I can’t imagine the stress she would experience in a typical classroom. If your child experiences similar issues surrounding noise, lights, crowding or general busy-ness, home education may be an excellent choice.
My daughter has much more control over her home environment, and I (or the adults at the home education groups she attends) are aware and able to help her in a much more active way than teachers or classroom assistants would be able to. This is not through any fault of their own, they are understandably but unfortunately simply too busy to focus on one child’s specific needs- even special education services such as 1-1 provision may not be enough to counter the classroom environment.
When you home educate your autistic child you can decide how much stimulation to provide in your environment and how much to ‘stretch’ them (you may wish to consider talking to your GP about occupational therapy to meet your child’s individual needs), which leads me to my next point.
Help Autistic Children Develop Key Skills
When an autistic child feels overwhelmed, they either retreat into themselves or act out (these are out-workings of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ survival instinct). These are understandable protective mechanisms; the child does not feel safe so they are doing whatever they need to do to feel a bit safer.
When they are in these states, they cannot develop as they are in survival mode. Being home educated means that I can accurately assess when my daughter is ready to be gently challenged at her own pace; this may be through a train ride that I know will be stressful for her, but I can then plan down-time afterwards, as well as being fully present to support her in the process.
These small steps mean that she is learning that she can do things even if they are uncomfortable, and she is learning how to make these experiences easier for herself (ear defenders, sensory toys etc). She is growing as a person and able to develop essential life skills, rather than being constantly overwhelmed and unable to thrive. Home education means that you can spend as much time on fine motor skills, physical therapy, social studies or whatever else you feel is really important for your own unique child.
Better Social Experiences For Children With Autism: Homeschool vs Public School
Autistic children, and children with other learning disabilities, often have a hard time understanding social situations and experiences, and develop appropriate and healthy friendships and social skills. In school there is an artificial hierarchy based on classroom behaviour, how ‘cool’ someone is, grades and power (children are powerless in a classroom environment so will exert it over other children to feel in control).
This can create an extremely toxic social environment, and for autistic children who find it hard to read social cues, people and situations, it can create problems including social anxiety. This may be particularly true for children with previously-named Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism primarily affecting social interaction).
An autistic child may be picked on or taken advantage of, or may try to exert power over other children and get in trouble without really understanding what is going on.
Conversely, the UK home education community are very used to neurodivergent kids (there is a higher percentage of neurodivergent kids in the home education community as school fails them in greater numbers than children without autism). This means that in our experience, there is better understanding of differences among children and home educated kids are kind and accepting of children who are different to them.
There are lots of social opportunities for homeschool families. In my daughters’ home education groups (both social and academic), there are several children with autism and two children with Tourettes. These things are never brought up in an unkind way, the kids accept each child for who they are which means all of the children feel empowered and confident to be truly themselves.
It sounds too good to be true- but these children are not competing for the same grades, or the attention of 1 teacher to 30 kids, so they have little reason to put other children down. They know that they can do well as individuals and that other children can also do well, simultaneously.
Autistic Special Interest Development
Often, the special interests or skills of children with autism are seen as a cute quirk, or a saving grace. This is absolutely inappropriate- children with autism who have special interests or skills should be supported to develop these in the same way as anyone else with a talent or passion, and they are completely valid.
In school, children’s activities are dictated by the ring of a bell. Once that goes, whatever is underway must be put down and something else must be started.
This is frustrating for anyone, but for children with autism who feel that they need to finish a project, or are engrossed in something, it can be exceptionally distressing. I personally feel that we do a disservice to children by focusing on what they are not good at (hiring a math tutor if a child is ‘behind’ the other kids for example)- and instead we should be hiring extra teachers to super-boost those kids who have a natural affinity for a subject, in their passion.
Imagine how much wonderful talent we would see if we focused on a child’s innate passion and let them have reasonably unlimited time to explore it- it is actually a very exciting prospect. Home education allows my daughter to spend hours in her ‘art room’ (I’ve sacrificed the garage to paints and canvasses!)
As a result she can freely develop her natural passion without frustrating and pointless interruptions- we can go on as many field trips as we like, and we don’t have to fit with the school year- it is the least restrictive environment I can imagine for a childhood. Test scores and grade level can only measure so much; providing educational opportunities that enhance kids’ everyday lives and future development is the most important thing to consider in an education plan. (At the same time, if your child thrives on predictable structure, a homeschool curriculum and using lesson plans may be a good option to meet your child’s needs).
There are lots of specific-interest classes available to home educators in the UK, including online digital learning, so autistic children have a world of possibility at their fingertips.
Being them: An autistic child, valuable and unique.
School is set up to form children into a fairly narrow mould. Yes, there are different subjects and of course schoolchildren go on to do lots of different jobs.
However, the uniforms, classroom environment, artificial social environment, limited subject choice, low adult to child ratio and cookie-cutter exam system do not allow for a great range of diversity. Autistic children do not fit a typical school mould, and are frequently failed by the system while simultaneously believing that they themselves are a failure.
Home education allows autistic children (and indeed all children) to truly and freely be themselves, while providing an environment of support, growth and development than in my opinion is second to none. Nobody can care for a child more than a loving, resourceful parent and there is so much support for UK home educators now; there has never been a better time to weigh up homeschool vs public school, and consider home educating your autistic child.
If you feel that you would benefit from a one-on-one call to get practical advice and explore your options and personal situation when it comes to home education, book a call with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.