Photo description: A child, back to camera, arms crossed infront, looks out past a dark green gate towards a garden path

Being free. Why we choose to homeschool our Autistic son.

Trigger Warning: Content includes references to abuse of children in schools, restrictive practices, restraint and seclusion

The image of a little boy in a cage in an Australian school has been seared in to my mind this week. This UN World Autism Awareness Day (Autism Acceptance Day in our family) an inexcusable abuse of the human rights of an Autistic child broke in the news in Australia. It has been reported that a primary school purpose built a cage made of pool fencing for an Autistic boy.

Frighteningly, parents and disability advocates have responded by saying this is not an isolated incident, that seclusion and restraint of students with disabilities is ubiquitous across Australian schools.

* For more information, please visit and support Children with Disability Australia *

Since the news broke, I can not stop imagining my son in that cage, in place of the other boy like him whose rights have been abused. My beautiful son is Autistic, full of spirit and energy. Free.

My son is a child who would be at high risk of abuse from caregivers. He isn’t interested in authority or following the crowd. His intrinsic motivation is high. He’s overwhelmed by too many people, and their noises and smells. He’s at ease when using his body to create movement and noise.

This combination is ill-suited for mainstream schooling with extended sitting times, teacher-directed learning and lesson plans set for a group rather than an individual. Where there are 25 noisy children in a classroom and a playground of 500 or more. Where he would be lucky to get 1:1 support for more than a few hours a week because he’s able to communicate verbally and has a high IQ.Sometimes when he’s overloaded, my son reacts in ways that might be considered challenging. Although as his mum I know it’s usually because we’ve missed his early attempts at communicating that he’s overwhelmed and needs a break.

In a busy classroom with no support, how could a teacher notice these subtle signs that even I fail to spot some days? And how then could a teacher with a classroom full of children, possibly support him gently through a stressful situation?

In a school setting, my son might just be that boy with a purpose built cage.

Or he might be the boy we met in a special education unit within a reputable local public school we visited. When we asked how they catered for twice exceptional children (gifted with a disability) they took us to see the boy who was gifted but couldn’t cope in the classroom so spent all day reading advanced engineering textbooks on his own. My son would be that boy too, segregated from his peers.

He was that boy, actually. Twice he attended small, high quality early childhood programs with experienced educators and an inclusive philosophy. The first time, he spent all day following his Group Leader around, hysterical if she took a lunch break. After two months of “emotional days” (as the daycare described them), we removed him.

With pressure building to ‘socialise him’ as he approached school age, we tried again, at a smaller centre, with only a single small class, three educators, and this time with a 1:1 funded support worker. Despite good intentions, therapist visits, endless meetings and support from us, the accommodations he needed to thrive were not provided. We didn’t ask for much – to be excused from stressful ‘circle time’, to have frequent movement breaks, to access an iPad, and visual supports. He spent much of his day with his aide in a small red tent, outside the classroom and away from the other children. So much for socialisation.We pulled him from kindergarten after his psychologist asked if he had experienced a significant trauma there. He hadn’t, in terms of typical traumatic events. But all of the signs in his body and his behaviour suggested he had (these symptoms I won’t share with strangers on the internet, but they were concerning).

The irony is that at the time, I had been researching for work the topic of toxic stress in young children. A concept formalised by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, who say

The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body (especially the brain), with damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and health across the lifespan.

**More on toxic stress in children here on their website **

I have no doubt my son was demonstrating symptoms of toxic stress.

The very environments that are stimulating and positive for many of his peers, activate and elevate my son’s stress response systems in unhealthy ways. All the good intentions and inclusion support in the world, could not protect his body from the sensory assaults, confusion and stress of a kindergarten setting not able (or willing) to accommodate his needs. Once we recognised the signs, he stopped attending right away, and we spent the months following decompressing together.

I will not give my son PTSD for the sake of socialisation.
He will not go back to a formal educational institution unless he asks to.When people ask me about his socialisation, I inform them about children in cages, ‘time out rooms’, special ed classrooms, and my little boy isolated in his little red tent.

When people ask me about his education, I tell them about a bright little boy who learns best through following his own interests, technology, and who does not learn sitting still in rooms full of children. I tell them of schools who could not see my son’s potential, who could only see disability through a limiting, behaviour-focussed lens.

When people ask me how I feel about the years ahead and homeschooling, or say they don’t know how I do it, I describe the anxious feeling I used to have going to work knowing how stressed my child was in a small supportive kindergarten. I ask them to imagine how sick I would feel leaving him at school now, knowing he is in the care of a system that constantly abuses and fails our children; especially spirited and easily overwhelmed children like mine who are at high risk of restrictive practices?

Having him home with me free to move and vocalise and learn in a way that suits him, is no sacrifice, or challenge on my part compared with the worry I would feel and the stress he would experience in our local public school.

When people ask if I believe in inclusion and mainstreaming in education, I say “Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course”. But my child does not have time to wait for a system to be resourced, for teachers to have more training, for schools to focus more on children’s wellbeing and development than on the results of standardised testing, and for society to stop turning a blind eye to the abuse of our most vulnerable children.

My son can not wait because he is busy being free, not caged. Exploring, not escaping. Learning, not being taught. Discovering his gifts, not being limited by people’s perception of disability. Being loved in his circle of family and friends, not isolated in the name of socialisation.

He is free. As all children have a right to be.

Photo description: An adult and child jump in to a pool, photo captured mid-air, view from back, they are holding hands, in the background are green leafy trees

Photo description: An adult and child jump in to a pool, photo captured mid-air, view from back, they are holding hands, in the background are green leafy trees

14 replies
  1. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Thanks for writing this. I had a similar experience in the brief period when my oldest son was in a mainstream pre-school. We were lucky: both of my kids (Spectrumites) are now in a supportive integrative education setting. But if that wasn't possible, you can bet we'd be homeschooling, too. Who knows, we'll see what happens when they hit the high school years….

    And this line: "I will not give my son PTSD for the sake of socialisation"… many kudos to you; my Autistic adult self is living proof of the damage that can cause. I don't blame my parents, as they were only doing the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time, but I hope no other kid has to endure a toxic educational environment because inclusion is the "ideal". Or to "teach the other kids about diversity" – not our purpose in life, and doesn't work anyway.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Thank you Vicky, especially for sharing your own story as well as your kids. I'm glad you've found a supportive place for your children. And yes, it's not our job to change the system at the expense of our children. I am so sorry you've had long-term psychological impacts from schooling.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing. I can also relate. My son was excluded from socialisation in ways that were by no measure therapeutic but in fact was abusive. I have tried many schools and there issucha lack of support for him because he can talk and is intelligent. He is neglected as a result and mistreated. I also now homeschool. I will not expose my son to toxic systems any longer. He is now free of stress and I have never seen him happier.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Yes in efforts to socialise our children by mainstreaming, they often in fact become excluded from socialisation. I'm happy to hear you have found a way to reduce stress too. It has felt like such a relief for us.

  3. suburpcomix
    suburpcomix says:

    So shocking these news. With my son in his 2nd mainstream school in Qld, I was aware of the struggles, the underfunding, the cluelessness and the many many compromises that have to be found..but I have been the troublesome, super present parent and the schools -always only after quite some learning time on their side – were willing, so far to adjust.. I did not expect such disturbing and apparently widespread cases of restraint and reclusion. We had 2 or 3 instances of restraint – physically holding my son by 2 people – that had me incredibly upset and confused. There also was a signature (after the first incident) to actually allow this and much much discussion, especially how holding would only escalate the meltdown further. I was not happy about it, especially because the "raging" (throwing things mostly) was something my son had only copied from other kids..I feel that this was a learning phase both my sin and the sep staff went through and thankfully it was very brief.
    Never I would have expected restraint to be so widely practized in Australia…I am so angry, but I am also glad its a public debate now.
    My son is now in a much smaller rural school.
    He still struggles at times but he has less hours and, although they have less special needs staff, they are actually more flexible. I am positive that he will further mature into adjusting to environments that are indeed toxic at times for our kids. I encourage him to retreat and resource when he feels overwhelmed. I understand every single parent who decides to homeschool, even more so now, but I also believe he can do this. No, the schools are not fully ready to accommodate his learning, but he is not constantly under stress and he benefits of things i can simply not offer at home…If I had been confronted w teachers even proposing a cage like structure though or tell me to medicate (it was hinted. I was very clear about that) I don't know where we would be now..
    These developments have to be watched closely.they also bring to light attitudes from mainstream parents I had been suspecting and overhearing all along. Our kids are granted inclusion and adjustments BY LAW in Australia. Clearly the school, the staff and society is not quite ready and able yet.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Thank you for sharing. I am really happy to hear you have found a school that is more flexible and accommodating of your son. He is also very lucky to have a "troublesome, super present parent" in you! I am angry too, and I hope that this can stay in the media for some time so that we can see the system change for our children and their peers.

  4. Grace
    Grace says:

    I am an aspie and see a big problem with home schooling and unschooling autistic kids.
    First of all, they do not allow autistic kids to experience the “real world”. Autistic kids need to see it as much as any other kid. They need to know that good and bad sides to our world so they can adapt to it and be as successful in it as possible. “Protecting” children from it does far more harm than good. Whilst you may think you are helping your son, you are not giving him the opportunities for achievements that come with school, or the ability to cope in the real world for that matter.
    Secondly, even if your son’ potential is nit recognized at first, it will be recognised sooner or later. In primary school, I was told by the headmaster and two teachers that I would never do academic work beyond that of a 13-year-old. Now I am 16, my academic results are in the top 5% of my year group and I will probably be doing some university level work next year.
    Sending your son to a public school could do the world of good for him and show him how capable he is.
    Your son needs to have first-hand experience of the real world, so he knows how to thrive in it. Don’t hold him back! He needs opportunity, not mollycoddling!

    • Respectfully Connected
      Respectfully Connected says:

      Hi Grace, thank you for taking the time to comment. Almost two years have passed since I wrote this piece, and my perspective has changed somewhat. We no longer homeschool from fear, we homeschool because we see it gives my child loads of opportunities to be in the ‘real world’. He meets up with friends of all ages, his learning is self-directed, and if he ever chooses he can indeed do university level work, inside or outside of a university. He knows he is capable from within himself,not from an external grade. It is great to hear that school is positive for you. That’s wonderful.

      • Grace
        Grace says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment.
        I suppose I was writing it in what I see as a huge level of animosity towards mainstream education I read on this blog. A few high-profile news stories does not mean that the school system in Australia or any other developed country is overwhelmingly abusive towards autistic children. If anything, schools have vastly improved over the past few decades in helping autistic children.
        I know teachers who teach autistic children who would probably find this article quite demeaning, since none of them would EVER think to abuse a child.
        I believe that autistic children, like all children should be exposed to things they may not enjoy doing, as it will teach them that sometimes they have to do boring things they may not want to do. This will help them cope in the “real world”.
        Grace 🙂

        • Respectfully Connected
          Respectfully Connected says:

          Hi Grace,
          There is strong research evidence that bullying and abuse is rife in schools. I don’t think teachers or students who go to school and are good people who are inclusive and kind to autistic students need to be defensive. Instead they could just fight to keep making things safer and more inclusive for autistic children and young people.
          I am happy with our decision and the level of safety, challenge and support my children experience. It doesn’t mean other people can’t be happy with their different decisions. All the best. – Bri


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