Dear Homeschooling Community, We Need To Talk

Dear Homeschooling Community,

We are a homeschooling family with an autistic parent (that’s me), and two young children, one of whom is also autistic. We decided to homeschool about two years ago when my older son was 4 years old, after much reading and researching and a couple of attempts at preschool that didn’t go so well. This has been a great choice for our family and we love being able to educate our kids at home.

You may not know this, but homeschooling is becoming an ever more popular choice for families with disabled children, because so much of the time public schools do a poor job of including our kids. Children with developmental disabilities tend to experience less stress and are able to learn better in a home environment where their needs can be truly supported.

But, there’s a problem. We need to talk.

Our children still need to be part of a community, and the obvious place to look for one is within you, Homeschooling Community. You are the ones out and about during school hours with other kids the same ages as ours; you are the ones who help provide discounted access to educational opportunities like museums and farm tours and theater. The problem is, you are often not much better than the public schools about including us.

Merely acknowledging that we exist and inviting us to come along, without providing any kind of support or accommodation to disabled children (and disabled parents, for that matter), is not inclusion. Telling us that you “won’t judge” us when our children melt down, because of the lack of support provided in these activities, is not inclusion.

In fact this somewhat resembles the poorly practiced inclusion our kids too often find at school: the “throw them in the pool” method. Throw the kid who can’t swim into the pool with all the other kids who can swim. If the kid doesn’t like it or has a bad time, they can just get out of the pool and find somewhere else to go. This is NOT inclusion.

It actually is an insidious and harmful form of exclusion in which the burden of failure is transferred to the child whose needs were not met, instead of the organization whose responsibility it was to meet those needs.

If we express to you that our child would like to attend one of your events, activities, classes, or outings, but will not be able to do so as the thing stands now, your response should not be, “I’m sorry, maybe the next one will be a better fit.” It should not be, “Have you tried the Autism [Totally Different Activity] instead?” It should not be, “Just bring them anyway, I’m sure it will be fine and if not we will understand.” That is not actual understanding, Homeschooling Community. Your response should be, “How can we make this accessible to your child?” And then follow up on our feedback and make it happen.

Our children deserve to be included as valued members of their community, their peer groups, their neighborhoods and cities. Segregation into disabled-only activities, classes, clubs, and leagues is not good enough.

For our neurodiverse family, as much as we want to also find our autistic community, those “autism things” are not appealing, as they are far too often therapy-oriented, designed to build “social skills” (that’s code for “acting more neurotypical”), as if our kids can never be part of the world or even just have fun without being actively trained to suppress their needs and true selves and conform to society’s norms.

Somehow our disappointment in not being included is particularly bitter when it comes to you, Homeschooling Community, because you claim to be all about individual needs, play, freedom, and sometimes you even use the word inclusive, but still you have no place for us. Not really. All of the burden is placed on us, on our children, to adapt to you, with no effort from you to expand and grow to include us.

Homeschooling Community, you need to do better. Our numbers are growing and we are looking for a place in the world. Do you want to be like the institutions you have personally rejected – narrow, exclusive, homogenous, upholding the values of conformity and perpetuating ableism? Or do you really want to embody the values you claim to hold, and make a place for us? If so, start by listening to what we really need, and then make it happen.

Dear homeschooling community,we need to talk

Image is a green square with a small blue icon of an envelope, and in all cap blue lettering, “Dear homeschooling community, we need to talk / Meg Murry / FB/RespectfullyConnected”

19 replies
  1. Shayne
    Shayne says:

    I would love to know more about what needs autistic youth have for these events. Have you tried to plan events for your youth and then include homeschoolers instead of the other way around?

    In my experience, home school parents are very flexible. Tell them what would need to change to make the activity more inclusive for your family and the next event will probably be more so. Rather than just telling us all that we need to talk, let’s talk… I am all ears…

    Reply
  2. Dee
    Dee says:

    Thank you for saying it! Sadly, this has been our experience with the homeschooling community where we live. It was the same for the Montessori school community we tried. The lack of homeschool community support has been so disappointing. It is even worse here as homeschool groups are small and are deliberately closed to us; they don’t even pretend to include anyone outside their circle.

    Reply
    • Cathy
      Cathy says:

      Dee, This has happened to us as well! I have attended parties where I was asked not to bring my boys next time, because they displayed behaviors that the parent holding the event could not handle. I have been asked to leave a shy child and go away so that she could be forced (thrown into the pool, LOL) to interact and socialize with the stranger kids at the event, I have had my children denied acceptance at homeschooling events because they were not religious, all of these happened throughout my years of homeschooling, and there was an endless search for a group, a few mothers, anywhere that was completely inclusive and sadly, it was always a struggle. The worst struggles were those with the most religious of the homeschool groups we frequented. And yes, it would have been lovely to plan events myself, but our home situation made this impossible.
      Gosh, this really touched me, I had almost forgotten those days and the heartache those things caused, because they came from mothers who were doing what I had tried to do, make a safe space for my kids in a world that provided only two or three models for schooling and we fit into none of them.

      Reply
  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I hear the frustration. At the same time, remember that homeschool activities and field trips are usually organized by parent volunteers. They may have no idea exactly what accommodations might be needed, and in our area most organize field trips based on the ages and interest of their children and then invite others along to join. It might be helpful to help plan an activity or field trip that would be enjoyable for your family to help show others how they can help you feel more included in the future.

    Reply
  4. ItsToughForEveryone
    ItsToughForEveryone says:

    I am sorry to hear you feel excluded in your local community. I remember when I first started homeschooling, it was frustrating to try to find a good fit for our family in activities too. I am sure having autism in the mix makes the frustrations doubly hard. We have other exceptionalities, however a lot of overlap on sensory issues. It won’t help you to place the responsibility for inclusion at the feet of a non-existent entity. The “homeschool community” is generally like a troop of cats you are trying to herd – all very individual creatures, each fiercely independent and not interested in conformity or obedience. If you want an event that works for your family – create it. Invite the world. If it works, do it again. If it doesn’t, try something else. My recommendation for you is to start a group based on graduation year of your oldest child. There will be a lot of other people with young kids like you who have not found their group yet, and will be happy to be a part of what you set up. You can then design it to suit your needs as well. You have the power to create the “homeschool community” that you want – right around you. Don’t wait for a random assortment of very different people to become what you need.

    Reply
  5. Melissa R
    Melissa R says:

    As a long time homeschooler, and the class coordinator of my hs group, I’m interested. But I don’t know what is needed. Most hs groups are parents trying to do their best. They aren’t experts and don’t have experience with all types of learning needs. Yes, they should ask what you need from them, but IMO, depending on what it is, they may not be successful at providing it. Please write a follow up story with details.

    Reply
    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Melissa, I know that asking me or listening to my concerns and working to act on my thoughts, within reason of course ;), makes a huge difference for our family :). It is very true that we cannot expect other homeschoolers to be an expert, or even necessarily a little knowledgeable, on all special needs. That is unrealistic. Listening, and not dismissing, to concerns and suggestions and acting on suggestions when it is feasible is a realistic expectation :).

      For instance, my youngest has a rare yet potentially deadly food allergy. He is allergic to anything from a non primate mammal. Some wonderful moms in a co-op handled this in a way that brought tears to my eyes. They made a request that an attempt he made to make safe foods for him when we had pot lucks and that ingredients be listed on index cards. This was so nice as even many of our homeschool friends were getting offended when he did not eat the birthday cake or other foods at parties and that I bring him his own food :(. Another offensive thing was telling me that I must be making it all up as this allergy cannot possibly exist :(. My son carries epi pens everywhere as he almost died one night when he went into anaphylactic shock. This was prior to us knowing what he is allergic to.

      Here is an example regarding autism. My son is also on the autism spectrum. He comes across as incredibly shy. He is very rigid. He monologues and gets caught on his special interest topics. He also suffers from sensory processing disorder. It is extremely helpful for other parents to understand that our attendance to events may be sporadic. It is helpful for them to understand that hip hop music and rap music is impossible for him to handle sensory wise. It is even more helpful for that sort of music not to be played at events, which I realize is not always realistic as there are many situations when this is not controllable, but when it can be controlled it is irritating to hear it played when I have made this request :(. I am referring to holiday parties especially.

      Reply
      • Lisa
        Lisa says:

        We left a homeschool cub scout den because he could not do some of the physical expectations. I am talking about jumping with both feet together, for instance. No kidding. One of the boys constantly complained loudly that my son was cheating:(, and NO ONE stepped in to stop that child or explain to him how hurtful his words were. My son completely lost interest in scouting as a result :(. Motor skill wise, jumping with two feet together was impossible for him :(.

        Reply
      • Meg Murry
        Meg Murry says:

        Hi Lisa, I must confess I wish you didn’t use words like “rigid” and “suffers” about your son, I find these to be othering words that pathologize autistic minds…. But I do agree with your comment that “listening and not dismissing concerns and suggestions and acting on suggestions when it is feasible is a realistic expectation.” That is exactly what I was trying to convey in this piece and I’ve been frustrated that some people have interpreted this as a demand that everyone become an “expert” on autism.

        Reply
  6. Blaire Sharpe
    Blaire Sharpe says:

    I have been homeschooling my son, now 15, who has Aspergers for four years now. I really struggled in the beginning to find a community in which my son could socialize. There seemed to be many homeschooling communities that, like the author reports, were not a welcome environment. But what I realized was that my reasons for homeschooling my child were different than the reasons most of these groups’ parents homeschool their children. The homeschool parents that form these groups generally have faith-based reasons for this choice. They desire to reduce the exposure their children have to the social aspects of public schooling, as well as more restrictive curriculum. My choice to homeschool is based on my disappointment in the district’s ability to adequately educate my son without also stigmatizing and harming him emotionally. I came to the conclusion that my son would best thrive in an environment (home) that allows him to approach his schooling in the way that best meets HIS needs. Consider that our public schools are, by law, required to provide an education for our children – and that they have on staff individuals trained in this area – AND that they still fail at doing even an adequate job, let alone a really good one! Then consider that the homeschool groups are under no obligation to be understand your child’s particular needs – nor does anyone likely have the education to enable them to do so.
    I recommend setting aside your justified frustration, and look for other ways to support your child’s social needs. Find some neighborhood tweens that are willing to play with your child. Any socializing with someone outside the family is worthwhile. It helps to reframe your ideas of what it means to have a social life. I wish you well.

    Reply
    • Meg Murry
      Meg Murry says:

      Blair, I would say two things in response:

      1. The homeschooling community may not have a legal obligation to make activities accessible to disabled children, but I feel that they have a moral obligation to do so. Otherwise they are basically saying they are content to be ableist.

      2. I agree with you about reframing my ideas about social life; however, many disabled children who are homeschooled still do want to participate in outings, classes, and so on. Additionally, it is difficult for kids past the age of 3 or 4 to just spontaneously find friends in the neighborhood once most kids are in school. Autistic kids still have social needs, even if they are not as time intensive as non-autistic kids’ social needs (and also, some autistic people ARE extroverted!).

      Reply
  7. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    I appreciate you bringing light on this very real struggle. I had a son with special needs as well. He has mild cp, he is deaf, and he has global delays. All this is a result of cCMV. He is very unique, one of a kind. He deals with a wobbly gate, drooling, he cannot talk orally, he plays and due to spastic muscles he hurts other kids in the midst of trying to connect with them he often pushes them away.
    My “solution” has been to find a small group of core homeschool friends. Not only special needs families, but a mix of both. Mostly families who are willing to show compassion, who have an intentional heart. People who are willing to receive slobbery open mouth kisses, and to tell their kids that it is no big deal to receive one also. Those families where I can share my heart, where they are eager to learn sign language. It is not a vast global community, but a small circle. They bless us, and they get to really know my son, to see that he blesses them just as much. Yes, pray for those friends. That is the substance of true community. It is truly magic when it occurs.

    Reply
  8. Grace
    Grace says:

    Thanks for your article. I’m hearing your need and frustration. What I’m not hearing, however, is what you’d like to do to make this better. I (and many of us) don’t know how to do things differently. Autism is something that looks different in each child and it’s actually up to parents of those children to help us understand what they need. We just simply do not know. I am VERY interested in knowing how to engage children with all kinds of differences. I think it’s very important for my children to be able to be comfortable with and sensitive to all people. Please, write another article to help this mom know the HOW.

    Reply
  9. Lori
    Lori says:

    I agree, most people Homeschool comunity or not do not know how to tell the difference between different types of developmental disabilities…that’s where you also come in in educating the “homeschool community” instead of waiting for everyone to do things for you. The homeschool community is not an institution we are all different groups of individuals trying to do the best for our own children. Your article is good in the sense of getting a discussion going but still it is in your hands to start something within your homeschool group, talk to them, explain to them and give them
    Ideas on what can be implemented in the group to include your children.

    Reply
  10. Meg Murry
    Meg Murry says:

    I plan to write another article about how. But an easy first step is to ask people who tell you they can’t do this or that activity, what you could do that would help them have access to it. I have talked to several other homeschooling families who have disabled children and have simply been told that the activity, outing, or group is not for them. That’s unacceptable to me.

    Reply
  11. Meg Murry
    Meg Murry says:

    Yes, I agree that it’s in my hands to talk about things and explain needs… I’m not sure why people are getting the idea that I am asking “everyone to do things for [me].” I’m asking them to be responsive when I bring up an access issue.

    Reply

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