In rebellion of Unschooling dogma

I’m an autistic parent (which means that I am autistic and I am also a parent), and my family is a Radical Unschooling family. It is disheartening to be ignored and silenced within Unschooling communities, however this is what happens all the time to autistic parents who wish to speak about the intersection between neurodivergence and Unschooling.

There is an aversion to “labels” (by which an individual means “labels I don’t like” and not “all the labels I use constantly, everyday”). As soon as the word Autistic gets spoken or written, people are doing the equivalent of hissing and screaming. The person who said it tends to be presumed ignorant or inexperienced regarding Unschooling. There is a dismissal of their experiences, and if they are themselves autistic, there is a deliberate silencing of them. Their very valid lived experience is shut down on purpose by people in positions of privilege.

One of the first things people rush to say when being autistic gets brought up is that Unschooling is by definition individualised learning. So, it then “doesn’t matter” if someone is autistic or otherwise neurodivergent. They are usually not considering how it might feel to have a different brain to most people, or about what impact this has outside of the home. They are not usually thinking beyond the impact it has on them, the parent.

“I don’t need any labels in my home” is the most common thing I hear about this from people who unschool. The unspoken part of that is, “I don’t like labels” because we don’t apply this consideration of whether something is strictly needed to other things.

Awesome, I tend to think. But, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!  If you are parenting from a control-based paradigm then not liking labels and hence banning them in your home fits in with that. In the same way that, “I don’t like video games” or “I think kids should be outside in nature instead of using screens” means restriction and arbitrary limits in a control-based home, so too would “I don’t like labels.”

But if you are truly about free, full-fledged, unhindered, intertwined with life, trusting our children to know themselves learning – then rolling your eyes or sighing in exasperation at “labels” is in conflict with that.

From an unschooling perspective, if a parent didn’t like television and wanted to not have one because of this, that would be seen as controlling, stigmatising, and limiting.

I know the things that would be said by Unschoolers if I said that we don’t need refined sugar, or iPads, or “plastic crap”, or if I said that I didn’t want to encourage a household obsessed with consumerism and wastage and so wanted to exert control over my kids. I know what would be thought if I said that the technology wasn’t necessary for kids under the age of ten because playing is important, or if I said that restricting candy was necessary because I believed in health or if I said that enforced bed times were important because sleep is important. I know that it would be pointed out that control doesn’t aid in the goals I have anyway, and that lack of control doesn’t detract from those things I had deemed important. I know the fact that I’d be stigmatising things my kids had a personal connection to, would be mentioned because who wants to make their kid feel like shit for liking a tv program or for liking candy?! Trying to avoid a skewed relationship with candy or tv by restricting, would be counter productive to the goal.

Learning is everywhere, and families who unschool know this. We have seen that the world is big and wonderful and we are providing as much as we can for our kids to access instead of purposefully shrinking the world our kids can experience.

But what would be the reaction if I talked about neurologies? About the Social Model of Disability? About the Neurodiversity Paradigm? About Autistic adults who repeatedly say that knowing about being autistic is important to them, whilst also not considering themselves disordered? What if I said that being Autistic is not about deficit or being disordered? What if I challenged the assumption that to say autistic is inherently pathologising? What if I brought up that there were many families already successfully unschooling autistic children and not hiding this fact, and who don’t buy into the hype of ‘poisoned children’ or ‘damaged brains’? What about if I said that, not only can you unschool with language to describe neurologies, but that stigmatising such language is counter productive to unschooling?

If I talked about those things, there would probably be so much hypocrisy in response that I’d be baffled as to how noone could see that this fear-based formula was the same one used by those in favour of arbitrarily limiting whatever it was that didn’t fit into their idea of a ‘real’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘unplugged’ childhood.

Many Radical Unschoolers (myself included) reject the term “screen time”, or reject the way it is used socially at present time. The reason we reject this is because of the diversity of “screens”. How can all those things that come under a “screen” umbrella be fairly lumped together? Watching a tv program is not the same as researching an animal is not the same as checking the time is not the same as making a documentary is not the same as editing photographs is not the same as Skyping, and so on. Another element to this is that the blanket stigma involved against “screens”, is the reason in the first instance for this linguistic lumping and subsequent dismissal of validity to learning and life. Yet, these things happen with “labels” and “labelling”, in those very same communities that reject “screen time” as a category. Not all labels are created equal, and in attempts to dismiss “labels”, there is an underlying stigma revealed that shows a lack of respect for the nuances, the diversity, the huge array of stuff in this massive category. It shows an inherent disrespect; one that leads to no scrutiny of different things under this heading.  It allows glossing over, for example, the Neurodiversity paradigm versus the Medical/Pathology paradigm – hardly a small topic but one that is deemed irrelevant by lazily using “labels”. It is at its base, a shutting down of discussion is one easy, clumsily-spouted word – labels.

When I read, or hear, justifications to the anti-label sentiment, it sounds the same as the anti-tv sentiment, or the anti-sugar sentiment, or the anti-Internet sentiment. It is all the same. It is all based on somebody making a leap between one thing and toward some dire result. It is all about people being convinced that something terrible will happen if we have this in our home, and that maybe nothing terrible will happen but regardless it isn’t needed so why risk it? Kids don’t need this because anecdotally some people have stories of growing up without labels (or sugar, or tv) and being happy. And anecdotally some people have bad stories about it (the fact that these poor results existed in completely different, fear and stigma based circumstances is conveniently ignored).

Arbitrarily rejecting labels that describe neurology, is fear-based. It is based in control and shrinking our childrens’ worlds, shrinking their learning opportunities. It is based on denying them information because we think they don’t need it because we feel aversion to it. There are ableist assumptions about “functioning” (if they are close to ‘normal’, then it doesn’t matter anyway.) It’s not about respect (if it were, autistic adults would be listened to). It’s not about appreciation for human brains and for the beauty that is Neurodiversity. Let’s not pretend that something else is driving this stigma. When the Unschooling logic that applies to every other topic is different for neurologies – this is ableism. By definition, this is ableism.

It is time to challenge this ableist dogma disguised as enlightenment, in order to allow our kids to embrace every part of themselves and others, and in order to open up their worlds with language and with culture and with knowledge and with learning.



1 reply
  1. Hamilton
    Hamilton says:

    Fortunately I haven’t run into the kind of homeschoolers you describe personally yet. It’s always seemed quixotic to me that such a thing as a radical unschooler could exist. To me it seems like approaching something with inherently no rules, and immediately demanding, “Tell me the rules!” I think unschooling is unique to ever family. We break so many of the ‘rules’ we might be termed not-unschoolers, and yet that’s what I identify us as more than any other genre. We’re having a blast with it though! Thanks for the look inside your experience!


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