First, do no harm: “Unschooling” a Neurodivergent Child (Part 1)

A Breach of Trust

Today’s guest author is Ann Gaydos. 

Ann worked in the software industry in a former life, but she decided to homeschool her four children after her daughter Paige was abused by a teacher within the Cupertino Union School District in California, and she could get no help from the administration or school board. Her interests include reading, traveling, cooking, writing, and spending time with her family and their many pets. Today Ann is a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

Many parents tell me they homeschool their neurodivergent child out of necessity rather than choice. In most cases, their child had searing and damaging experiences at schools that were unsafe and/or devoid of educational opportunities, leaving their parents to conclude they had no option but to homeschool. For many, this entails giving up a career or graduate school to stay home with their child. I certainly felt homeschooling was the only safe option for my autistic daughter, but I also found the arrangement to be a rewarding, flexible, creative, and nurturing way of meeting my children’s unique needs.

For my seven-year-old autistic daughter, placement in a “special day class” within the Cupertino Union School District (CUSD) in California was … not a success. Within a week, she came home bruised after being “restrained” for refusing to stop wiggling a loose tooth while in timeout. Restraints are intended for crisis management, but this teacher used them illegally as a form of corporal punishment or as an outlet for her explosive rages. There were further abuses, which included the teacher violently jerking my child out of a chair and causing her to bruise her nose on the edge of her desk. In a fit of pique, she also smeared a burrito over my daughter’s face and in her hair. My husband and I did our best to intervene through the callous and disengaged principal, who seemed alternately bored or amused by any reports of injuries.

We partially contained the teacher by insisting on provisions in our child’s IEP, which included the stipulation that she could no longer be “restrained.” Unfortunately, the teacher violated the terms of this agreement. 

My child’s time in that classroom ended abruptly after her teacher twisted her wrists behind her back and up between her shoulder blades (one of her favorite forms of torture) and then lifted my 40-pound child high above the ground by her wrists and one ankle before dashing her headfirst into the hard floor. Although legally obliged to inform me in writing of the incident, the district decided that the less I knew about it, the better. After collecting my daughter from school that day, I noticed a severe abrasion on her shoulder (the staff told me nothing), but I only learned about the large lump on her head the following day when her doctor examined her. One of the possible side effects of a violent blow to the head is a fatal subdural hematoma. Had my daughter developed a brain bleed, she might have become sleepy some hours after the attack. Unaware of the head injury, I would have put her to bed a little earlier than usual, and the worst-case scenario would have been that she never woke up.

Apart from the dangers to life and limb, my daughter learned very little in that classroom and regressed academically. This is not surprising when one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. When children’s basic physiological and safety needs are not met, they are not going to grow and self-actualize. Shortly before entering the classroom, my daughter tested above the 99th percentile on a battery of scholastic achievement tests, the Woodcock-Johnson. After a year of “schooling,” she was testing as an average student. Not only was she not learning anything new, but she was also “unlearning” what she had previously known.

I initially hoped this “special day class” would allow my daughter to learn without restraint. There were three teacher’s aides in the classroom – for a maximum of eight children – which should have meant all the children could be maximally engaged in learning. I had homeschooled my child before placing her in public school and found it exhausting to do so because she was so ravenous for knowledge. She never seemed to tire. She would beg me to find her more math worksheets or to teach her another chapter of history. I loved teaching her, but I also had three younger children to care for. With the abundant classroom resources, I thought the school would offer her much better academics than I could at home. However, the teacher’s control issues prevented this. My daughter quickly bonded with a wonderful teacher’s aide, a gifted instructor who loved to teach her math. During one of these intense and productive learning sessions, the teacher interrupted.

“Only the teacher teaches,” she imperiously told the aide.

The teacher referred to herself as “the Big Cheese” and cemented her vaunted status by keeping a picture of a piece of cheese on the classroom wall. Only the Big Cheese could teach, she insisted. The principal thought this was cute and proclaimed herself “the Bigger Cheese.” The aides often sat meekly with the children, doing nothing, while the Big Cheese strutted about before her passive and listless audience. A favored aide sometimes slept in the seclusion room during school hours. The pathology of this situation led to the tragic loss of precious educational opportunities and was a complete waste of public money and resources.

The kindly and helpful aide mentioned above repeatedly warned the administration that this teacher was problematic and abusive and that classroom academics were inadequate. The district responded by telling her she was being “insubordinate” for “challenging” the teacher. When she directly warned us that our child was in danger, the administration tried to fire her and threatened to call the police if she spoke to the parents again or came within 500 feet of the school. The “Bigger Cheese” emphatically assured us that the aide was not credible. Sadly, I believed her at the time.

I understand that not all public schools are like this and that most teachers and administrators are decent people who take their responsibilities seriously.

However, it has been very hard for my family to trust public schools again. A district that heartlessly endangers a child’s life, as ours did, is not usable. I felt so strongly about this that I withdrew all my school-aged children from CUSD (at the time, three were in attendance). I then forced the district to place my autistic child in a specialized private school and homeschooled my younger ones. When school districts allow atrocious conditions, parents have no choice but to pick up the pieces of their shattered children as best they can.

School districts receive federal funding for every special education student they have. Too often, they waste this revenue, as CUSD did, by abusing children and denying them appropriate education. In such cases, parents sometimes force districts to place their children in private schools for neurodivergent children. While such schools may be safe, they do not necessarily provide the “least restrictive setting” demanded by the Free and Appropriate Public Education statute. My husband and I placed our neurodivergent child in such a school because leaving her to the tender mercies of a CUSD classroom was not an option. As wonderful as her private school was, her issues did not qualify her to be there, and she could not access the academics she needed. The school was incredibly expensive for the district. In such cases, it should be an option to channel federal funding directly into home schools. This would be a win-win: the district could save money, while the child could receive appropriate services and a decent education.

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