First, do no harm: “Unschooling” a Neurodivergent Child (Part 2)

Making the Move

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.

A few years after my daughter’s experiences with Cupertino schools, my family moved to Colorado. We bought a home set amidst extraordinary beauty in a forest close to mountains, lakes, and ponds. It was a wonderful location for a home school. I decided to home-educate my autistic daughter and second child while the two younger ones attended a small private school and a local public school. In Colorado, we generally had very positive experiences with our public schools, but my younger children wanted to join their siblings at home.

Before long, I was homeschooling all four children. What an adventure it has been!

I have consistently been attracted to “unschooling,” a pedagogy that allows the child’s natural curiosity and energy to direct his or her learning. “Unschoolers” do not follow a formal curriculum, take tests, or receive grades, and they are not told what to learn. Parents act as facilitators, exposing the child to as many interesting topics as possible while trusting the child to learn as naturally as she learned to walk and talk. While it might sound counterintuitive, this unstructured approach works surprisingly well for some kids. I always loved it when my children announced, “We’re busy playing.” “Busy playing” is not an oxymoron. Maria Montessori described play as “the work of the child,” and my kids learned best through creative free play. At such times, they discovered new topics and activities and pursued their interests with enthusiasm and joy. Unschooling helped my children see learning as fun rather than a chore. As adults, they have all gravitated toward careers in areas that they initially discovered while unschooling.

Unschooling can work very well for people on the spectrum. Autistic people often have intense “special interests” that lead to deep and comprehensive learning. In my daughter’s case, I often found it most productive to provide her with educational materials in subjects that fascinated her and then to get out of her way.

When people questioned the wisdom of the method or suggested that neurodivergent children benefit from structure, I would point out that all my children were both safe and learning and that I could hardly do worse for my autistic child than her public school in California had done. Her education was proceeding forward rather than (as at school) in the reverse direction. Nobody was injuring or isolating her in seclusion for hours at a stretch. Nobody was putting her life at risk by throwing her on her head or by sitting on her chest during prone restraints while (like George Floyd) she pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” and the teacher (like Derek Chauvin) responded, “If you can talk, you can breathe.”

My children embraced unschooling with enthusiasm. We frequently visited local museums, which sparked the development of many interests. They particularly loved the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (the DMNS), and a great deal of self-driven learning cascaded from every visit. The “Space Odyssey” exhibit inspired intense interest in astronomy and space exploration and encouraged my children to read many books and watch several shows about these topics. They could often be found outside at night, studying the night sky through a telescope. The “Gems and Minerals” exhibit inspired a lifelong interest in geology in my autistic child, and she independently researched the topic in depth. The DMNS offers interesting planetarium shows and documentaries, which were also a departure point for much independent learning. A Tutankhamun exhibit at one museum inspired them to research Egyptology. My in-laws, one of whom used to give talks on the subject at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, were also fascinated by Ancient Egypt. They shared their knowledge with my children, gave them several books, and showed them photographs of their trips to Egypt. The Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver was another favorite and led two of my children to take flying lessons.

At 12, my son could land a Cessna 172 by himself and spent hours playing on his flight simulator. From his interest in aviation, he learned about physics and meteorology.

I tried to make music a part of our lives and took my kids to many concerts. Amongst our happiest and most beautiful experiences were watching Yo-Yo Ma and, later, Augustin Hadelich perform at the outdoor Ford Amphitheater at the Bravo!Vail music festival, where we were surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. At one Colorado Springs concert, we could sit just feet from Joshua Bell, and we could see each of his individual fingers move as he played his Stradivarius. My neurodivergent child took harp, violin, piano, percussion, voice, flute, and guitar lessons. Another played piano and cello. A third took piano, violin, viola, saxophone, guitar, and voice lessons. My youngest took piano, violin, percussion, voice, and guitar lessons.

At various times, each played for a youth orchestra. My neurodivergent child enjoyed a fabulous European trip as the harpist for her youth symphony and has played at Carnegie Hall. In keeping with my unschooling philosophy, I never forced my children to take music lessons or made them practice their instruments. They autonomously managed their music education. Every Thursday, our wonderful, gentle Suzuki piano and strings teacher would come to our house and spend most of the day teaching my children individually. She brought her homeschooled children along, and the kids would all play together. Our music teacher became a close friend and sometimes held music performances in our home.

We also liked to explore art. Before they started school, my children had an easel with a paper palette, and they enthusiastically painted the paper, themselves, and one another. In Colorado, we were members of the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and I hung prints of well-known paintings around the house. I kept supplies of play dough and clay for the kids to mold, and we always had oil pastels, crayons, chalk, and paints on hand. We kept lots of craft supplies available and had a well-equipped arts and crafts table. Additionally, my kids took art classes through a variety of sources.

Another type of unstructured learning occurred through exposure to literature. Often, I would read to my kids while they played games on their electronic devices. Even as adults, they still enjoy having me read to them while they play Minecraft. I tried to make sure we always had several books lying around (I hoped) temptingly. Like many children, they embraced Tolkien, Harry Potter, and Artemis Fowl and were avid readers. We also attended several plays, and they enjoyed Shakespeare festivals in Boulder and Colorado Springs. On one occasion, we watched a production of Julius Caesar at the University of Denver. We were feet from the actors and were sprayed with Caesar’s “blood,” which my kids thought was very cool. This inspired my autistic child to explore Shakespeare’s oeuvre. At age 15, she read 31 Shakespeare plays with intense interest, only giving up on Shakespeare after encountering a “No Fear” version of Richard III, which she says killed her enthusiasm. At the same age, she read a volume of Chaucer’s collected works from cover to cover. She loved Arthurian legend and read everything she could lay her hands on about Irish, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology. Her honors project in college involved composing music that the Irish god, the Dagda, played on his Magic Harp to neutralize his enemies. This included writing music scores for the “music of mirth,” the “music of tears,” and “the music of sleep.”

Playing with Legos developed my children’s visual-spatial abilities and was their first introduction to programming and robotics. Before long, they were clamoring to attend iD Tech camps, where they learned many new skills.

Animals were an essential part of my children’s lives. We lived in a menagerie. Each child had their own cat, we had three dogs, and we had a variety of other pets, including birds, guinea pigs, mice, fish, and a hedgehog named Spiny Norman (for the benefit of Monty Python fans). Caring for their animals was important for their ethical development and helped them become caring and responsible. They enjoyed the animals living in the forest and ponds near our home, which included mule deer, bears, snakes, birds, squirrels, frogs, foxes, and porcupines. On one memorable occasion, they saw a mountain lion close by while studying the night sky through a telescope (the telescope remained in the driveway that night). Sometimes they found injured animals (birds, a salamander, a vole) in the forest, brought them home, and nursed them back to health. Trips to zoos, wildlife parks, and national parks were always a hit and often inspired them to undertake independent research. They are all great animal lovers, and three of the four have worked as volunteers at an animal shelter. One translated her nurturing instincts into caring for people and logged over 400 volunteer hours at a local hospital.

My three girls loved to write. My autistic child enjoyed writing fantasy fiction, and my two youngest formed an online writing club when they were nine and seven years old.

The club grew to have dozens of enthusiastic members, many of whom forged strong friendships. They all read and commented on one another’s writing, and they organized writing competitions and published volumes of their short stories. Both these girls had poetry published in a volume of children’s award-winning works, and one wrote for a local newspaper.

My girls also loved acting and took several classes, each resulting in a performance at the Academy of Children’s Theater in Colorado Springs. Musical theater was their favorite, but they also took film acting, dance, and regular theater classes. My son, too, participated in a local theater production.

My son, however, was far more interested in STEM topics. Today, he is an electrical engineer and works primarily in signal processing. He began attending electronics classes with a highly creative and knowledgeable teacher. We became friends with his teacher, who was soon offering classes out of our home.


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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