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Homeschooling with Autism

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Another TOS Crew friend of mine, Wendy brings us a heart-wrenching story about how her Autistic  daughter is treated by the general public as well as great ideas! ~Kelli

Hey, Lady, Do Ya Need Some Help?

I’ve read several of the guest posts here over the last few weeks, and so many of them have been funny, helpful, or thought-provoking.  I have been trying to figure out how to “compete” with the great posts that so many of my fellow Crew members have submitted.  Well, I finally gave up!  I decided to do what I should have done all along and just pray about it.

As I have spent time praying and thinking about what I, as a mom of a special needs child, should share with all of you, God brought a really good question to my mind:  “What would you most like for others to say, do, or know when you are out in public with Hannah?”

Hannah is my 14-year-old daughter who has autism.  She is non-verbal, so when we are out in public and something is bothering her, she will sometimes make noises or do some kind of self-stimulating behavior to calm herself down and help her feel better.  (Self-stimulating behaviors are often referred to as “self-stim.”  It just means any kind of activity–usually repetitive–that makes a child feel better.  Many autistic children will flap their hands or make noises or spin objects, just to name a few common self-stim behaviors.)

Because of Hannah’s behavior and her age, we get lots of strange looks and, unfortunately, even a rude comment now and then when we are in public.  People expect more mature behavior from a 14-year-old.

Developmentally, though, Hannah is a much younger child.  Cognitively, she is about “average” in many areas and even above average in some.  Because people with autism often do not understand proper social behavior, though, she displays much “younger” social behavior.  All of this just means that, even though she is smart, she still displays odd behaviors and has trouble communicating.

As I gave it some thought, I realized that there are a couple of things I would really like for other people to say or do when they see Hannah and me out in public.  For one, I would love for them to realize that I am doing the best I can at the moment!  I can understand that it draws attention when Hannah makes noises.  It’s just natural to look to see what’s happening.  It doesn’t even bother me when people look because it’s just a natural response.  What I would appreciate, though, is seeing a kind expression on your face when I look back at you.  I would find it comforting and encouraging to see someone looking at us not necessarily with sympathy, but with an expression of caring or concern.

So often when we are out in public and Hannah gets upset (She really dislikes going into crowded places like stores.), we see so many people looking at us with frowns and judgmental expressions.  Although she doesn’t express it to me, I feel sure it makes Hannah even more uncomfortable and upset.  I know it sure makes me feel that way!  The result is that Hannah and I become more stressed, and it becomes even harder for Hannah to behave!

A much nicer and more appropriate response would be to simply look at us with a kind smile and then look away (in other words–don‘t stare).  Or, if you see that Hannah has accidentally knocked something down, offer to pick it up for us.  If it seems appropriate, you may even want to speak kindly to us.  Even a simple comment–along with a nice smile–such as, “You know, I don’t really like grocery shopping either!”  might be appreciated.  To me, a comment like that lets me know that the person understands that Hannah is anxious or upset but not just “being bad.”  Feeling judged doesn’t help the situation!

Also, there are other times, such as when we are sitting in a waiting room at a doctor’s office, that people are curious about Hannah’s condition.  I always tell people that I don’t mind if they ask questions about Hannah or her autism.  I want them to learn as much as they can so they will know better how to react.  I do ask you, though, not to ask, “What’s wrong with her?”  I know you don’t mean it the way it sounds, and I know it’s hard to think of another way to say it, but let me make a suggestion.  It sounds much nicer to just say, “Does she have a diagnosis?”  I also would refrain from saying something like, “I have a niece who has autism.  Is that what your daughter has?”  While it does sound much nicer, it might be hurtful to someone who has not yet accepted that diagnosis.  It took me a long time to accept that Hannah had autism.  I certainly wouldn’t have wanted a stranger to point out to me what I was desperately trying to deal with on the inside.

Finally, if the parent seems comfortable with you asking questions about the special needs child’s condition, go ahead and nicely ask a few questions.  Don’t get too personal, though.  Be careful that if it’s something you wouldn’t want to tell about yourself or your children, you don’t ask the parent of the special needs child to reveal it about her family!

Last, give the mom of the special needs child a break!  After you ask a few basic questions, let her get back to her shopping or get back to taking care of her child.  In the doctor’s office while waiting, she may need to be spending the time helping her special needs child stay occupied and calm while waiting.  Don’t continue talking to her and asking questions for a long period of time.  If the parent is enjoying the conversation and wants it to continue, allow her to be the one to continue it.

I know that often when Hannah and I are waiting in a doctor’s office, Hannah likes for me to read to her.  (She can read but, since she is non-verbal, she enjoys hearing the words read out loud.)  I don’t want to be rude to someone who is trying to talk to me, but I also know that Hannah may need my attention.  Sometimes, too, I just don’t want to talk about autism right then!  Sometimes, we moms just need to talk about “regular” things like anyone else.  Ask me where I got my pretty dress.  Mention the weather.  Ask me about the book I’m reading.  Tell me that I “sure do have a pretty daughter.”  (That’s always a good one! I love hearing comments about Hannah that sound like “regular” things you would say to anyone else.)

I’m sure that most moms of special needs children would enjoy the chance to be noticed in public as the loving, hard-working moms that we truly are, whether or not our children happen to be on their best behavior at that moment!  Next time you see a special needs child in public, maybe you can keep these suggestions in mind.  It just may happen that you can be a blessing to someone who really needs it.

Hannah & Wendy at the beach I am the mother of 3 wonderful children.  Hannah, age 14, has autism.  Noah, age 12, and Mary Grace, age 6, do not.  I have homeschooled for 12 years.  You can read on my blog about how my family’s homeschooling journey began.  You can also find more information about Hannah, how she was diagnosed, and how I handle her homeschooling.  As a member of The Old Schoolhouse Crew, you will find reviews of homeschool products and curriculum as well.  You are welcome to come visit me at:

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Monday 27th of July 2009

What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing the perspective of a family with a special needs child!

Tim Tinkel

Saturday 11th of July 2009

Thanks, Kelli, for allowing Wendy to talk a little about something that many of us experience (a child on the autism spectrum), but few people understand. I'm just beginning to blog about my son who was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. You can find my most recent post about him at:



Thursday 9th of July 2009

Hey Penny! I am glad you stopped by, was hoping you would write a guest post for me. :-)


Thursday 9th of July 2009

When people ask, "What's wrong w/ her?" the answer is NOTHING is wrong with her, she communicates differently from the way you do.

I'm not keen about talking about autism as it relates to my daughter in front of her. I hate when clinic staff (OTs, speech therapists, etc) do that.