As families and teachers can attest, the impact of autism and related conditions can be profound, complex, and lifelong. Effects often appear early, as I describe in Simply Classical:
“Michelle wriggled and squirmed constantly. She craved deep contact, but could not sit still long enough to enjoy being held. Her sensory system seemed to malfunction. She leaned into our big dogs, especially her favorite black lab mix, who leaned even harder back into her, slurping her face, giving her the constant sensory input she seemed to crave. Seemingly impervious to pain, Michelle combat-crawled into furniture and walls, banging into them as if on purpose. Nothing most toddlers would deem painful seemed to bother her, but then when we tried to remove a shirt over her head, she cried as if in agony. Language, too, appeared an early area of difficulty….”
Early effects necessitate early action, and looking back on my experiences with my own children and what I’ve learned from others, I offer these ways to help, strengthen, and support a child with autism (or related conditions) at any age.
The unusual nervous system of a child with autism often manifests as “sensory needs” that impact daily life. Something as simple as finger painting can be distressing to a child with autism if not carefully introduced. As parents we can take more time to introduce unusual textures, provide softer clothing, vacuum when he is in another room, and give coaching prior to new foods, experiences, or friends. In a school we can muffle the sound of a classroom bell or buzzer, provide quiet areas in the cafeteria, and speak concisely with a clear, low voice. By respecting sensitivities without unduly indulging them, we can adapt in needed ways to invite the child into a more expansive and wondrous world than he might make for himself.
Temple Grandin, the renowned researcher with autism, often attributes her success to her mother’s early and diligent teaching of manners. For children with autism, lessons in manners will require practice, role playing, and coaching to generalize to new and varied situations, but they can be taught. In this way we can open to all children the marvelously gratifying realm of being with others who care about us as we care about them.
A child with autism may evidence narrow or fixed interests, such as maps or calendars. We can work with these interests to expand knowledge and understanding in other areas. One mother I know employed her child’s desire for list-making as a means of learning all of the prepositions and helping verbs in the English language when he studied grammar. A love of trains can translate to writing and drawing exercises or math problems. An older child’s interest in weather can be linked to studies in geography, astronomy, or world history. We can respect the child’s interests while furthering his education.
Most children with autism benefit greatly from a sense of orderliness. With a little planning we can provide a reasonable routine for each day and give clear notice about upcoming changes. We can take extra time to visit the library (an ongoing favorite quiet spot for our family), try to keep the house or classroom tidy, and reassure students of upcoming breaks and rest times. Often such improvements to orderliness benefit everyone in the classroom or family, as they do in ours.
Most of all, we must know that we are not alone. Across the globe families and schools are caring for a host of children with special needs with dignity, diligence, and patience. Earlier this year, Memoria Press’ Homeschool Journal Podcast featured the background, history, and mission of Simply Classical. Three days later, we received the letter below, shared with permission. Meet Anita.
Longtime fans like me have likely heard (or read) the story of Simply Classical, but the podcast episode shed more light on the evolution from kitchen table to homeschool curricula. There was much I did not know and was delighted to find out.
As I listened I could not help being transported back to when Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child was first released in 2013. My oldest child with autism was five and functionally non-verbal. I had been trying to homeschool him but was floundering for a curriculum that could assist him—and me!—on how to accomplish this effectively. There was nothing in homeschool curricula that fit the bill—and that is not an overstatement. There was nothing. It seemed like all the hopes I had for my son were being dashed at every turn. I wanted what every other parent had access to: I wanted the best.
I vividly remember sitting in bed with my copy of the book, a highlighter, and some sticky notes, weeping. What I held in my hands that day was not just another educator’s intellectual theory on how to educate children with special needs; it was another mom’s personal notes—a mom who had actually done it. Cheryl had taken all of her own desire for dignity and beauty, her experience as a classroom educator, and her boots-on-the-ground work with her own children and distilled it into a practicum. Simply Classical wasn’t another specialist throwing data points at me from an exam room and then wishing me luck; it was a fellow mom sitting with me at my own kitchen table and going over the blueprint on how to do what I so desperately wanted to do, and giving me the encouragement to do it.
My oldest is now almost fourteen. He went from a functionally non-verbal five-year-old with an IQ measuring seventy-five to a Latin student who is now doing ratios in math. We had been told by one speech expert that he would never talk. (“You should just get him one of those speech computers. If he hasn’t talked by now, he’s not going to.”) Now my most frequent comment to him is how he has spoken more than enough words for the day and to please be quiet.
He started with Simply Classical Readiness Level C, which was extremely hard for him, and is now in Memoria Press Classical Core, which is not. He excels in Latin, math, English grammar, spelling, geography, cursive, history, and recitation, all taught at a level he can not only manage but master. He enjoys reading now. The changes he has undergone in this academic year alone are impressive.
Along the way he earned a red belt in taekwondo. He can ride a bike and cook macaroni and he does his own chores without being asked. He is concerned for the poor and the homeless and is extremely involved in the life of our parish, attending Mass and saying his prayers. He’s a great kid. I am not the least bit concerned about him finding his way. He will. That “way” may look a little different than someone else’s child, but it will be a good way, a strong way, a beautiful way. It will edify others to see.
What Simply Classical has done for my family and for countless others, and what Cheryl has done with her life’s work, is a beautiful education in living, not just in learning. So I will continue to believe not just in the idea that any child can succeed with classical education, but that my own can as well.
Anita Veyera is a homeschooling mother of four young children. She is a writer, painter, and singer who loves hot coffee and a good mystery. She and her husband, Jeff, an engineer, reside in rural Colorado.