Mommy Monday: Autism and Unschooling…

This is from a blog that I wrote last year for Autism Awareness Month…at PanKwake’s site. It is the last of a five part series…on why I home educate PanKwake…and specifically why we use a radical method called Unschooling.


Home educating, homeschooling and education otherwise. The most beautiful thing about it is that it can be as unique as your finger print like your beautiful child and you. Some people, especially in the beginning, think that it must be school in the home. The buy loads of books and sign up for online academies. They get up early and then have their children sit at the kitchen table with worksheets or a computer desk. But it does not have to be like that.

We have chosen to home educate utilizing an un-schooling approach popularized by John Holt’s book Teach Your Own and based upon age-old educational philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paul Goodman, and A.S. Neill. Like the philosophy itself practioners resist the need for further definition. Yet when pressed:

  • the Freechild Project defines unschooling as the process of learning through life, without formalized or institutionalized classrooms or schoolwork
  • Pat Farenga, co-author of the new edition of Teach Your Own: “When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”

While this concept may seem highly radical, unorthodox and risky, it works particularly well with children on the autistic spectrum for which control is a central issue. In fact, it is the original form of schooling used until the late 1800s and continues to be used throughout many areas of the world with the family and community teaching each child that which that individual child needs to know to survive in his/her world. It is further augmented with apprenticeships in later life.

For PanKwake in particular, her day and her learning are much more focused upon moving and doing, exploring and yes, most definitely learning. When she wakes is about the only time all day where she is slow. For an hour (sometimes much less) she remains sluggish and under-responsive to stimulation. She will eat something, watch a bit of TV or perhaps play games upon her computer or iPad.

PanKwake cooking pancakes
PanKwake cooking pancakes

But once this initial quiet before the storm is over, she is off…making, moving and doing. That may include counting all the birds that she sees that day in a little notebook, or making cards for friends, or cooking with MomKwake in the kitchen. It will always include loads of physical activity to satisfy her need for extreme levels of proprioceptive stimulation whether at a playground, the pool or a soft play center. This time is also ideal for focusing upon her social skills.

After this is finished in the evening, she will unwind with television or iPad again. Reading plays a huge part in her night time routine with her listening to several books as she prepares for bed.

You see the most basic principle of unschooling it that everything we do is or has the potential to be a learning experience. And today with smart phones and tablets it is easy to take ‘school’ with you wherever you and your child go. It becomes about facilitating learning.

For instance, the other day we were walking to the park and PanKwake asks…’what is the biggest flying bird alive now?’ I know I am dating myself here but in my day that would have necessitated a trip to the library and looking it up in Encyclopedias and/or books. It could have taken an hour, maybe more, or scanning/reading through all kinds of information about birds to get the answer. Not today! I pull out my phone. Open the browser and type in the question…California condor, Andean condor and albatross. In less than a minute.

Unschooling is basically a continuation of the parenting you did when they were toddlers…Mommy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, do fish drink the water they live in? And of course…what is the largest flying bird alive. The questions never end and your job becomes to first foster that excitement about learning and eventually to teach them how and where to find the answers for themselves. Of course in this Internet world, that also includes teaching them who or what sources they can trust…what is reliable information.

Then it is stepping back and letting them explore this big wide world for themselves. And what could be more rewarding than instilling a love of learning for a life time in your child.

So that is our journey so far…and why we believe that home educating and unschooling is the best choice for PanKwake…and perhaps even for other children on the autistic spectrum for whom the world and especially the classroom is too noisy, too bright, too crowded, too smelly…too much. Children whose differences make them the bully’s favorite target. Children who truly need the one-on-one consistent and caring support of both a mother and a teacher…in the same person.

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