“I can learn stuff on my own!”

A penguin drawn recently (in about a minute or so) by my artistic daughter.

Those were the words my daughter said to me this morning that made me think. They made me realize that we have strayed far from the path on which we originally began our homeschool journey a few years ago. “We are unschoolers!” I proudly proclaimed a few years ago to another homeschooling mom. (See my article: Yes, I am an Unschooler) As a young momma working with a then five year old, I felt perfectly happy to proclaim our unschooling ways. After all, my ‘kindergartner’ was happy to explore bugs and  ancient Egyptian mummies at will and I was happy to let her do so, confident that her reading skills would continue to improve from their rudimentary beginnings. I felt sure that within a few months, the ‘need to read’ would set in and she would see the benefit of reading, begin to love words and word meanings (just like I do) and be reading chapter books for fun by age six.

I was confusing my own journey with hers. As we went on, I began to be concerned that her reading skills didn’t seem to improve as rapidly as I expected. Why was she struggling with symbol recognition? Why is it still hard for her to understand that the word she read on the last page is still the same word on this page?

At the same time, certain behavior issues were concerning me. Why did she hit herself in the head repeatedly when she felt she had made a mistake? Why did reassurances from authority figures that she was no longer in trouble only serve to make her more upset and agitated? Why could she not stop herself from speaking like a young child, changing her voice tone and eliminating helping verbs? Instead of saying, “Mom, I am hungry,” she would say, “I hungry,” like a small child. All of these behaviors and others were making me crazy, but I never linked them. I figured she talked like a baby to gain attention because she saw her baby brother speaking similarly. I figured her first-born status made her an ultra-perfectionist who therefore became extremely angry at herself when she thought she had messed up.

While doing some research for our home-grown business, I came across a video by a young man with dyslexia who was talking about a company he owns that helps people with Asperger’s Syndrome get jobs when they have graduated from college. While watching this video, something slowly began to gnaw at me. I realized that many of the traits he was describing in these Asperger’s students were traits in my daughter. After sharing some of this with my mom, she asked about whether Aspie’s tended to not show empathy. Sure enough, this trait that had been present in my daughter for years, fit into the Aspie profile. The more we read and learned and tested her the more we became convinced that she did indeed fit into this profile which many feel falls onto the Autism spectrum.

I must admit – some panic set in. Even though I knew in my brain that this was just another fantastic reason to homeschool – to be able to know exactly what my daughter was struggling with and to be able to tailor a learning environment specifically to her – I was still a bit panicky that I would be ‘getting it wrong.’ (See, I was raised as my mom’s only child, so I know all about this ultra-perfectionist stuff.) What if I was failing her? What if she needed me to help her process things differently? What if this ‘unschooling’ thing was working against her instead of being as wonderful as I had thought? What if I really did need to select a curriculum and set about teaching her how to read and how to add instead of relying on her daily experiences and academic interests to push her education?

So, I ordered a new copy of “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” and the first book in the elementary “Life of Fred” series – Apples – and began working with her every day in specific lessons. She fairly quickly fell into the new routine that we established – I would work directly with her in the morning, working through one lesson each of those and then allowing her to pick other, in her words, “fun” projects to work on. Sometimes the “fun” projects were science related, sometimes art projects, sometimes they were even math or language arts projects – self-guided by her. Even then, I failed to see that she could pick math and language arts projects to work on on her own and gain far more out of them than the workbooks I was enforcing she work on each day.

We continued in this routine for quite some time – with varying levels of frustratedness on both our parts. Some days we whipped through reading and Life of Fred quickly and moved on. Some days she got excited over concepts in Life of Fred and chose to explore them further after that particular chapter was done. Some days we both closed the books in frustration because she was just not getting it and she was aggravated with her own brain or because I became frustrated that concepts we had repeatedly worked on were not being understood by her from one day to the next.

Then, came a week’s vacation. Our family traveled to the San Diego area for a week to celebrate her 7th birthday. We didn’t take any textbooks. We just enjoyed a week away from home. We played as a family on the beach, visited LegoLand, checked out a few sights in Balboa Park and just generally thoroughly enjoyed our time away.

Then, a little perfect storm of reminders was brought to me over the course of a few days which I believe were guided by the hand of God to remind me that He called me to unschooling for a reason and that I have been trying to do things my own way rather than the His way.

First, we ended up cutting our trip short a day to travel to Tucson, Arizona to visit my uncle in the hospital. He had had  a stroke and so we drove to Tucson the day before we were going to leave San Diego and we spent just a little bit of time with him. He is a teacher’s aid who has worked with autistic kids for years. He is currently assigned to work with just one child. This child’s mother had been told that he would likely never read or be able to do certain math functions, but in the time that my uncle has been working with him, he has progressed by leaps and bounds. While we were visiting my uncle, he was asked by the school to make some notes on what he does every day with this boy. And, I was asked to transcribe the notes that my uncle dictated to my mom. As I sat and typed them up and as I later talked with him about this boy and some of his autistic behaviors (including hitting himself hard in the head when he feels he has made a mistake,) I realized that I have been completely forgetting to take into consideration my daughter’s Asperger’s tendencies when deciding how I would proceed with her learning schedule. As my uncle noted about his student, “He is not trying to goof off when he can’t remember concepts he learned the day before.” This is the same with my daughter.

Then, this morning I was directed to this great post: An Artistic Strewing Success Story by Carma. Man, this could have been written about my own daughter! She loves art. In fact, this morning when I suggested that we get back into our regular routine of reading, math and then “fun” stuff, she asked if we could please start with a “fun” item – a new art book she received for her birthday on our trip. I said, “Sure.” I helped her with a couple of projects out of that book and then I insisted we move on.

We moved on to Life of Fred. We read through the chapter and moved on to the questions. On the second question she asked me, “Is this something we have been working on?” She really didn’t remember. I’m sure my frustration must have been evident as I said, “Well, yes and it is also something you’ve known for quite a while before we started these Life of Fred books.” Whoops. Wrong statement. I just sent her the message that there must be something wrong about the way she processes the world. Forgetting all that I know about her and about her Aspie traits, I selfishly threw this at her. How, then, could I possibly be surprised when she began hitting herself in the head, asking over and over, “Why? Why don’t I know this? Why can’t I do this?” In my silly attempt to calm her down, I reminded her that she solves this problem all the time in every day life – (a reminder I should have given myself this morning before I suggested that we sit down and work through these books I have picked out for her.) This only frustrated her more – again, I had told her that there is something wrong with her mental workings. Why can’t she remember from one day to the next? Apparently, this is frustrating to Mom and it must be something wrong with her.

At some point, I finally realized that I was pushing her too far and put the books away. I came inside and began my morning, “after schoolwork” routine of checking my emails and facebook page. At which point I came across the above referenced blog post and also this one: “Study Must Be Driven By The Student’s Purpose.”

After reading both of those posts, I remembered something else from the conversations we had been having in the hospital over the weekend. My daughter CAN read. While we were on our vacation she read multiple things to me from signs she saw to a message she came across while trying to download something to play a particular computer game. She read all of those things without prompting and without the painful sounding out that accompanies each of our forced reading ‘lessons.’ And she CAN solve the math problem from this morning (and many others) quite easily when I am not sitting her down and telling her, “This is a lesson.” Something about those forced “learning” sessions places her brain into overdrive. I KNOW THIS ABOUT HER. So, why have I continued down this crazy path these last few months? Frustrating her and me?

Plain and simple answer – FEAR. I have been afraid. Afraid of failure (just like her.) Afraid of what others might say about our learning methods. Afraid of the unknown – how can I make ‘sure’ she is ‘learning enough.’ This morning God made it abundantly clear that He called me a long time ago to be a homeschooling mom. I’ve known in my heart that I would be that since I was around 12 or 13. He also reminded me that He never promises the easy path – only that He will be there to guide, lead and show the way down whichever path He calls. And He reminded me that seven years ago he sent this child to me with a purpose and a calling on her life and that I am only here to guide and lead in my own right. He reminded me that five years ago he sent a Godly man who not only supports our homeschool, but is a part of it and who also embraced with me the unschooling path.

He spoke loudly and clearly through my sweet Asperger’s girl this morning when, in the middle of our mutual frustration, she said to me, “Mom, I can learn stuff on my own! I know all of this stuff and I figure it out by myself!” At which point the light bulb went off over her crazy mother’s head and I put the books away. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never get those books out again. It only means that I have to remember that she is far more capable than I give her credit for being and that when the time is right and she is motivated to learn, she’ll learn more about phonics, reading and math by whatever means suited to her at that moment than she could ever learn about it by me forcing her to crack open this or that book. And, it also means far less times of frustration for both of us!

(Stay tuned for some more posts about our journey regarding Asperger’s syndrome, our health and our dietary choices as well!)

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