by Zoe Williams
Here in the UK, we are fortunate to have the option to home-educate our children. You may be surprised to learn that under UK law, education is compulsory; school is not. Home education is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, and in October 2021, it’s estimated that more than 80,000 children were being educated at home.
Home Education Affects the Whole Family
There are many different reasons why you may choose to home educate your children and many different styles of home education. It should always be a choice made in the child’s best interests. However, this article focuses on how home education may affect you as an Autistic parent. In this article, we’re going to consider both the benefits and the challenges. We’ll start with the positives, and then will consider the challenges and how to prepare for them.
Benefits of Home Education for Autistic Parents
1. One Size Does Not Fit All
The school system runs on a one-size-fits-all approach that everyone has to conform to. This is hard work for everyone but can be even more challenging for autistic people as our needs tend to be different from the ‘norm’. The daily/weekly/termly routines of school, uniforms, homework, tests, reports, and even ‘fun’ events like sports day, school plays, trips, cake sales, etc. are all part and parcel of the school system, whether they work for your family or not. This impacts us as parents too. Home education gifts us freedom from having to force ourselves (and our children) into that system.
2. Freedom and Autonomy
With that freedom, you are granted total flexibility over how to organise your family life. You can find a rhythm that works for your family. Mornings can be more relaxed, without the need to rush for the school gates at the crack of dawn. This can be ideal if you or your children have unusual or irregular sleep patterns, as it gives everyone a chance to get the sleep they need when they need it. It’s much easier to function, and be a good parent when you’ve had enough sleep! Your afternoons won’t be interrupted by school pick-ups either, so if you are in the flow of an activity or hyperfocus there’s no need to pull yourself out of it just because the clock says it’s 3pm.
3. Go At Your Own Pace
When learning is no longer dictated by the stop/start of term times and school days, you can also figure out a routine that works for your family. Some people still like to follow the pattern of term dates and holidays, but that’s just one of many options. Many families find a continuous, all-year-round routine works better for them. If your family’s energy levels fluctuate, you can go with the flow and do more on the days you have more spoons, and rest when you need to. You also have the ability to take your children on days out and holidays when everyone else is at school so that everywhere is much quieter and often cheaper too. This reduces the demand on yourself so you are less likely to become overwhelmed.
4. Less Bureaucracy
If your children are also Autistic, have other types of neurodivergence, special educational needs or disabilities, you’ll also avoid the bureaucracy that is the SEND system, which can be a huge source of stress for parents and even more difficult to navigate when you are autistic yourself. There is still some bureaucracy involved in home education, but once you are established this should be only on an annual basis although more often if any of your children have an EHCP.
5. Happier Child = Happier Parents
Because home education is tailor-made to the child’s needs, you may find your child is generally calmer and happier than they would be in a school environment. It may sound counter-intuitive, but having your child at home can actually make your own life so much easier. If your child has already been in the school system and struggled emotionally, you may find that home education actually means they need less support on a day-to-day basis.
6. Active Home Ed Community
One final benefit is that home education can help you find a sense of community. Many families in the home ed community are neurodivergent. Although all children can benefit from home education, the benefits are even greater for neurodivergent children who may struggle to fit into the factory model of education. As a result, you’re much more likely to find like-minded parents within this community, whether in person or online.
Home education can provide the whole family with greater freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. This can lead to a more harmonious household - some of the time at least! So if you do decide that home education is in your child’s best interest, you may be pleased to find that it has benefits for you as well.
Challenges of Home Education for Autistic Parents
We’ve discussed the many benefits of home education for Autistic parents. Now, we’ll consider the challenges. This is not to put you off but to make you aware of issues that may come up for you as a parent if you choose to home educate.
If you’re already home educating, or thinking about it, your child’s needs are likely in the forefront of your mind. But you also need to consider how you can meet your own needs as an Autistic person at the same time. As parents, we know that self-care is important so that we can give our children the best of ourselves. This is even more meaningful when we take on the additional responsibility of educating at home, as it inevitably results in having much more time together than most other families. Of course, this can be a wonderful and joyful experience, but it also brings unique challenges that parents of schooled children don’t have to face.
1. Juggling Work and Childcare
One of the big benefits of school is that it provides 6+ hours a day of free childcare, which frees parents up to work. Many home-educating families find that they need to reduce work commitments, or one parent may stop working altogether. This obviously has an effect on the family finances which will need to be taken into consideration. Plus, if you really enjoy your work you may not want to stop! Some families do find flexible ways to continue working such as working early in the morning or late at night, working from home, using tutors to provide education while parents are working, or finding home-ed friendly childminders.
Self-employment can be easier to fit around home education as you can set your own hours, but it will take time to get a new business off the ground and generate income.
2. Funding Educational Activities
Choosing to home educate means taking on the responsibility for funding all your child’s educational needs yourself. You’ll need to consider how you will manage that within your budget. However, home education does not have to be expensive. Libraries are free, as are many museums. Nature walks cost nothing. Many everyday activities are learning opportunities - everything from baking to going to the supermarket. And let’s not forget the enormous amount of free resources available online.
3. Dealing with Negative Comments
Although home education is becoming more popular, it’s still very much an ‘alternative’ choice that most people know very little about. Most of us went to school ourselves and are conditioned to believe it’s important to do well at school in order to be successful in adult life. There is also a common misconception that children can’t make friends if they are not at school. This can lead to well-meaning but unhelpful comments from family, friends, and even total strangers.
The best way to deal with these comments is to be prepared and confident in your responses. It’s worth looking up the research into outcomes for home educated children and seeking out stories of home educated adults. Think about how you might answer those tricky questions - it may be helpful to prepare scripts to use in those situations.
4. Getting Enough Downtime
One of the trickiest things about having your children at home is getting enough downtime for yourself. However, this is absolutely essential in order to recharge your batteries and avoid burning out. Think about how you can build breaks for yourself into your daily and weekly rhythm. In practical terms, this will depend on the age of your children and how much supervision they need.
We all know the clichés, we have to put on our own oxygen mask before we tend to our children, we can’t pour from an empty cup, etc. As cheesy as they are, they are based in truth. As parents, it is so important that we tend to our own needs. This is even more important if you are home educating, and even more so again if your children are also neurodivergent or have disabilities themselves.
5. Balancing Sensory Needs
Unless you are extremely fortunate, you will probably find at times that different family members have sensory needs that clash. This is another balancing act to negotiate! For example, children are noisy and this can be tricky for us as parents if we are sensitive to sound. There are different ways to manage this, for example having set ‘quiet time’, taking breaks, using headphones or ear defenders, or using specialist earbuds that reduce the intensity of sound without blocking it altogether.
Of course, every individual is different and this is just one example. But it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about each family member’s sensory profile, how they may complement and conflict with each other, and working out practical coping strategies for this.
6. Uncertainty and Change
Stepping off the beaten track and opting not to send your children to school can feel like a leap into the unknown! Home education means that there is no clear path to follow. This level of uncertainty can make you feel anxious and we don’t want to pass this on to our children, so make sure you are well supported if this affects you.