'I only like mum school': why my son with autism thrived while remote learning

Photos: Instagram/Jackie Spinner
Photos: Instagram/Jackie Spinner 

I feel almost guilty saying this out loud.

My autistic second grader thrived during remote learning. In the past three months at home, he's moved up several reading levels, improved his writing stamina and conquered fractions. In a virtual session in April, his doctor couldn't believe he was the same child she'd been seeing in her office. "Do you have to send him back to school?" she asked.

Like a lot of parents of kids with special needs, when our schools in Chicago closed in mid-March, I worried about regression and how I was going to keep my son from falling behind.

At home during the pandemic, I've been almost solely responsible for teaching my son. After the first 15-minute weekly meetup with his class, he wasn't interested in engaging with anyone online again. I didn't force any more of the sessions, the only virtual instruction he was offered, especially after one of his classmates named the other kids on the chat that he planned to invite to his birthday party, leaving out my son.

Instead, I relied on the paper remote learning packets we picked up each week from school and often solicited advice from my next-door neighbour - a special-education teacher - across the fence about how to teach the material. Because of his visual processing disorder, my son has difficulty with reading online and can get distracted when completing work there. So we stuck to paper, which his special-education teacher supported.

It worked because my son isn't overstimulated the way he can be at a school, with hundreds of kids, loud bells, a smelly lunchroom, whistles on the playground and rules, so many rules. The only other student in my one-room classroom this spring was his five-year-old brother, a very social kindergartner who hated "mum school" and missed his friends.

My autistic son was able to work at his own pace and in a preferred place, often stretching his body across the dining room table to write an assignment or curling up in the hammock in the backyard to read. We had a schedule that we mostly stuck to, and although he relied on timers and a visual schedule to stay on task at school, I worked at home on teaching him better executive functioning skills so he didn't need those supports. I'm well aware of the privilege that allowed me to do this. While I was struggling to work and teach my kids, I was nonetheless working. We have a printer and a computer; we have access to the Internet.

The past year, most of my conversations with my son's teachers have been about behaviour, which can impede his learning at school. I get that we've had to address this. But at home, I've had very few behavioral problems. Stripped of the socialisation that school requires, my son is less anxious. He has stopped biting his nails. He doesn't script or stim as much because he's not being asked to enter a neurotypical world every morning and pretend to be someone he's not.

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In the future, I want to make sure that his aide support looks more like the support I gave him at home the past few months, which is possible if we reframe it. He doesn't need a babysitter for behaviour management. He needs a tutor. He needs teachers who will push him and know, deep down, as I do, that he is capable of doing the work. He needs to be treated like the eight-year-old boy he has grown into.

My son has made it clear that he has no interest in going back to school.

I don't know that I can, or should, keep him at home, even if students return to the building. I still don't have an answer for his doctor, about whether he has to go back. As a single working parent, I'm not sure it's realistic for me to homeschool him.

But the pandemic has shown me quite clearly what worked and what didn't. My son made straight As the last quarter of second grade, the best grades he has ever earned.

One of his writing assignments a few weeks ago asked him to describe what he missed most about school. He sat at his chair and thought about it for a few minutes before he reached for his dry erase marker.

"I didn't like second grade," he wrote. "I didn't like to do bad things. I only like mum school. I'm sorry to say that."

I hesitated to upload the assignment. I was afraid his teachers might feel unfairly criticised. Or speculate I had put him up to it.

No one said a word.

Spinner is a filmmaker and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

This is an edited version of an article which first appear on The Washington Post. You can read the full article here.