The experiences of mothers home educating their children with autism spectrum disorder
Curtin University of Technology
Edith Cowan University
The number of families choosing to home educate their children with disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), has increased in Australia in recent years, however our knowledge about parent's experience of implementing such programmes is limited. This qualitative study was designed to explore mothers' perspectives of home educating a child with ASD. Ten mothers were interviewed using a qualitative research design within a phenomenological framework. A thematic content analysis identified three main themes; 'school experience', 'coming home' and 'mother's experience as educator'. Mothers commented that educating their child at home lead to improvements in their child's behavioural and psychological well-being. The experience of home educating was influenced by the children's school experiences, parents' perceived choice to home educate and level of educative and social support available. This study has implications for parents, educators and health care professionals regarding the psychological and educational needs of children with ASD.
Children with ASD demonstrate cognitive or theory of mind deficits, i.e., there is an inability to understand the motives that underlie human action, communication, and social relationships (Baron-Cohen, 1989). There also exists a propensity to build knowledge in a detail- focused way which impacts on learning style and interests (Frith & Happe, 2004). Furthermore proponents of an executive dysfunction model of ASD (e.g., Humphrey & Lewis, 2008a) argue that education environments are challenging for ASD children as they have an inability to shift between activities or mental states and planning, and have problems with storing information and performing mental operations. These cognitive skills, as highlighted in different cognitive models of ASD, are paramount for learning and disruptions to these basic cognitive operations can make the classroom a challenging place for the child (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008b; Jordan, 2005).
Even though children and adolescents with ASD experience cognitive and social difficulties they have readily been included in mainstream classes with their 'typically' developing peers (Eaves & Ho, 1997; Leach & Duffy, 2009; Leblanc, Richardson, & Burns, 2009) for some period of time, however the efficacy and appropriateness of this approach has emerged as an issue for teachers, students and parents in both past and recent studies (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008b; Jordan, 2005; Lynch & Irvine, 2009; Simpson deBoer, Smith-Myles, 2003). Specifically for teachers the unique cognitive profile and preferred learning style of students with ASD creates challenges in the learning environment. Consequently in order to provide effective inclusive education programmes, support (e.g., from school management, school psychologists, and special education teachers) and additional training or professional development about evidence based teaching practices is required (Frederickson, Jones, Lang, 2010; Harding, 2009; Humphrey & Lewis, 2009b; Jordan, 2005; Leblanc et al., 2009).
For students with ASD, evidence exists pointing to the inclusive school experience as being potentially stressful and anxiety-provoking even though the facilitation of learning and participation is encouraged (Carrington & Graham, 2001; Humphrey & Lewis, 2008a,b; Lynch & Irvine, 2009). Academically, for high-functioning students with ASD in particular, adequate educational support may prove difficult to obtain since their cognitive strengths may mask other fundamental deficits (Carrington & Graham, 2001). Socially, isolation and loneliness are common for children with ASD at school, and they are more likely to experience bullying (Attwood, 2006; Humphrey & Lewis, 2008a,b). Furthermore parents of children with ASD frequently report concern about their child's experience of school and the often limited individualised attention their children receive as a part of inclusive schooling (Lynch & Irvine, 2009; Spann, Kohler, & Soenksen, 2003; Starr et al., 2000; Stoner, Jones, Bock, Thompson, & Angell, 2005).
In home education the parent(s) facilitate their child's learning, usually from a home base, and assume primary responsibility for their child's educational programme (Jacob, 1991). The demographic background of families who decide to home educate children is varied with respect to their economic status, educational background, and prior professional experience (Arora, 2006). However mothers have tended to assume the role of primary educators and are over represented in the research literature on home education (Parsons & Lewis, 2010; Reilly et al., 2002).
Past research conducted overseas and within Australia, has found that home educated students can academically outperform their classroom-schooled peers (Medlin, 2000; Ray, 1997; Thomas, 1998). Upon graduation from high school, those who were home educated have been found to closely parallel their public school counterparts, whether they pursue more formal education or enter the job market (Ray, 1997; Webb, 1989). In terms of socialisation, research has documented home educated students to be socially and emotionally well-adjusted with a sense of healthy self-esteem and self concept (Barratt-Peacock, 1997; Taylor, 1986; Thomas, 1998).
Whilst the literature on home education has grown steadily there exists relatively little, and somewhat dated, research examining the home education of children with special needs (Duffey, 2002; Duvall et al., 1997; Ensign, 2000; Reilly et al., 2002). Initially concern existed over parents lacking expertise and experience in teaching students with special education needs. These concerns however were soon overridden when home educated students with special needs were found to experience greater academic success than their peers with similar disabilities, who attend public schools (Blok, 2004; Duvall et al., 1997). To date, the only Australian study on home educating children with disabilities has been conducted by Reilly et al. (2002). In this study West Australian parents outlined the reasons behind their decisions to home educate. These included both child related (e.g., negative socialisation and difficulty to progress academically), and school related concerns (e.g., time and resource issues for assisting the child with psychological and academic needs). However, consistent among all parents using the home based educative method, and in confirmation of other contemporary studies incorporating children with special needs and disabilities, (e.g., Duffey, 2002; Parsons & Lewis, 2010), was the benefit of flexibility and the ability to attend to individual learning needs which lead to enhanced social and academic progress for the child.
A qualitative perspective exploring the experience of mothers educating their children with ASD at home is paramount to gain detailed insight into this educational alternative. While home education is acknowledged as one educative choice, the perspectives of women who choose this alternative option can be useful in assisting other parents negotiate the issues associated with this decision. Mothers have been chosen for this study due to their relative frequency in providing home based education. Therefore, for the purpose of the present study the research question was What is the experience of mothers home educating a child with autism spectrum disorder?
|Impact of school experience||Cognitive challenges|
Anxiety and stress
Teacher's understanding of autism
|Experience of coming home||Increased well-being|
Individual learning needs met
|Mother's experience as educator||Multi-roles|
Forms of support
Attitude or perspectives about home education
... they refused or were unable to modify the curriculum to suit the needs of an autistic child, um they say on an ad hoc basis they have some success with it but they don't because the kids learn by rote, computer, most of them want to work on a computer and work has to be closed sort of questions, any concept of imaginative work is really difficult for them... so when you ask someone to modify it they simplify it, they don't modify it.Five of the mothers commented on their child 'falling through the cracks' or failing to progress academically. As Dana stated of her 14 year old son with high-functioning autism, upon withdrawing him from school,
... he couldn't write to save himself. To get something on paper was like trying to pull teeth. It would take hours to get a page of writing that he'd tell you, and that you'd transcribe for him.In agreement with the literature (Frith & Happe, 2004; Jordan, 2005), mothers reported that because of their child's uneven cognitive profile, teachers would expect their child to understand or learn more than they were capable of. As Dawn articulated, "Because he could do certain things in academics, they expected more out of him ..."
Furthermore the behavioural inflexibility of these children was often not effectively catered for in the classroom. Dawn gave an example of her child with ASD having difficulty moving from one task to another.
... they didn't use a lot of visuals for him to tell him what was coming up next. Um, like he might be on the computer and if (he had) his regular aide, Christina, she'd say, "Luke you'll have a time of five minutes and you've got to stop that and come back to your worksheets". Whereas the other teacher would just (say), "Luke you've got to stop" and not give him a warning, and just turn the computer off on him while he is in the middle of something. So he always needs to finish what he's doing, so they would turn it off, so he would sit there and start screaming and throw himself on the floor and having a tantrum ....
I guess for me I got into it because I was forced into it, it wasn't something that I did by choice ... the paediatrician recommend that he homeschool. Accordingly the psychs recommended that he never return to school, um so when I started homeschooling I was dealing with a really, really distressed boy, um, melting down left right and centre.Prior to withdrawing their child from school, mothers discussed a common phenomenon, a stress reaction that their child experienced at the end of their school day. Nine out of ten mothers discussed how their child would come home from school and 'melt down'. Many attributed this reaction to the child 'holding it together' whilst at school. Sally described her experience.
... sometimes he'd come home from school and after he'd yelled and screamed and threw his bag and punched me he'd then go to bed and cry himself to sleep and sleep for 2 to 3 hours. And that often happened every day.Not surprisingly, in addition to the child's anxiety, mothers also reported the stress that they felt in response to the child's school experience. Dawn indicated that the experience was "very stressful for the whole family", and Dana stated that she became frustrated with the school as they tended to implement ineffective behavioural educative practices "again, and again and again".
For some children the anxiety and stress was caused by bullying. In fact, six of the ten mothers reported that their child was subjected to bullying at school. These findings support studies which have reported that a high percentage of children with Asperger's Disorder are bullied (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008a; Little, 2002). Mothers in this study certainly attributed bullying to one of their reasons in deciding to home educate. As Linda explained,
... bullying started rearing its ugly head...so much so that I did actually come upon three boys; two were holding him down while the other kicked him. It was the worst day of my life ...In addition, two of the ten mothers reported that their child engaged in self-harm and attributed this to the stress and anxiety encountered at school. Dawn explained, "he was frustrated and stressed and was starting to bite himself and self injure."
Because he was having meltdowns all the time and because they weren't managing his environment or modifying the curriculum to suit his needs, they were still trying to get him to write with a pencil, still trying to get him to play football games, still trying to get him to accept relief teachers without prior warning. All the things that set them off they continued to do and they had a behaviour management plan and there were consequences for his bad behaviour but they were not willing to change and it was always like, we'll cure him of this by giving him a string of consequences or punishing him... it makes no sense to Mark, it doesn't make any sense, he gets angry and upset because something doesn't work for him, for his brain, punishing him for that, he doesn't really even know why he's been punished.Such comments provide support for the findings that many teachers are perplexed by ASD (Starr et al., 2001) and that effective behavioural strategies that are beneficial for children do not get implemented consistently in educational contexts (Leblanc et al., 2009; Scheuermann, Webber, Boutot, & Goodwin, 2003).
Sondra discussed her son's well-being in comparison to the self harm he exhibited when he was attending school.
Um self harm was an issue. He used to hit himself in the head ... that's a behaviour that's completely gone now... He's heaps less stressed...I mean he comes up to me all the time and just gives me a hug and goes, I just love you mum you know and I'm like well I just love you too matey, you know so he's really happy.Since home educating her son, Linda stated, "It's just a really happy, thriving boy who ... has left a lot of autistic traits behind."
An increase in confidence was apparent in many of the children after beginning home education. Linda described the changes in her son as follows.
Yes, well we've just seen him blossom...I knew that we could do better than school in terms of his academic progress but to see him blossom as a person, that's come as a big surprise.Home educated students have frequently been documented in the literature as being socially well-adjusted (Barratt-Peacock, 1997; Thomas, 1998). The improvement in social skills once home educated was found by Duffey (2002), similarly, a number of mothers in this study discussed the development in their own child's social skills. Dana stated,
I was astounded at how much better his social skills were within weeks of leaving school. That just astounded me, um, everybody said that these kids have got to be at school for them to learn social skills, to be able to get on with other people, and my experience is that this is a load of hogwash.
The progress mothers observed with respect to the amount of work their children accomplish, combined with academic growth, fits with current literature that reports that children with special needs can make academic gains alongside and above their school-educated peers (Duvall et al., 1997). Sally stated,
The amount of work that I've been able to get him to do...the volume of work I've been able to get him to do is substantial compared to what he ever did at school.In addition Dana, who earlier discussed the extensive challenges her 14 year old son had in writing when he initially commenced home education, explained, "I taught him how to type...and so he's now written about five books."
Likewise, Kelly found her children with ASD needed breaks in between formal learning.
You know we'll do something and they'll go up and swing in their hammocks and their hammock chairs or bounce on the trampoline, um we have lots of breaks.Secondly, mothers reported that they were able to be flexible in resourcing learning material that met the individual learning needs of their child. For example, if one type of learning material was not working then a more suitable resource was obtained. This however, was a challenge for some mothers. Gale stated, "Um, I think the biggest challenge is, apart from keeping him focused, is um, getting material which will keep him engaged."
Kelly explained that resourcing appropriate learning materials takes time. "... I have to do a lot of research on what will work with them ... that is time consuming."
While some challenges presented themselves to mothers in terms of resource allocation and child compliance, the benefits of home education as perceived by mothers were frequently reported.
Additionally, Sally also captured the complex position home educating parents could find themselves in when educating children with complex psychological and educational needs.
... it's tough on me to both have to manage and teach him to manage his anxiety, manage his disability, look after him as a mother and educate him, that's one hell of a job ...
... looking at it from a teaching point of view. If you are a teacher in a school, at recess and at lunchtime you get together with the other teachers and can say, 'I'm having a problem here' or 'where could I find ...?' So there is a huge amount of support in the school situation that you don't have as a homeschooler... I've needed it, it's not available. Um, I need it now. I keep ringing up and saying 'help me, help me!'Not only did there not seem to be any effective help in terms of educative support for the mothers, but social support, such as home schooling groups, were also a challenging resource to become part of, with some mothers attributing this to having a child with ASD. For example, Gale perceived that the home education community would be more accepting of a child with ASD.
I've been a bit naïve, I think...assuming that the homeschooling community would be different to the overall community. It's not, it's exactly the same, in fact, it's worse.Similarly Sally commented,
I want support, I need support but it's finding it. I know there are homeschooling groups. Liam has such social problems that he would be uncomfortable and disruptive and the other parents may not be accepting of him.For some mothers, a lack of support meant that they were unable to have time away from their children. Certainly it may be that time out for mothers who home educate their child with ASD is more difficult to attain then for home educating mothers generally. This may be due to the high needs their child presents with, as well as the child's need for familiarity of caregivers. Dana stated, "I have no time out. ...I can't use respite because my kids can't tolerate strangers in the house, and I have no partner to support me."
Of interest, not all mothers voiced needing time away or 'time out' from their child. In fact, mothers who felt they had no choice but to home educate their child voiced needing more support in comparison to mothers who felt they had actively chosen this educative alternative.
In addition, many participants commented on the financial cost of home educating. This assertion has been supported by other studies based in Australia and the United Kingdom (Parsons & Lewis, 2010; Reilly et al., 2002). In reference to the financial outlay for home educating Dana stated, "... Huge, huge financial costs ..."
Dana expressed how her life could have been. "... but it's also a lot more pressure on me...I could have had a life and had a job, or completed my studies ..."
Eight of the ten mothers however, felt positive about home educating their child or children. These women felt they had made the decision to home educate their child and as such expressed an emergent sense of power and control over their situation compared to when their child attended school. This finding, which reflects Duffey's (2002) research, was evident for Linda.
I think it's more than what I thought. When people say "Oh it must be so hard" I go "No it's a piece of cake compared to the futile fights I was wasting my time on with school". I've realised I've done a 360 degree and all that effort has been put into something so positive, I think it's more than I could ever have hoped for.Some mothers constructed the home education experience to be a personal journey for them. This was depicted by Kelly.
... it's actually learning about ourselves and what we're capable of and what we're not capable of, looking at our strengths and our weaknesses and how then we can use that for our kids and that's what I think home schooling is all about.For a number of mothers, one of the outcomes of home education has been the strengthening of family bonds. This was discussed by Duffey (2002) who reported that mothers were able to 'get their child back' and keep their family together (p.10). Dawn explains how it has affected her relationship with her son, "It's spending that time and I think just getting that closeness back with your child too ... Sometimes I felt that that was being lost a bit too."
And regarding the effect on her family, she said, "The whole family is a lot happier, with the family like a unit as well."
Overall here, if mothers felt they had control over the decision to home educate their child they were quite positive about the experience, and often about their own journey, as well as their role as educator. Families too were seen to be strengthened through the experience of home education.
Mothers perceived that their children progressed academically and also experienced enhanced psychological well-being in response to home education (Barratt-Peacock, 2003; Duvall et al., 1997). Academic progress was achieved through the use of individualised tuition, modified teaching strategies and flexibility (Parsons & Lewis, 2010). Consistent with other studies improvements in confidence and social skills were also observed by the mothers (Jacob, 1991; Thomas, 1998), suggesting that home education provides adequate opportunity for socialising children (Duffey, 2002). Potentially, home education may be reducing anxiety and allowing the consolidation of positive social skills for children, particularly those with ASD, who have numerous challenges in the area of socialisation (Eaves & Ho, 1997).
While much of the satisfaction associated with home educating appeared to be related to the child's increased well-being, a decline in mothers stress and increased family time were also potential contributors. It therefore appears that this educative approach can enhance connectedness to the child with ASD and strengthen family cohesion (Duffey, 2002). In fact the potential benefits of home education for the child and family coupled with mother's belief in the efficacy of home education prompted five of the mothers to extend their home education programme to other children in the family.
However, the interviews also revealed that there were some mothers who felt they did not have a choice in home educating their child and this perception of lack of choice impacted on their experience of home educating. While they were very satisfied with their child's academic progress and increased well-being they tended to perceive their role as home educator in a more negative way and to resent it. This apparent feeling of being 'forced' to home educate their child, diminished the mothers sense of control (McDowell, 2000) and it was noticeable that they voiced the need for considerably more support. In comparison, mothers who felt they had chosen their role often constructed their identity around it, felt a sense of empowerment and were more likely to home educate other children. Here, exerting control over their child's education may certainly attribute to their positive outlook in regards to their role as home educator.
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|Authors: Theresa Kidd is currently completing postgraduate studies in clinical psychology. She has worked in the disability sector for 20 years and has been involved with home based education groups. Theresa has an interest in working with individuals with ASD, and their families.|
Dr Elizabeth Kaczmarek is a Lecturer in Psychology at Edith Cowan University. Elizabeth has an interest in assisting families adapt and cope with stress. She has worked with military and mining families and also with families supporting children with developmental disabilities.
Please cite as: Kidd, T. & Kaczmarek, E. (2010). The experiences of mothers home educating their children with autism spectrum disorder. Issues In Educational Research, 20(3), 257-275. http://www.iier.org.au/iier20/kidd.html