Many parents of children with autism enjoy the various advantages that homeschooling affords, especially in the social arena. It provides a fluid opportunity for practical socialization at quantities dictated by individual need and quality as defined by your family’s values. It takes place in the real world so it is difficult to replicate in other learning settings.
So, how and where does socialization take place?
1. Family. We have built-in social beings called family. The home is bursting with social opportunity. Children are surrounded by safe and familiar while appropriate behavior is consistently modeled. New social activities are added as tolerated.
Mom can push forward or pull back while providing a nurturing that cannot be reproduced in any other learning situation. A constant interaction between family members during school, games, chores, cooking, meal-times, etc. are examples of on-going social activity. Gentle instruction, role play, asking critical questions, and taking turns, all improve social skills.
2. Neighbors. Typically available evenings, weekends, and all summer long. Just go outside and play!
3. Homeschool Groups. Some provide classes while others are social-minded. Not all homeschool groups are sensitive to special needs, but still useful. I typically find a mom with whom I easily connect and we schedule play dates amongst ourselves.
4. Church. Bible groups, youth groups, Sunday school, Children’s Church, and Awana Clubs. In addition to services, churches have social gatherings from holiday parties and sports to potlucks and family fun nights.
Talk to the pastor to meter where the church stands on special needs issues. Some have an amazing outreach while others don’t have a clue. Plan to be an aide for your child.
5. Sports. Organizations such as Upward or the YMCA offer recreational sports as well as some local school systems. Also consider Special Olympics.
6. Clubs. Scouts, Keepers Clubs, Adventure Club, and 4-H are examples and a myriad of recreational clubs such as chess, karate, gymnastics, art, math, dance, theatre; or private lessons for activities such as golf, tennis, music, or horses, for example.
7. Field Trips. Museums, zoos, libraries, national parks, historical re-enactments, state capitols, police and fire departments, discovery centers, etc. are filled with people of varying ages, backgrounds, and intellects. We invest in relationships here because we will be seeing a lot of them. Our field trips are not hurried by schedule constraints, returning as often as we like. Over time these places become familiar and we gradually widen the comfort zone for our children with autism. Relationships with professionals like: veterinarians, zoologists, and botanists from the zoo; marketing experts from the store, caretakers at the park, curators from the museum, or an artist at a pottery shop, prove quite useful as children get older, discover their strengths, and pursue careers.
8. City-Wide Programs. Our city offers zoology through our zoo, special days for gym, bowling and skating; and our library has a computer area set aside for homeschoolers during school hours. These places can bustle with a hundred kids or more.
9. Running errands. Seasoned homeschoolers rated running errands at the top of their socializing list. Traveling with mom who navigates traffic, waits in line, discusses business situations, and develops relationships with clerks and the general population teaches social niceties on every level. It demonstrates clear cut boundaries and mom can explain nuances, subtleties, and inferences as they happen and according to her values.
10. Phone, mail, or online. If you belong to support groups or online support you can find pen pals to write to or email anywhere in the world. We’ve even used face-time to connect with kids all over the country. We’ve participated in overseas Flat (Stanley) Traveler projects too.
11. Volunteering. A top social activity listed by experienced homeschoolers is volunteering alongside their kids. They range from being missionaries to foreign countries or being foster families to feeding and caring for others and helping out at Awana. It’s hard to think of a more worthwhile socializing activity.
12. A parent’s place of employment. Every Friday our daughter goes to work with daddy for a few hours. He is a social pro and crucial to her social development. Not only is my husband the best role model for our daughter in a working environment, I am comforted by the safety.
Hands down, homeschooling offers flexibility and unique opportunity to expose our children at a level, a pace, and measured safety appropriate for their needs. We increase or decrease activity in the moment while seeking the larger goal of diverse social involvement that reflect our values.
Remember a social life can also be expressed through art, music, poetry, acting, or other talents. Be sensitive to pull back when needed. Children on the spectrum should have opportunity available but be individually respected. Time must be purposefully set aside for these needs too. It’s okay to be quiet and content.
Always give time to decompress from any activity. Even simple ones can be draining for a person on the spectrum. In my experience, my children are willing to press forward when they trust they will be heard and acknowledged. Sure, progress can be at a snail’s pace sometimes, but even a snail can go a long way in a decade. And you will too.
This article was featured in Issue 50 – The Autism Homeschooling Revolution