We are a family which challenges all the Autistic stereotypes. I was an academic before I had the boys, and some of the happiest memories I have are of doing my PhD. Far from finding it stressful, the thrill of being totally immersed in my passion day in, day out, filled me with great joy, and peace, and satisfaction. And despite my profound social anxiety, I found that being able to lecture about my subject of expertise empowered me and gave me a new confidence to connect with others who were interested in similar things. My passions liberated me!
My eldest son, William, who is 9, has the sort of immeasurably curious brain that seems to soak up information from everywhere. His insatiable curiosity means that he is totally absorbed by the world around him. He sees beauty where others don’t, he appreciates every facet of the world around him, he is uplifted by the minute details that others miss. And he has an exceptional ability to think orthogonally: he brings together all that he knows and makes connections in unusual and new and glorious ways that means he sees his world more intimately and with more wisdom than most adults.
My middle boy, Connor, who is 7, is blessed with an enthusiasm for life that is enviable. His zest, his general zeal to be the biggest he can be, can make life tumultuous at times, but he is always exhilarating to be around. Connor is driven by his passions of video-gaming and space. I love to watch how alive he becomes when he’s engaged with his passions, how animated and stimulated he is, and how viscerally he is connected to them. He’s a testament to how very important Autistic passions are to us, and how fulfilling and necessary they are to our wellbeing and happiness. Connor experiences life in the intense highs and lows of someone who is truly hyperempathetic but is too young yet to know quite what to do with the vortex of emotions by which he is buffeted daily.
My littlest guy, Zachy, is 6. In contrast to most stereotypes of Autistic children, he has the most amazing, complex and vivid imagination. His favourite pastime is to run at full speed up and down our hallway, making all manner of noises and sound effects, accompanied by carefully choreographed arm movements. At first glance, this behaviour all seems rather random, until you talk to him about it, and he describes a rich internal world in which he is creating and recreating movies in his imagination, and acting them out with his arms and voice. His movies have “chapters” that frame the plot, with characters he loves and befriends, and I truly envy the vividness that allows him to experience his imagination so intensely.
In terms of our differences, there are small things (Zachy’s diet consists primarily of peanut butter, which William refuses to touch) and big things (we all only like to go out of our house for specific reasons, and these rarely intersect, so that we spend a lot of time in our house, which is safe and routined and predictable for us all). There are things that we work around (I am hyper-sensitive to smells so Will waits to eat fish for dinner — one of his favourite foods — until he has dinner at his grandparents’), and things that are more difficult to overcome (Connor loves making big noises, and expresses his enthusiasm through booming noise-making, but William and Zachy both have auditory defensiveness). But what I love most about our family is that despite our differences – competing sensory needs, varying stims, differing communication preferences, divergent passions, and shifting capacities for emotional regulation – we are profoundly happy together and love and accept each other unreservedly.
I home-school our three boys. I’d like to emphasise that, as a family, we are not philosophically aligned to home-schooling: William and Connor both attended mainstream schools before they made the choice to be educated at home, and they are free to return to school whenever they please. The specific reasons for why each boy chose to be home-schooled are theirs to tell when and if they want to share those stories. Suffice to say: the boys all found institutionalised education academically, socially, emotionally, and mentally unsuccessful. Within the mainstream school system, we have each encountered examples of prejudice, ignorance and ableism, and the boys suffered the devastating effects of social isolation and exclusion. Mainstream school showed us the value of presuming competence, of approaching Autistic identity from a paradigm of pride and strengths, and of providing a meaningful and relevant curriculum, precisely because these were all lacking at school, and because I saw how their absence undermined the boys’ self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
Home-schooling is successful for us because we have opportunity to experience the rich benefits of feeling acceptance, respect and genuine inclusion: the boys have made friends based on common passions and experiences, not because of some arbitrary markers like common age or address. It has been a privilege to watch them flourish as they have been supported to embrace their Autistic identities and to make authentic connections with those neurodivergent and neurotypical peers who are able to accept and embrace their uniqueness. Personally, it is profoundly fulfilling to satisfy their craving for an education that has relevance and meaning to their lived reality, their passions, their experiences, their strengths.
People comment that by excluding my boys from a school environment, I have affected the very social exclusion I accuse schools of causing. My response? Most schools have a vague and indistinct understanding of how to achieve genuine inclusion (indeed, of what inclusion actually means). If my boys had experienced authentic inclusion in school, I seriously doubt that I would be a home-schooling mother today. For me, school will only be truly successful for Autistic children (rather than at best apathetically tolerable) when we achieve inclusion in schools. Inclusion is a word often used, but usually divorced from the lived reality of our Autistic children. Inclusion poorly executed amounts to exclusion, admittedly usually arising from a general benign neglect rather than deliberate ill-intention. Inclusion poorly executed means that our children experience school as a special kind of torture that confirms the harmful self-perception that they are broken, failures, different (and less). Inclusion really means that neurodiversity paradigm is embraced, that Autistic construction of happiness and friendship are valued and respected, that Autistic strengths are showcased and Autistic needs are accommodated alongside the strengths and needs of neurotypical peers, that passions are welcomed as worthy and valuable, that neurotypicality is not privileged and lauded above neurodivergence, that the individual is truly appreciated and esteemed, and that each child is taught by example to accept their peers. Maybe then as a community we can expect schooling to be more than just sufficient or passable for our children and aim instead for excellence and their happiness.
The I CAN Network creates a world that embraces Heyworth family’s strengths. We need your support to continue creating a society that empowers young people on the Autism Spectrum. Join us by donating to our next venture: holding one of our acclaimed camps in Queensland.
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