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‘I only like mom school’: Why my autistic son thrived during the pandemic school closures

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post Opinion section on June 22, 2020 by 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. Along with roughly 7 million children in the United States, or 14 percent of all public school students, my son receives federally mandated special education services because of his disability. In his mainstream second grade classroom at our neighborhood public school this past year, my son worked with a special-education teacher and received occupational, speech and social work support. He also had a dedicated aide. 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 neighbor — 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 5-year-old brother, a very social kindergartner who hated “mom 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.

Many other disabled children struggled with online learning. Children with sight and hearing impairments were locked out of online instruction. Children who needed in-person support services didn’t get them. Some parents are rightfully still worried about regression, especially because summer school is still exclusively online in many places, and therefore inaccessible.

That’s why Mo Buti, an educational advocate and the former director of autism and intellectual disabilities for Chicago Public Schools, said she advises parents to keep records of everything. “Not only what the schools provided to them, but then what it took to get their child engaged in that and then how their child responded to that,” she said. Buti said parents hold the key to the data that needs to be used for an appropriate Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the written document that’s developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education. “This data will be instrumental in designing instructional practices to use with their child, and this data might also be utilized to determine if any compensatory education might be needed if the child could not access remote learning,” she said.

The past year, most of my conversations with my son’s teachers have been about behavior, 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 socialization 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.

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 behavior 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 8-year-old boy he has grown into. My son has made it clear that he has no interest in going back to school in the fall. 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 home-school 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 mom school. I’m sorry to say that.” I hesitated to upload the assignment. I was afraid his teachers might feel unfairly criticized. Or speculate I had put him up to it. No one said a word.

Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is a filmmaker and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

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