People are always asking what an unschooling day looks like. The answer of course is that every single one is different. And with autism? Of course every kid on the spectrum is so, so different. But here is one of our days.
The day could be said to start the night before. At night with just her dad my daughter relaxes. She watches movies and plays games, her dad reads her books or plays a board game, but most importantly she eats. Somehow she doesn’t fully wake up and calm down, settle into her hunger and feel comfortable, until about 8:30pm on the couch. She’s sometimes up past midnight, but gets two good meals in between 9pm and midnight and one-on-one time with dad.
Then she wakes up at 10am or 11am (which prevents us from doing a lot of younger kid library events or socializing. Just as well since those are often very stressful for her and involve a lot of travel and stress for 5 minutes of interaction).
Lately, she’s been afraid to walk on the floor of the house. This has been incredibly hard and we’re still working on it. I get up at 6am with the baby, so by 10am baby has already napped and woken up, and I hear her in bed upstairs calling for me. We snuggle and laugh and tickle baby, then I pick them up, one on each hip, and carry her down to the spot on the couch where she feels comfortable.
The next hour is quite tricky. Sometimes a bowl of oatmeal set next to her while she watches a movie is just the thing. Sometimes she won’t even respond to questions about food for an hour or two after waking up. She likes it if I can sit with her, and we play a game on the tablet together or watch a few movies. Lately it’s been the PBS kids WordWorld games, which involve all sorts of letter recognition and spelling. She’s been seriously interested in reading and can read a couple short words.
She usually eats a little breakfast, and warms up and starts doing acrobatics on the couch. That’s her safe space, and she manages to get quite a lot of physically activity doing headstands and jumping on the couch. The majority of days around 11 or 12 we head out, so I’m usually busy packing up snacks and diaper bags all morning. The other tricky part, and again this is where autism comes in, is that she may not relax enough to pee (since going to bed the night before) before we leave. Her doctor is not concerned about this, but the day is much better if she can go before leaving. So even when I’m packing I try to make things as relaxed as possible, while still attempting to be some places on time.
On this particular day once we’d packed up we made a quick stop for a donut “because I’m sad to leave my WordWorld game.” Then we swung by someone’s house to pick up some cheap used toys from a swap group, then swung by another friend’s house to pick lemons. Since the baby was screaming the whole way in the car, my daughter chose to stay in the car while I picked lemons. She used the quiet to make recordings of Raffi songs on her tablet and record herself talking. She covered her face while my friends said hi the first time, and I told her she doesn’t have to say hi if she doesn’t want to. When they said goodbye, she was happy to smile and wave at them.
Next stop an awesome park, where we met up with a friend on the spectrum. He was totally different in play personality, all over the playground and up and down and not minding the other kids at all. In the meantime I was carrying the baby and acting as my daughter’s “lifeguard,” helping her when a kid got within 6 inches and she screamed in fear. But she still had fun, climbing and searching for treasure and truly enjoying the water sprayers, which is the first time in a while she hasn’t been afraid of them. It didn’t seem like she and the other kid would play, but then we ended up on the swings together and she was cracking up as he kicked of his shoes while swinging. He enjoyed the attention and was telling her jokes, and she’s happy to have a friend.
Then dad met us for a dinner picnic, but after two restaurants were closed we ended up at a different park waiting for him to pick up food. We had asked her each time a restaurant fell through if she still wanted to do this dinner picnic or go home and she said do the picnic. I’m glad because it was lovely. She danced around a tree and rolled down a hill and played with the baby. She ate very little but had so much fun.
On the way home she fell asleep, but woke up as soon as I brushed her teeth thinking she might go to bed, and stayed up again with her dad, finally eating two sandwiches and playing WordWorld games some more and reading books.
There was no coercion in this day, there were no screen time limits, there was no yelling. I probably got annoyed trying to get out the door but only because I had told friends I would stop by their house at a certain time. There was exercise and being outdoors and learning and socializing. There were probably more academics than a typical preschool day because she’s so invested in reading right now. The exercise involved tons of sensory twirling and rolling and swinging and water and turning upside down. The socializing was coordinated by not pressured–if the two kids who we wanted to be friends didn’t choose to play with each other, that was okay. And eventually they chose to play with each in their own way, their personalities clicking together in this unique way of telling and enjoying jokes. There was family time–my husband and I even got to talk to each other over dinner! And bonding time with baby for everyone. It was a beautiful day.
Recently I’ve been on a couple unschooling forums where there are heated arguments about screen time. That’s why I’m writing this, because I think the arguments over studies or about whether this particular ASD kid should or should not have limits miss all of the nuance and rhythm that makes unschooling work. Unlimited screentime with autism at such a young age is controversial, but we’ve been doing it for a couple years and it’s a tool. It helps her calm down, eat, have fun, and learn. It’s a piece of the day.
I think good unschooling advice is to look for the fun. But more than the unschooling parents of neurotypical kids who make fun the goal, my goal is to lessen stress. Having fun is always there, but to get to the fun we need these broad transitions, we need a couple shows in the morning, we need to be in agreement about what’s next, we need the tablet in the car if I want to stop and talk with my friends while I pick lemons. If we’re going to do two stops for errands that involve talking to people we need a relaxed morning and a tablet in the car and a donut along the way.
I know the rhythms of my child and my primary goals are fun and relaxation, with the secondary goals of learning, exercise, sensory time, eating healthy, socializing, and time for me to talk to other adults. The way we meet these goals on a day like this is so distant from a day structured around school. This day would be shattered with school in the middle or heaven forbid early in the morning. Not only would the day be shattered, but I feel strongly that her reading and socializing would get worse. Sometimes when there’s a stressful incident–on this day an 18-month-old decided to play with my daughter and she’s terrified running away screaming that he’s chasing her–I hold her with tears running down her face and I’m so, so glad I’m always there.