This post reviews Karen S. Hurlbutt, “Experiences of Parents Who Homeschool Their Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” in Developmental Disabilities 26, no. 4 (December 2011): 239-249.
Hurlbutt, a Special Education professor at Minnesota State University, here presents the results of a qualitative study of nine families who have chosen to homeschool their children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She begins by noting that several experts in the field point to autism as the most challenging of conditions for public school teachers due to the rapidly changing nature of diagnosis and treatment protocols. Many teachers and schools feel unprepared to deal well with children with ASD, and as a result a growing number of families with ASD kids are turning to homeschooling.
Hurlbutt then notes, quite correctly, that very little research has been done on this subset of homeschoolers. To remedy that she recruited parents through a method she calls “purposeful random sampling,” which means that basically she sent out a query to various homeschooling organizations and took whoever responded. She got ten parents representing nine families. Hurlbutt then interviewed each of these parents to discover family history and especially the reasons for homeschooling their ASD children and the methods used.
Reading through Hurlbutt’s summaries of the (mostly) mothers involved in her study it is immediately striking how well-educated her sample is. Most of the women have advanced degrees. Every single one of them is a college graduate.
Hurlbutt asked several questions of her subjects, coded their responses, and was able to come up with four generalizations and one overarching point. Here they are:
First, these are very involved, knowledgable parents. They know a lot about ASD (often far more than the typical public school teacher or administrator) and are deeply concerned with providing their children with the best possible education for their special needs.
Second, these parents approach the education of their ASD child or children with a wide range of strategies. Individualization and diversity are the watchwords. No common pedagogy or curriculum emerged save a general frustration with traditional schooling’s inability to meet childrens’ individual needs.
Third, parental priorities for their children are frequently different than the priorities of public school. Parents are focused on their own child’s needs. Schools naturally are concerned with all of the children in a classroom. This meant that many parents felt that their children weren’t getting the attention or services needed. But some parents were surprised as well at how little oversight there is of homeschoolers. Some wanted more attention from the district even after they started homeschooling.
Fourth, the parents are very cognizant of the sacrifices in personal freedom and financial security that homeschooling entails. They all stressed that it is a decision that should not be made lightly, and that both parents should buy in wholeheartedly.
Overall, the abiding theme throughout Hurlbutt’s interviews was that these parents think homeschooling is working better than what the schools they left behind were able or willing to provide. All of these families are engaging in very intensive parenting, and they all have the financial and intellectual resources to provide rich experiences for their children.
Hurlbutt concludes by citing other research into children with autism that confirms some of these parents’ instincts. Children with comparatively high functionality are often lost in public schools because they’re not deficient enough to be placed in special education classrooms, but the general curriculum is too “cookie cutter” for them. Additionally, many of these students thrive socially in very small groups but not in large group settings such as the typical classroom.
As Hurlbutt herself acknowledges, this study of 10 parents cannot be generalized to the entire population of homeschoolers with children with ASD. It’s essentially nine anecdotes. But that she was able to find commonalities is suggestive. Hopefully future work on this question will clarify the degree to which the experiences related here are characteristic or not of families choosing homeschooling for this reason. It would be especially helpful to include the voices of Americans with less education and income. As it stands, this article to me reads like a variation on the theme of intensive mothering so much discussed in the popular press.