Record: Jasmine McDonald and Elaine Lopes, “How Parents Home Educate their Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder with the Support of the Schools of Isolated and Distance Education” in International Journal of Inclusive Education 18, no. 1 (2014): 1-17. [abstract here]
Summary: McDonald completed her doctoral thesis on how parents deal with the education of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2010. Lopes completed her doctoral thesis on Distance Education in Western Australia in 2009. Here these two junior scholars combine their research to investigate the role of a distance education program in helping parents manage the education of children with an ASD.
They begin by explaining the history of the Schools of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE), a government program begun in 1918 as the Western Australian Correspondence School whose goal was to provide public instruction to students isolated from conventional schools due to geography or special needs. This program has over the years used itinerant teachers, radio broadcasts, camp settings, and all sorts of distance education technology (audio tapes, videos, and now the internet) to reach isolated children. While the students attending SIDE have historically been geographically isolated, the bulk of enrollments now are students with special needs that conventional schools cannot accommodate. SIDE is thus a “school of last resort” for many. (p.3)
One group of children for whom SIDE is a resource are those diagnosed with an ASD. McDonald and Lopes explain that an ASD diagnosis typically means that a student faces difficulties with communication, socialization, and behavior. The clear trend over the last several decades in public education has been toward inclusion of these students into regular education, but in the last few years a small but growing literature has raised questions about this approach, as have many parents of children with an ASD diagnosis. Some parents, reacting against the inclusive model and the lack of individualized instruction it sometimes entails, have felt forced to remove their children from institutional schooling and educate them at home.
Most parents of children with an ASD diagnosis are not eager to home educate. But repeated frustrations with the inflexibility and lack of understanding of school personnel lead many of them to reach a “crisis point” that pushes them out of the system entirely. They feel that home school is their only other option.
Once they do turn to home schooling, the children tend to have marked social improvements, freed as they are from the stresses associated with attending school with classmates and teachers who do not understand them. Unfortunately, the child’s progress is often associated with feelings of resentment and burnout among their mothers, for these women have had to put the rest of their lives on hold to provide such intensive one-on-one care for their child. As one mother put it, “I am quite emotionally drained all of the time.” (p.10)
McDonald’s dissertation had chronicled the educational stories of six families with at least one child with an ASD over a five year period, all residing in Perth, Western Australia. She found that while all six families began in the public school, repeated frustrations over the “lack of fit” between the school’s curriculum and culture and their child’s special needs led to crisis moments. After five years only two of the original six families still had their children in mainstream schools. Two were homeschooling and two had opted for special segregated institutions for their children.
The authors next turn to SIDE’s track record with students with an ASD. Parents of two such children associated with SIDE were studied, and both found the programs to be very effective and helpful for their children. The students achieved “reasonably successful educational and social outcomes” and the parents experienced less stress than they had in a mainstream setting or home schooling on their own.
The authors conclude with three policy recommendations. First, they think mainstream environments need to provide better special education leadership and teaching to help eliminate the push factors sending so many of these families with special needs children away. Most of these families do not want to leave, but they feel compelled by ignorant and/or inflexible programs and teachers. Second, the authors advocate for more programs to help parents who do decide to shoulder the burden of teaching a child with an ASD diagnosis at home. Specifically, they’d like a government-funded home-schooling consultant to be available to help such families become aware of support resources in the community, of teaching strategies, and of curriculum.
Finally, given the success of SIDE as such a resource, they advocate that more distance education resources be made available and that such programs be made easier for children with an ASD diagnosis to access.
Appraisal: I found this to be a well-constructed and persuasive analysis of two inter-related issues. First, the authors find, as did Jennifer Lois, that mothers who did not really want to homeschool but turned to it out of desperation experience a lot of emotional and psychological distress, sometimes to the degree that it risks destroying their marriages and derailing their economic well-being. The solution is a hybrid between home and government schooling in the form of distance education and other services that such families can take advantage of in an a la carte fashion.
Second, the authors’ historical examination of SIDE reveals what scholars like Bob Osgood and Sherman Dorn have been saying for years now of similar trends in the United States, that the example of special education shows that the dichotomy and frequently ideologically-driven conflict between the public and private sector in education is a chimera. Organizations like SIDE show that there are other ways to think about public/private interactions than the metaphor of competition favored by free market reformers. Cooperation between public and private, between government and home, makes for a flexible environment that meets the public’s responsibility to ensure education for the citizenry and the families’ unique understanding of the best way to accomplish that mandate in their own special circumstances. As governments all over the world continue to evolve past the Cold War-era dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, special education is leading the way toward more collaborative, flexible, and pragmatic future.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College