The Homeschool Community Has a Problem with Disabilities (and How to Fix It)

We received the following text from a homeschooling mother who is active in her homeschool community. In her article, which she asked us to share anonymously, she speaks from her personal experience about the importance of homeschooling parents being able to recognize disabilities and find help for their children. We similarly discussed homeschooling parents’ responsibility for recognizing disabilities in our article on getting started homeschooling.

Homeschooling can be a great experience for many families, and I have enjoyed the homeschooling journey my children and I have been on for the past decade.  However, there is an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. It’s the issue of children with undiagnosed and/or untreated disabilities in the homeschooling community.  It’s an issue of medical neglect, and, in my experience, it’s widespread.

Issues that I see going undiagnosed are ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism spectrum disorder, eyesight problems, hearing problems, processing disorders, and speech issues. I spent most of my career working in classrooms, and some of these issues are glaring.

Why are parents reticent about getting their child evaluated?  There are a variety of reasons, but usually they genuinely don’t see the issue, even though other adult around them do.  Sometimes there seems to be willful ignorance, and I wonder if it’s related to an internal disconnect between their belief that if they didn’t vaccinate, practiced extended breastfeeding, and only fed their child organic foods, their child’s brain would be “perfect.”  It doesn’t work that way.

Another issue is that the homeschooling community can be very insular, and the issues are so widespread that they’re normalized.  When the children are very young, neurodiversity is seen as a benefit of homeschooling. However, as the children age up, and schoolwork becomes more rigorous, parents of neurotypical children tend to start drifting away from the open-to-the-public co ops and classes and meetups.  Children working at grade level quietly get invited to their own co ops and classes, so the kids who are left in the public groups are disproportionately affected by behavior and learning issues. Thus, these issues become normalized, and parents can’t see anything different about their own child.

When my oldest was in early elementary school, I bragged about the neurodiversity of our co op, and how this was the future of education.  By the time he was in about 4th grade, however, we couldn’t afford to spend money or time on classes that had to be taught at a level many years younger than what a neurotypical child could handle, while serious behavior issues from several students made the classroom unsafe.  My children were bitten, hit, kicked, had furniture thrown at them by other children who clearly had disabilities. The breaking point for our family attending any public co ops or classes came when a child who was very obviously on the spectrum, but completely undiagnosed, developed a crush on my 5th grade daughter, and would follow her around, and then get angry when she tried to play with someone else.  His rage included throwing things and screaming obscenities at her. I needed to protect my daughter, and I could no longer teach her that she needed to make behavioral allowances for other children with disabilities when I felt that her safety was at risk. Adults looked on, and whispered that there was something obviously “going on” with the boy, but hints to the mother went ignored.

And that is another issue.  Homeschooling friendships can feel tenuous.  Communities are tight, and often our entire community, and nobody wants to be left out.  So people are extremely wary of speaking to another parent about their child’s behavior and learning needs.  People will lie because they don’t want to deliver bad news. “Do you think there’s something wrong?” is met with a shifty eyed “No!  I’m sure he’s fine. Kids learn differently. He’s just a free spirit.” Nobody wants to be an asshole about somebody else’s child, even though telling a parent that they might want to seek an evaluation is, objectively, not being an asshole.  It can seem that way in a conversation, though. Schools have trained guidance counselors who know how to have this difficult conversation with parents. It’s easier to smooth things over and tell the concerned parent only happy things, than to rock the boat and risk ostracism.

There is also a strong thread of “crunchy” parenting in the homeschooling community, and the root of crunchy parenting is that a parent’s decisions can make or break the child.  And by “parents,” we all know that I really mean mothers. If you don’t breastfeed, your child will get sick more often and lose IQ points. If you feed your child any number of things, ranging from red dye to gluten to non-organic food, they will have a whole range of behavioral disorders.  If you vaccinate your child, they will have behavior problems and possibly even autism. The list goes on. So what happens if you do everything “right,” and there’s still obviously something “wrong” with your child? Well, obviously the problem is that you DIDN’T do everything right. Anything the matter with the child is the fault of the mother, and probably because she did something disdainfully termed “mainstream.”  The only way to solve the issue is to try a completely inconvenient and improbable diet, and spend a few hundred dollars on some sort of treatment that big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about. I’m being sarcastic, but these are truthfully the solutions I hear given for kids who have violent tantrums, flap their arms, and genuinely can’t read other people’s emotions.

The basic truth that kids learn at their own speed is distorted to the extreme sometimes, which is a purposeful and dangerous normalization of clear signs that there is a real issue.  Yes, it’s true that there is a range for most skills. But it’s also true that the earlier an issue is identified, the better the chances that it can be remediated. I see parents of 9 or 10 year olds worried about their child’s reading being told not to worry about it, because all children learn differently, and because the concept that there’s a timeline that kids need to learn on is a public school construct.  This is just not true.

Some parents know that there’s an issue, but are afraid to seek out a diagnosis.  Homeschooling breeds fear of authority figures. Yes, there are school officials who overstep, and people who disapprove of homeschooling, but in general homeschooling has gone mainstream.  However, there is absolutely a fear amongst homeschooling families that if they bring their child to someone who might be able to identify a special need, it will open a can of worms that leads directly to social services showing up at their door.  I see parents who know that their child is struggling decide to wait until the child catches up on reading, or writing, or behavior, before seeking out help. The result is that the child falls further and further behind, and the parent is even more reticent to bring their child to get help.  Practicing medical neglect can not be the answer to being afraid of charges of educational neglect. For what it’s worth, I have never heard of any family in my area being accused of educational neglect, or of anyone ever having a social worker show up at their door. Yet the fear is there among so many families.

I think that the problem is getting worse.  When I started homeschooling, I didn’t see this segregation between neurotypical and neurodiverse students, and I didn’t see the behavior problems that I see now.  Friends who run co ops and classes say the same thing. I recently contacted a museum about a homeschool class they offered for many years, and was told that the behavior problems were getting so bad, and there were so many kids who needed a 1:1 aid, that they had to stop offering the classes because the teachers didn’t feel safe. I think that this is because schools have fewer resources yet more mandates to help students with disabilities, so they don’t evaluate or remediate students with mild disabilities, leaving those students to flounder in school, until their parents pull them out.

This is the number one issue I see in homeschooling today, and it’s something that needs to be fixed.  We’re actively harming children by not getting them services that they need, and services that they’re entitled to.  We’re blaming parents (mostly mothers) for poor parenting or poor teaching because of neurological differences that a child was born with.  Homeschooling parents who are afraid that medical authority figures will accuse them of neglect for homeschooling are actually and literally practicing medical neglect by not seeking the diagnosis and treatment that their children need.

So what can be done?

First of all, homeschoolers need to accept the idea that there is nothing “wrong” with children who aren’t neurotypical.  I know I’ve used that word throughout this essay, because it’s what I hear. There is so much fear around parenting decisions leading to undesirable outcomes that it makes these outcomes seem like the end of the world.  Whether you breastfeed or introduced solids at 4 months has NOTHING to do with your child’s ADHD. We need to stop fear mongering parenting to new parents, particularly in the crunchy community, where a completely illogical and disproportionate amount of weight is put on decisions that really aren’t important in the long run.  We need to stop making learning and behavioral disabilities seem like the end of the world, and like something that could have been prevented if you’d just been a better mother.

Secondly, we need to start being willing to have open discussions about neurological differences, and the idea that our own children aren’t immune to them.  This is the hardest part, because it involves difficult conversations. We need to be open to the idea that sometimes someone outside our family, with different experiences than us, can see truths about our child that we might not be able to.  This is hard in a movement that’s literally built around parents’ rights, but if we don’t face the truth that parents don’t know everything about their child, and sometimes don’t make the best decisions for their child, then it’s the children who are suffering.  I don’t know if it’s fair to expect people to be more willing to have an honest discussion with another parent about their child’s needs. That’s a hard discussion to have. But we at least need to do our best to set up an environment where parents can feel safe to talk about this topic.

We need to stop the paranoia about doctors, neurologists, social workers, and other specialists.  They can tell the difference between imperfect homeschooling, parenting, and actual neurological differences.  There might be some out there who “blame homeschooling,” but I would bet that the vast majority do not. I think it should also be on school districts and private practices to reach out to homeschoolers to let them know the services that are available, and to assure them that testing, diagnosis, and therapies do not need to interfere with homeschooling.  I know parents who won’t get their child tested, because they think that means their child will need to attend public school: this is not true.

I see kids hurting, parents floundering, and a whole community that’s suffering.  And it’s something that we need to deal with as a community, because I truly believe that the issue is cultural.

For more resources for homeschooling parents, click here.

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