We Homeschooled Our Daughter with Special Needs

My daughter was just about to graduate the fifth grade when her teacher dropped a bombshell on us. “She’s not going to learn to read in middle school. They just don’t teach that,” he told us plainly. Now, this was an amazing teacher, who worked so hard for our child, so we were taken aback by those words. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t they teach her to read?” we wondered. The answer was both simple and complicated. The school district felt that if a student did not learn to read prior to the sixth grade, then they should focus on other skills with that student and assume that reading was just not necessary or possible for their life. If a student entered the sixth grade with basic reading skills, they would continue to expand on those skills, but if they did not, then tough luck. Your kid would never learn to read. I’m sure that their ideas were based on well-intentioned research, but we just weren’t willing to let our daughter go through life without the ability to read food labels, road signs, or even read books for pleasure.

The district had classified our daughter as having autism, but that’s really just the bin they throw everyone in when they don’t know how to classify them and they need as many services as possible. In reality, we don’t know what happened to her. My husband and his former wife adopted her from Bulgaria when she was 4 and were not aware of her significant delays until well after they returned home to the United States. They took her to a doctor that specialized in international adoption and he theorized that she had a stroke in utero, which was compounded by the effects of living in a sterile Eastern European orphanage environment for 4 years.

So here we were, when she was so young, making one of the first of many “She’s never going to be able to” decisions. For those of you who have children with special needs, you know the heartbreak that comes along with each of these moments. There’s always a little bit of guilt mixed in… “What if we had done this differently… what if we had tried harder at home… would we still be in this same spot?” Well, in this case, we decided that she was going to learn to read. Even if we had to teach her ourselves.

So, when we met for her initial IEP meeting at the middle school, we let them know that we were going to hybrid school her until she learned how to read. Hybrid schooling is where you send your child to school for part of the day and keep them home for the rest of the day. It is an amazing option for many kids with special needs (or with ADHD or anxiety), assuming your local school is willing to work with you. Fortunately, we live in an area where the local schools are very supportive of homeschoolers and allow them to attend part days. I can’t say that the IEP committee thought our idea was a good one, in fact, they did not feel that we were qualified to teach her to read. We also weren’t too sure of our qualifications, but the choice was not about our ability to teach her, it was about whether anyone was willing to teach her, and we were willing to give it a go.

We purchased an online program called Clicknread, which resonated with her love of fast-moving, instant reward-based games. In fact, she is 22 now and I just had to go ask her the name of the program that we used. She started repeating the words from the cartoon character in the program, using his voice. I had completely forgotten, but she can replay memories like that, even from over a decade ago. Teaching our daughter to read was as simple as letting her use the software each day, especially because she loved the program and obsessed over the time we would allow her to “play” on the computer. After keeping her home for the first semester, she had a basic understanding of phonics and we decided to send her back to school. We spoke with her teacher about continuing her time with the program, which we had paid for, and the teacher was happy to incorporate it into her school day. Now that she had the basics down, the school was happy to continue her reading education.

I’m sharing this story because sometimes as parents, we get this feeling that we need to take more control over the education of our children with special needs. Often, we get feedback from the schools saying, “Don’t worry about this, we’re in charge and we know best.”, but there’s something in our heads that just won’t let it go. Homeschooling your children, when you are sure that you can give them something more than they are getting at school, is your right and it IS a viable option. It is a scary choice to pull your child out of school, but it is not a choice that has to last forever. In fact, the majority of parents who homeschool are doing so for a short period of time, in an effort to help their child with a specific issue. The schools are well-intentioned, and in our experience, they did an amazing job helping our daughter. But, from that point on, we realized that we could advocate for our daughter when her needs went against the traditional expectations for her. We never pulled her out of school again, but we absolutely fought for what she needed, knowing that if we didn’t get it from the school, homeschooling was an option that we could easily return to. Knowing that we had options made us feel like we were more powerful and better advocates for our child.