HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Isobel” is a pseudonym.
I was homeschooled in kindergarten and from fourth through twelfth grades. I was public schooled for first through fourth grade, when my parents and church began to become more cultish. I have been Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) since birth, but my church drifted further and further into Jack Hyles orbit as I grew older. We were also a Quiverfull family who did not put much stress on female education.
I always knew that something was different about me, but could never put my finger on just what it was.
It was so hard to fit in and make friends, whether I was at church or at public school. Home was my reprieve, and I enjoyed being home schooled because I didn’t have the stress of having to interact with people outside the family. What we didn’t know at the time, and wouldn’t know until last year, was that I am autistic. I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 31.
Being autistic actually was somewhat of a protective barrier to the patriarchy and cultishness being preached in the IFB. My lack of eye contact was perceived as being a properly submissive young woman. My quietness was interpreted as me knowing my place. Inside, I was fuming at the way women were treated, but I was never able to explain why it bothered me.
The worst part by far of being homeschooled, IFB, and autistic for me was the extra time that my siblings and I were able to do door to door soul winning. I hated having to talk to strangers. Even though I had a script of what I was supposed to say, I wasn’t able to adjust as the conversation played out, so I was always awkward in my attempts.
The thing I enjoy most about no longer being IFB is the lack of proselytizing.
My favorite part of being home schooled and autistic was being able to indulge my interests. I had a knack for turning my interests into school projects. It was not uncommon for me to write 10-15 page research papers on things that caught my fancy. I made murals of my favorite periods of history and frequently created historical clothes and scenery for my toys as school history projects. I recreated historical technology for science projects. I would never have had this kind of freedom and flexibility in a traditional school setting. I loved every subject except math, mainly because I just could not understand math and no one was available to teach me. I have always learned better from books than from lectures, so home schooling really was the best possible option for me.
Being home schooled allowed me the freedom to control my curriculum and be as prepared as possible for college, even though my church was against females in college. My parents were willing to let me take advanced courses because they knew how much I loved learning, and I was able to balance the home responsibilities of an older Quiverfull daughter with many younger siblings because I could do my school work early in the morning and late at night, when my siblings were in bed.
I have a lot of food-related sensory issues, so being homeschooled allowed me to avoid having to deal with school lunches. I could choose what I wanted to eat from what was available, I could choose when I wanted to eat, and I could eat while doing something else, which effectively allowed me to have enough distractions to be able to tolerate the food. At first, my parents were worried that I was rebelling through food, and I was frequently disciplined for my pickiness, but over time, my parents eventually gave up and let me start cooking I also had some sensory problems with my clothes. So much of what I wore was uncomfortable. Being homeschooled allowed me to wear my ankle-length skirts and loose tops without having to be made fun of. I was also able to keep my three comfortable outfits in constant rotation without having to be made fun of by my peers.
I am grateful to my parents for homeschooling me.
It probably made my life a lot easier than it otherwise would have been. Being raised IFB was not great for me, and has given me a lot to process as I have slowly deconverted to humanism as an adult. I had bought in to the system with all my heart, believing that I was less-than as a woman. I have been slowly gaining my independence and beginning to see myself as an independent person instead of a helpmeet for a future husband. I have also, since my diagnosis six months ago, begun to learn how to work with my brain, using the strategies that were most comfortable for me, many of them learned from trial and error as a homeschooler.
On my journey as a homeschool alumna with higher functioning autism, it is patriarchy, not the homeschooling, that caused the problems I have faced.
Homeschooling was Mom’s idea. Her public school experience was horrible, and she was thrilled when she heard Raymond Moore talk about homeschooling on Focus on the Family.
Dad was not thrilled about homeschooling but agreed to do it “until high school”. Mom was to focus on academics and not follow Raymond Moore’s “unschooling” method which focused on teaching children real life skills and learning at their own pace. Mom, to her continuing regret, obeyed Dad because she had been taught that wives submit to their husbands.
Unknown to us at the time, not only was I on the autism spectrum, but my father also fits the criteria though unlike me, he has not been officially diagnosed.
For the sake of my family, I will not go into details of all the issues my family has faced because of Dad’s likely higher functioning autism along with likely narcissism. When Mom sought help from church leaders for Dad’s issues, she was told they were her fault for not “submitting enough”. Mom did her best to follow the advice in the book “Me? Obey Him?” by Elizabeth Rice Handford, but overall, the horrible advice in the book made things worse, not better.
Because of Dad’s issues, my family never fit into to the local homeschool community and I never had close friends there.
Meanwhile, I learned from patriarchy that one did not become an adult until one got married, that single, childless, women were worthless, that women needed to be submissive, and that it was a sin for a woman to work outside the home. I also learned that psychology was evil and that environmentalists were crazy.
I knew that I was different, and the outside world was scary. The idea of staying home and homeschooling my children was safe. I wanted to follow God with all my heart, to fit in, to be safe. So I planned for nothing else in life but to be a wife and mother.
Meanwhile, homeschooling me was far from easy on my precious mother.
But MOM! I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS! I HATE MATH!! I would scream.
Mom would tell me to put it aside for awhile, which was difficult to do. I wanted math out of the way so that I could relax. Mom went through multiple math curriculums with me.
Alas, battles over math were not the only issues Mom faced with her higher functioning autistic daughter. Among other things, I was extremely sensitive to certain stimuli, socially awkward, threw fits when her routine was disturbed, and became an expert on subjects she was passionate about.
Because Mom was so focused on my problems, she did not have the energy and time to give my younger brother the help that he needed, for which I feel bad. Thankfully younger brother is overcoming the issues we had during our youth and is becoming a success.
Thankfully, Dad did not believe in the extreme tenets of patriarchy and insisted that I get my GED, which enabled me to go to college.
Unfortunately, my college education has been worthless career wise because of the lethal effects of patriarchy when it is combined with autism. As I discovered, one can be free on the outside but bound on the inside.
God in his great mercy has led me out of patriarchy, but the effects remain.
Meanwhile, I am deeply grateful that I was homeschooled, and that I was not diagnosed with autism until I was 21. My quiet, happy, mostly isolated homeschooling years spared me the stress of life and thus given me more strength to handle the challenges of life.
I am also grateful for decisions by both parents that have helped me learn coping skills. When I was seven, Dad decided to get chickens. I became their caretaker, and they became my therapy. Many times I would wake up depressed, and caring for my chickens would cheer me up.
They also helped teach me responsibility and other life lessons.
Mom, who worked as an LPN during the early years of my life, became disillusioned with the harsh, ineffective treatments she saw in her work and started to seek out alternatives to modern medicine. There were many times when she could have put me on drugs, but chose to seek out alternatives to my issues. Thanks to her suggestions, diet has helped me function more easily.
Since my autism diagnosis, I have heard dozens of horror stories from individuals on the autism spectrum who went to public school. I know that going to public school would have been a horrible experience for me, even though I might have been diagnosed with autism earlier. At the same time, I have heard homeschooling horror stories from neurotypical people and people with various mental issues.
I still believe that homeschooling is the best option for those on the autism spectrum because it enables those with autism to learn at their own pace in a safe, comfortable environment. But since not every parent is perfect, I think that homeschooling should only be done by mentally healthy parents free from the influence of patriarchy who truly love and want the best for their children.
Overall, for this “Aspie” being homeschooled is one of the greatest blessings of my life. It’s the patriarchy that did the damage, and I will never stop fighting to end it.
My eighth grade year found me in the public school.
I had been kicked out of the small IFB church school that I had been attending. Suddenly the world was larger. I had been told that the public school was filled with Satan worshipers who would force me to believe in evolution. I was sure that rock and roll music would steal my soul, remake me into Satan’s servant.
So I entered the school, and found an entirely new world. I, a shy and awkward kid, found a world where the most painful thing that happened was being made fun of. There were no mysterious fists striking me as I walked past, there were no mobs on the playground. At that school, paddling was not done. There were no mysterious calls to the principal’s office. There was no mandatory daily chapel service. There was just more and more learning.
Today, I know that that school was still heavily influenced by the churches in the area. Still, it was eye-opening. While they didn’t teach evolution or the dreaded sex education, I found that there was room to be who I was without as much punishment. There was room to question the world.
In the church schools, I had been socially isolated. Somehow I was always getting it wrong with people. I would misread intentions, and find myself repeating something that was supposed to not be said. The punishments were severe. Today, I know that this was due to being autistic, that it was normal that I didn’t understand the social cues being given.
Back then, I didn’t know; I just knew I was different.
Fast forward to my senior year, and they pulled me out of public school. I was to do homeschooling. While there was no explanation at the time, I can connect at least one reason to this: a couple of weeks before they pulled me out, I had broken up with the boy I had been ordered to court. Exposure to a not-so-fundamentalist group of girls at summer camp had infected me with the idea that I could say ‘no’ and that it would be respected.
I, with my long hair, skirts, modest clothing, I was too wild. I, who was still socially inept, without friends to influence my questioning. I, who didn’t dare listen to rock music, who worked so hard to believe everything the church said was true.
I was too wild.
Being ‘frugal’, they saw no reason to invest in homeschooling materials. They worked the system to get the county to send a teacher to me once a week. I worked on my schoolwork in solitude, never quite sure that it was a real education anymore.
I was terrified that I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate, that I would be trapped at home. At the same time, I was relieved to be given a reprieve from school. I found it so exhausting, trying to understand all the people and the social groups. I would find myself at the mercy of the popular kids’ laughter one day, and the next I was separated from everyone. Doing my classwork without that pressure meant I could finish a lot faster.
But it also meant I was isolated.
Even influenced by the local churches, the public schools I attended had begun to give me glimpses of a different world. There was history, science, math all rooted in provable facts. The bible played no part in my educational days any more. There were no verses to memorize in every class, no reflections back to the bible to prove whatever was being taught was true.
Questions were welcomed.
This, perhaps, was also part of why I was pulled from school. Fundamentalism and autism are a poor mixture. Everything they said was true, I tried to believe. I forced belief on myself with Abraham’s sharp knife. I cut away my unbelief over and over again. There was no room for questions, for doubt.
Another part of how autism affects me is that I need things to make sense. I need to be able to line them up, ordered beauty, geometric fractals piercing light. Fundamentalism did not lend itself to order. Oh, they tried to teach that it was the most ordered thing, but their elaborate methods of laying out what was ‘of g-d’ and what was ‘of the devil’ made things complicated.
Still, I tried to believe.
I tried to stifle the questions. I memorized more verses. I answered every question I had with accusation, I found myself more and more guilty. To punish myself, I would pray over and over every night, hoping that this prayer would be heard. All while knowing that the bible told me that if I had sin in my heart, that my prayers would never get higher than the ceiling.
And so my prayers hovered in the room. Broken-winged, they flapped about the room, choking away any hope I had of being forgiven. Each night, I added more black-wing prayers to my room, until I wondered how anyone could breathe in there. I was glad of their invisibility, I wanted no one to know just how many prayers I prayed that never reached heaven, and I hoped that g-d would keep my secrets.
In the middle of suffocating, the questions grew. I had no one to ask, though. So they, too, became broken-winged thoughts, tangling with the prayers. Sometimes I thought they were fighting, the questions and the prayers.
I never knew who I wanted to win.
I desperately wanted the absolution that would come with forgiveness, but I knew my prayers could never find heaven. I found myself rooting for the questions. I found myself longing for someone to ask them of.
I never found that person.
Once I was homeschooled, I thought the questions would stop. I thought without the world’s influence, I would stop inventing questions. But they piled up anyway. Heavy branches that sliced away dark from light. They tangled belief into shadow, until there was no breathing. Terrified, I tried to silence them. I wanted to believe.
In that world, belief was the safest thing.
So I pushed the tangle of thinking, of questioning, away from me. I pretended they didn’t exist. I pretended my prayers were being answered, that I was finding forgiveness. I memorized more verses, I served more at church, I tried so hard to be the perfect christian. I tried to study and show myself approved.
I was required to use the bible as my proof text for everything from math to science. Even the papers I wrote for history had to be done through the bible. I wrote a lot about authority structures, and how they needed to be respected, I wrote about how politics needed to do more to support the authority in place. I was no longer allowed to have new ideas, to question old ones.
The bible was true, and that was all I needed to live.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Olive” is a pseudonym.
I’ve always been autistic.
Since I was a baby. Vaccinations didn’t do me in and it wasn’t because my breastfeeding mother or I ate too much milk or gluten. From the time I was born, I struggled to cope with things like bright lights, loud sounds, and the feeling of having a body.
I learned early that my sensitivities wouldn’t be tolerated, though, and that in order to get by I needed to let people kiss, hug, and touch me even though it often hurt. Being hungry and tired gave me meltdowns, but my brain couldn’t feel that I was hungry, or tired and so I didn’t know why it was happening or how to stop it and my screaming was often met with threats.
Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.
The threats terrified me, so I taught myself to stop crying and to calm down, which my mother took as proof that I was just being stubborn and strong-willed. If something were really wrong, then I wouldn’t have been able to stop crying on a whim.
I struggled through elementary, but because my school was small and private (and aggressively evangelical), I stayed with the same 10-15 kids from K-6th grades, so there was stability in that and I always knew I’d have friends at school. I had trouble relating to other kids and couldn’t easily make friends outside my built-in friend group, but I didn’t have a lot of reason to anyway. There were plenty of slumber parties and trips to the rollerskating rink as it was.
Then I pretty much failed 6th grade. It wasn’t out of nowhere. I had started having issues in fourth grade with the volume of homework, and my mother wasn’t good at offering support, subscribing wholeheartedly to the idea that kids should learn to be responsible by being left fully responsible for as much as possible. I was blamed for my failures and when my mom took an afternoon off work to come visit my least favorite class with me, it was all over.
I would be homeschooled, she decided.
Some kids just aren’t cut out for school.
A refrain that would be repeated throughout my junior high and high school years. It would cripple me. Completely disempower me. Because I just wasn’t cut out to deserve the things other kids did, or to be allowed to have peers and friends.
So much happened from 7th grade to 12th, but it feels like a dark hole to me. It was an ugly time. When homeschooling didn’t work because I had a single mother and she worked as a nurse for 40 hours a week, she tried to put me in public school in 9th grade. When that didn’t work, she got me a floppy red set of ACE workbooks and told me that if I wanted to learn, then I would finish them. When that didn’t work, she got me Saxon math books and started calling what she was doing “unschooling”, which meant that math was the only subject that really mattered anyway, because I could learn all the rest just from being in the world.
When I made friends online to replace the ones I’d lost in school, she took them away too because I called one of them my boyfriend and we weren’t allowed to have romantic relationships until we were 18.
When I couldn’t provide myself with the structure I needed to complete the ACE curriculum, she got me a job babysitting for 8 hours a day. I bathed, fed, and read to 1, then 2, and eventually 4 little siblings who lived in a small, sticky apartment.
If you aren’t going to complete your school work, then you should at least learn a work ethic.
So, I did.
The anxiety never left. The social anxiety was worst and I wasn’t able to make friends or even talk openly with people I already knew, but I also had anxiety about my future and how I would survive once I turned 18. I wasn’t being given anything that my peers were, and it was all my fault because I’d failed so miserably. There was no school counselor to help me through college applications. There was no one there to tell my mother that what she was doing was hurting me. I thought she was only trying to help.
And since there was no one else to blame, I fully blamed myself.
If only I could have kept it together in 6th grade.
If only I could have stayed at public school in 9th grade.
If only I could have finished the ACE curriculum, or the Saxon math.
I am a failure.
I never studied my schoolwork. It caused too much anxiety. I never finished the ACE curriculum or the math books. I snuck back on the computer to my friends, and studied them instead. They had expansive vocabularies gleaned from philosophy books and collections of novels I’d never heard of because of my conservative upbringing. They gave me book lists ranging from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Ishmael, The Perks of Being a Wallflower to John Grisham novels. I studied our language, the language of kids online in 1999. The way we communicated via acronyms and words couched in asterisks.
At 17, I passed the GED with mostly flying colors except for math, which I almost failed but was too afraid to take again. My mother was calling my “education” unschooling by then. I wasn’t a neglected child, I was an “autodidact” and this had been my choice. After all, I could have finished that ACE curriculum like she’d wanted me to.
And I believed her.
Which was the biggest lie homeschooling/unschooling ever told me.
I had no outside influences to tell me anything different. That I could strive for something greater than an almost-failed GED. That maybe I could be cut out for school if I had the right support. That maybe I could have a future.
The only people speaking into my education were my mother and other homeschooling/unschooling family members. I was young, depressed and broken from years of not having a peer group or any outside support. Listening to them finally tell me that I was a success felt good, and I clung to it.
No matter that I couldn’t carry on conversations, that I felt awkward and out of place no matter where I went, or that I had no friends in real life. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t count back change with any accuracy or that I wasn’t ever taught to say no to anyone, resulting in many bad relationships and a traumatizing sexual assault.
If I had taught myself like I was supposed to, I wouldn’t be in this position.
It was like a poison that ate me alive.
I received no explanation of how to choose a college and was simply driven to the local community college one day by my mother and enrolled. Whether I wanted to go or not was irrelevant. What I wanted was irrelevant, because my mother wanted me to look like I was succeeding.
Through sheer force of will I was able to keep up and get good grades while working full time and going to school full time.
For one semester.
But after that, everything fell apart again and it was like deja vu. It cemented for me over and over that what my mother said was true, I just wasn’t cut out for school.
By the time I finally learned that I was autistic, I had given up on school. I was married, living overseas. More things made sense, but I still believed that I was broken, unfit for education. I’ve been a stay-at-home wife for most of our marriage, although I did try school once and had an awful breakdown halfway through the second semester.
My mother seems to view my stay-at-home status as a success though, because women are meant to be at home.
What else would you have had me do with an autistic child who was failing in school?
She demands to know and I feel at a loss. I don’t know what could have been done in the 90’s for a girl who nobody knew had autism, but I know the answer isn’t: Take them out of school and saddle them with the responsibility of orchestrating their entire education alone.
And I know I wouldn’t do this to any kid I know. Autistic or not.
Today, I’m still a stay-at-home wife. We rent a tiny house with a big back yard where I grow tomatoes and strawberries and our dog chases cats and stray chickens. It took me so long to realize that the lies I’d been told about my education weren’t true, that I’m in my 30’s now and still have no college degree. In picking apart everything that went wrong, I’ve begun to be estranged from my family. I gave up my faith, too, and am now an atheist instead of an evangelical Christian.
The transitions have come all at once, like hitting a wall and removing brick after brick just to get to the other side. I still have meltdowns when I get too hungry, or I’m surprised, or when the weight of all the things feels too much, but I’m learning to be gentler with myself now. The more bricks I pull away from the wall, the more clearly I can see and it turns out that kindness helps a lot more with supporting my autism than tough love ever did. I still struggle to make friends and don’t really have any, but hope that as I get healthier through therapy, I may be able to develop more social skills. And I still don’t know if I’m “cut out” for school, although I hope someday I will be.
I think the one thing I do know now is that autism doesn’t mean I have to hide. If I am struggling with something, I can ask for help doing that thing. I don’t need to have the thing taken away from me. I can get support in being who I am and doing the things I want to do, all at the same time.
And it’s not my fault that I didn’t get the education I deserved.
April is Autism Acceptance Month, a time when the autistic community is speaking out about their experiences as autistic people.
Many of us might not have known we were autistic during our homeschooled life. Our parents didn’t believe in the mental health industry. Or perhaps they just felt we were being extra difficult with our sensory needs, or our need to repeat things. Maybe it was because they didn’t know how to seek help for us. Maybe our parents were supportive, but just didn’t know how to handle our differences. Maybe they did know, and chose to homeschool us in the hopes it would be easier for us.
Are you autistic and homeschooled? Did you find out later in your life that you were autistic? What was homeschooling like for you as an autistic child?
We would like to hear your story.
* This is not a call for stories for parents of autistic children, or for siblings of autistic homeschoolers. This is specifically to elevate the voices of autistic homeschoolers.
As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly. Please let us know your preference when you contact us.
* We will be publishing your stories as they come in, through the end of April *