Autism Interview #63 Part 1: Ally Grace on Unschooling, Therapy, and Autism

Ally Grace is an autistic mother of five from Australia. Ally strongly believes in challenging the pathology paradigm of autism. She blogs at Respectfully Connected about her family, rejecting conventional autism assumptions, challenging social norms around raising children, unschooling, and being autistic. This post is part one of a 2-part series with Ally. This week she shared her experience unschooling her children, as well as advice for parents considering different therapies for their children.

You describe your family as an “unschooling” family. What does this mean/look like?

Unschooling is a term that was coined by John Holt in the 1970s. He was a teacher who closely observed how school was interfering in childrens’ learning. He saw that, when children were in a supportive and opportune-filled environment; they would learn constantly because they wanted to and because it came naturally and joyfully. He began to question whether school interrupted this natural and effective process, and concluded that it did. One of his books, How Children Learn, is a book of observations of how small children learn through play, interest, and being included in their families. He basically watches kids at play and describes it. It is lovely to read. I loved this book, and I could see then how this process of enthusiastic learning is happening before school even begins. It set me on my own path of wondering about how school might interfere with that process and about why we attribute learning to education and school, and whether we are missing something in those assumptions.

The basis of unschooling, to me, is trust. Trust in the process of learning because it is a natural and normal thing for human beings to want to do, to take joy in doing, and to do as is beneficial to them. The school paradigm does not trust that children will learn what they need to learn without coercion and someone else deciding what someone should learn, how, and in what order. Unschooling essentially rejects that and aims to leave children in their natural state of loving learning and not being coerced into that or made to feel shame or fear around that or their current skills or abilities.

I believe that we all learn best when we feel safe and secure, and when we are innately motivated by interest, usefulness, relevance, and/or fun. I don’t think that learning should be thought of as a separate process to living, or to fun – I think those things are all connected and that we can learn all we need just by living interesting lives! I have five children whom have never been to school. They have been unschooled from the beginning.

Another important part of unschooling to me, is freedom to be and to explore the world. Things that mainstream parenting purports as necessary, such as enforced bedtimes, controls on how much someone uses the computer or watches tv, punishments and rewards, and the “because I said so” mentality – are rooted in the same beliefs and power structures as school. They all are based in the belief that adults know best about what, how, and when, kids should be learning. These things are rejected in my family. I don’t believe we can really be free to explore calmly, when we know that someone is likely to coerce us into following their agenda. I don’t believe it is possible for humans to thrive in that kind of situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that kids who do get punished or who do go to school, will be miserable! However I do not believe that these things have been designed with a focus on how humans learn best. I think they have been used historically for reasons that are not in alignment with natural learning and with learning in the most joyous sense.

My focus in setting unschooling up to work well, is curating this environment of peacefulness (not necessarily in terms of the image many people have of peacefulness – of quiet or meditation or yoga or something!) but peace in the sense that we will exist together without exerting power over one another, without using violence to try to get our needs met, and with everyone free to communicate and play and learn. Essentially, we want to live happily and compassionately, and my goal as an unschooling parent is to make that happen and then to keep it happening.

Unschooling and Autism

Because this is also about autism and neurodivergence, what that means for my family also is that I see my autistic children as inherently capable of learning all that they need to in life. Many people seem to take this kind of statement as neglectful; however, in unschooling there is always appropriate support for our kids, based on a knowledge of child development and a knowledge of our kids and where they are at in any given space/time. With support, I believe that my children can be trusted to play and learn. I believe that this is a human feature, and that we are all born capable of this. I also see my children as valuable and okay just as they are, and I do not believe them to be defective or damaged people. Believing those things about them would be terrible for unschooling and would also be violent. The stigma around neurodivergence is a part of the same power paradigm of school, with the structural set-up of some skills being valued and others deterred and seen as valueless. To reject violence and power plays over children while they learn and grow, we must certainly reject the pathology paradigm of neurodivergence.

In most unschooling spaces, the pathologisation of autism and neurodivergence is rightly seen as disrespectful to children and as a clash with unschooling philosophies. One way that many unschooling families aim to overcome this, is to get rid of the idea of autism or neurodivergent brains in the first place. They believe that identifying neurodivergence is buying into the paradigm that stigmatises it and is buying into the belief that we should even be looking at people in this way. I believe though, that this approach fails to recognise and account for the social factors at play for neurodivergent brains. To believe that simply not naming it, is to keep children free from ableism, disrespect, and interference in their peace and learning – is, in my opinion misguided because there are other factors that lead to those things and those aren’t to do with the language or noticing atypical brains. That is to do with systemic oppression. For my family, we openly discuss that there are many right ways to be. Being neurodivergent is named as such because of being atypical, systemically. I believe that in order to counter ableism; language and knowledge are powerful tools and are necessary for unschooling to work out as well as possible for neurodivergent kids.

The Neurodiversity Paradigm was the natural choice for me in terms of how I think about neurodiversity (the diversity of human brains), because I already had deep beliefs about nonviolence and respect for children (and this paradigm shares those). I believed already in Peaceful Parenting and not using behaviourism to raise children. I believed already in freedom to be and to play, and to be given the space to develop along a personal trajectory. The Neurodiversity Paradigm was the only way for me to think of autism that was truly peaceful and respectful. I believe it is the only peaceful way to see neurodivergence.

Another big way that unschooling comes into play for my neurodivergent family, is to do with therapy. Certainly ABA is a resounding clash with my principles of compassion for children. It is in direct conflict with peace and with respect for kids. Unschooling helped me to approach therapy, because I trust that my children will learn with my support. So much of autism therapy is marketed to play on fear, to invoke fear, and to cause parents to be afraid that their child will not be prepared for a future life without abusive and coercive measures being applied to them. Since I was already easily rejecting the fear in many similar ways; I feel I was more easily able to see that kind of marketing for what it is. It was not hard for me to reject practices that were based entirely on the premise that my children are not good enough human beings as they are. My children have never been to any behavioural therapies.  We made the decision to visit an OT with one of my children (with their consent and enjoyment), for support and knowledge of sensory needs.  However, we soon stopped this because we saw that the staff were trained in the pathology paradigm of neurodivergence, and also in behaviourism.  Also, we realised then that our engagement as parents who want to be with our children in supportive and nonviolent ways had already given us deep knowledge of our child’s sensory needs. Truthfully, the professionals we spoke to did not know as much as us. They also had several problematic assumptions that we could see were untrue because we had spent so much time with our child with open hearts and without agendas. We have never looked back.

In terms of things like reading, mathematics, writing, and other skills people tend to associate with school – our children are learning these things all the time. Because we provide many opportunities and support our children as they request, learning from many areas is happening all the time in our home.

Regarding bedtimes and food, and using computers or television – we wish for our children to be able to listen to their bodies, needs, and learning timelines, and so we do not control those things. We always provide support and we will often suggest things from our own knowledge, experiences, or observations. The key for us is non-coercion and not believing ourselves to know better than them, about them. Our children show me every day that they are capable of these responsibilities, and I am grateful that I learned about this way of life in time to allow them to live it.

The author page on Respectfully Connected, a website you contribute to, says your family has dreams of traveling. What are the priority spots for you and your children?

I currently live in Western Australia, which is a really beautiful place. I feel lucky to live here. There is so much space in Australia. We have only a population of 24 million!

I don’t have any specific places I wish to visit, but I am really looking forward to seeing desert, rainforest, water holes, rivers, waterfalls, cliffs, new beaches, and just relaxing in secluded places. I enjoy being out in nature and living where I do really has lent itself to that in my life. I love relaxing in rivers or listening to the waves at the beach. I enjoy bush walks and don’t mind spiders or other creepy crawlies. They just come with being outdoors here! I guess the whole experience of being in nature more, is what I am most excited about. My children also thrive outside and with lots of space. They tend to use the natural environment to play and to meet sensory needs. Whenever I am planning something fun for us all to do, I always think of our favourite outdoor locations first. They are usually their happiest when we are all outside together. So, I feel like so many things about us traveling together are going to make it an amazing experience.

My children seem very interested in mapping out where we are going, and are keen to understand the size of Australia a bit better (so am I!). They also want to see snow! We don’t get snow where we are now and my kids have never experienced it. They are interested in seeing interesting animals too – snakes, thorny devils, koalas, spiders, emus, dingoes.

What would you say to parents who are contemplating different therapies for their children too young to understand/articulate ideas? Is there an age that is too young for therapy?

I believe in deep respect for children, so I think the key here is to think about whether your child will enjoy doing something, whether they would choose that for themself if you gave them the option (I think you should give them the option and use honest judgement if they are not able to be consulted due to a young age) and whether they value whatever it is the therapy is supposed to be helping with. I think we must always remember that not saying no is not the same thing as saying yes. We exist in a power imbalance when we exist alongside our children. As adults and parents, we are more powerful than our children. We must take great care not to take advantage of that and to delicately and deeply consider all of our choices in their lives.

I think there are a few questions we can ask– about whether we would like something if it had been done to us at the same age or whether we would want it done to us at any age, what our kids might be missing out on if we choose a certain route, and whether we really believe our kids are going to enjoy what we are considering for them. A child sitting in a therapist’s office being told what to do, who may prefer to be outdoors climbing in trees and digging in the dirt, or who may want to be building in Minecraft, or who would rather be making train tracks for their trains to drive on – that is problematic to me. Why should we have the right to put them into that situation when we are aware that it isn’t what they’d choose? Other things we may not know for sure, but could guess. If I had a small baby, I could guess that they do not wish to be put alone in a dark room. They did not tell me that, but this is likely. So, we can use this same method for assessing things for our older children too. What child would rather be sitting around with someone who thinks they are defective, than playing and being with their friends and families? When people talk about their children not objecting to certain things; we need to remember this power imbalance. Many kids know they cannot object to all the things that adults choose for them. Their lack of protest is not a sign of enjoyment or consent.

I think we need to think honestly to ourselves about how much an idea lines up with our childrens’ interests, real needs (not ones we imagined up with our fear), and whether it is the right thing to do for them. I think all our children deserve to have a childhood of play, fun, exploration, and love. Therapy does not always fit in with that, and often will actually get in the way of those things!

As an example, if you are wanting to put a 4 year old into Occupational Therapy that is repetitive and boring, because you see they have atypical fine motor skills and you want to help them learn to write and draw, I would stop there and think more about whether your ideas are more about you and your fears, than them and their needs. It isn’t respectful to coerce someone less powerful than you into a situation for your benefit over theirs. If you want to support them to develop their fine motor skills because they wish to do so and because it seems like a helpful thing to do for them; then you can do that in non-coercive ways. You could support them in everyday life. You could ask the advice of a professional but never go to therapy with them. You don’t need to make everything into a kind of ‘therapy’ to support your child. So often people equate ‘force’ or ‘coercion’ with ‘support’ – those things are not the same! People may be aiming to support their kids when they coerce them into things; but this is not necessary. It is very possible to support our autistic children to develop skills (just like all kids) while being kind and non-threatening.

I feel that people do not often know how to do this, but it is mostly about building your own communication skills as a parent, and adding new skills to do with compassionate interaction and respectful interaction. This can take work, but it is really needed! I guess my most significant piece of advice about all this would be – do the work yourself, and don’t be fooled that it is your children who need to change!

I have seen a phenomena that I have heard referred to as “Therapy Lite” by my autistic friends; and I would describe this as when people loosely take the ideas of respect and challenging assumptions around autism, but don’t do the real work. So, they hold onto their deep assumptions. I would say that people like this use progressive words about respect and valuing autistic children, but their actions don’t reflect this and they are not being truly respectful, but maybe a little bit more respectful than some people they are thinking of. So, please be mindful of this when you start out and be careful of people who give “Therapy Lite” advice. Working on yourself is really the key to respectful support for autistic children.

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