My Autistic, Unschooled Kid is Now in College – and doing just fine thanks!

How Unschooling Really Works

My son Liam is 18. He just finished his first semester in college. I am very proud of him. So what? You say. So did a gazillion other kids this fall. Well, that’s true. But there is a difference. My son Liam is autistic – and he’s never taken a final exam before in his life. Or a mid-term. Or any kind of standardized test.

Until this fall, Liam was completely unschooled. He went to a few years of school when he was younger — kindergarten through second grade. Then it was clear that the whole school thing was not going to work for him. Without getting into too much detail, classrooms are too loud for Liam and he couldn’t do the school work. Also, he hated worksheets and sitting all day. What he did like was fixing his teachers’ computers. He was six and this was what he wanted to do. If Mrs. Reed was having trouble with her internet access or had a virus, Liam was her man. Again…he was six.

After meetings with special ed people and IEP’s and psychologists and three days of tests (that Liam actually liked), we decided that perhaps Liam would just be better off at home. I got all excited about being Liam’s teacher. In fact, my other son, Alex, wanted to stay home too, so now I had two pupils and I went a little nuts. I turned the dining room into a classroom and we said the Pledge every morning. I wrote things on the chalkboard and we read the books we were supposed to read and we did math and then science and then we had “recess.”

We were miserable. Liam more so than Alex and I, but still we were all pretty miserable. We started to dread getting up in the morning as if we were actually going to work and school. It sucked. Liam and I started to have fights over multiplication tables. He would run upstairs yelling, “I wish I wasn’t even born!” I knew something had to change.

I told my husband I wasn’t schooling them anymore. I was going to leave the boys alone. Liam in particular. I decided that for an undetermined amount of time, I was going to leave him be. I mean, I would do all the mother stuff still, and I would still take him to soccer and art class and all that. But there would be no more “school” time. I wanted to see, truly, what the boys would do if they were left to their own devices. I no longer put any restraints on the amount of TV they could watch or computer they could use (unless someone else needed the computer – with eight kids, there are always restraints of some sort). I didn’t tell them to go outside and I didn’t tell them when to come in – unless we had to go somewhere. I didn’t tell them what to eat or not eat. I really only told them when to get clean and where to find things.

I didn’t even tell them when to go to bed.

The first week was a little crazy. They ate all of the junk food in the house, they watched cartoons and played video games. But that only lasted a little while. I was tempted many times to say something. To restrict. To engage. To guide. To lead. But I resisted. After a while, they started to do things. They would watch TV and then play Legos. And then they would go outside and create a scavenger hunt. And then they would build a time capsule or a rocket out of boxes or find wood in the garage and start to build a fort or go into the woods and do “survival” stuff. Then I would take them to the library and they would find books on rocket ships and survival stuff and woodworking. And then they would do more. My husband took Liam to work (he was a computer repair guy at the time) and Liam would help inventory parts and put computers together. Then he came home and learned how to program computers.

From the age of seven through 18, Liam volunteered at the bookmobile, at the zoo, and at the senior center. He wanted to join the fire department so we signed him up as a cadet in the volunteer firefighter program in our town. He wanted to learn more programming, so we got him a laptop. We learned how to mush dogs together. He raced his own team. He wanted to own his own computer repair business and for less than the cost of private school for one year, we were able to open a retail storefront for him when he was 15. He traveled by bicycle throughout the neighborhood and repaired computers for people – and gave classes to seniors at the library on how to use a Kindle, Facebook, a laptop, whatever.

On our travels around the country, Liam has met hundreds of people who have taught him valuable skills and he has returned the favor many times over. Doing this brought him out of his “autistic” shell. He is now comfortable speaking with people, talking on the phone, engaging. He is still learning to read social cues, but is better than he’s ever been.

This fall, he decided to try college. The local community college has a fire science program and he wanted to take all the classes so he could be a full-fledged firefighter and EMT. To be honest, I didn’t ever think Liam would go to college. I was pretty sure he would just do computer repair and never have to worry about a test. He hates tests. Correction: hated them. He was terrified at his midterms and didn’t do well (he got C’s, though, so good enough!). I told him not to worry. That if he liked the material enough, he would remember. He learned how to study for his different classes – Wildfire Management, Fire 101, a lab, and Incident Command.

He attended every class, because he’s that kind of kid. Liam doesn’t drive (he doesn’t want to), so we had to drive him to every night class. And pick him up. A couple of times, I tried to get him to skip. I know, selfish. But I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to stay home and loaf. Liam said no. He intended to go to every class and he did. I was impressed, even if I was still bummed I had to drive. And here he is.

So yes. You can unschool your kid and set them free. They can get into college. They might even want to. Liam’s all signed up for next semester and raring to go. Some people wonder how that’s possible. How can a kid who NEVER went to school be so eager to go to college. I think it lies in the choice. It lies in the freedom to decide. Without having been berated and cajoled and demanded for his whole life into doing schoolwork (that often seems useless), he understands that to do this thing he wants to do, he has to do this. There is purpose. There is a point. And he knows that if he doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t have to. He can do something else.