Tag Archives: unschooling

Have Your Voice Heard!

For my Research and Writing English class this year I have to write a paper on a topic of my choice that weaves data and data analysis with factually based interpretation of that data. My research question for this paper is:  To what extent is it possible to compare the ways in which methods of communication are being taught to autistic students who cannot use spoken language to communicate their complex ideas?

Because many existing communication methods are underrepresented in most schools, I created a survey to find out what methods students use, what they are being taught to use and how successful each is.  Additionally I am curious to know whether a student’s school allows the communication method chosen by each student to be the most beneficial, and if not, how the student then communicates their complex thinking and knowledge.

This survey uses a google form and is completely anonymous.  You will not be asked for any contact information, your name or the name of your school.

Who I’m hoping will participate:

  • Anyone, anywhere in the world, who cannot use spoken language to convey their complex thoughts.
  • Anyone who cannot rely on spoken language most of the time.
  • If you are no longer in school you can fill the survey out by remembering your experience when in school.
  • If you are homeschooled or are doing a combination of online, non-traditional-school or other learning experiences, please consider participating.
  • Parents whose child/offspring fits the description above can fill out all factual questions and those questions that are subjective can choose “other” and explain you are a parent or give your opinion and explain that it is yours.

This is the link to my survey:  Survey

I hope you will add your voice and experience by participating in my survey.  I am glad if you do.

Have your voice heard!

Banding together with our typed words,

Emma NYC


That’s me, Emma, at school this morning.  Photo credit: Mom aka Ariane Zurcher


“Outside Looking In” ~ By Emma

Outside looking in on a world with a  different reality.

There is room for all.

Benign feelings contradict human thoughts about survival.

We treat others with care and feel the joy that comes with that.  We treat others harshly and then pain is felt by both.

Problems arise when people take pleasure in other’s pain.  Words cause joy, but also can cause pain.

Better to sing and dance!

This is what Emma wrote this morning in answer to my question, “What do you want to blog about this morning?”

We have been studying gene mutation, evolution, Darwin and how species adapt to their environment.  We have also just finished reading Romeo and Juliet.  I see the influence of all of these topics as well as Emma’s own unique and exquisitely compassionate take on this world and life.

Emma's Bowl made in ceramics

Emma’s Bowl made in ceramics with cookie cutters and then painted.

The Joys (and Terror) of Homeschooling

When we began homeschooling I was absolutely terrified.  I didn’t see how I could do it.  I closed my studio.  I set up a space in our home so that I could continue to run my business.  I told myself we would take each day as though it were one small baby step at a time.  I reminded myself when I began to hyperventilate from panic and fear that I just needed to concentrate on today and not the rest of our lives.  When my anxiety felt too difficult to manage I focused on the next moment.  I wrote lists, I purchased an old fashioned day calendar to write out subjects we would cover each day.  And then I sat down with Emma.  I asked her whether she thought homeschooling was a good idea.

Emma typed, “You believe in me and once creating versions of getting the truth, I am able to go far.”

I said, and I’m not exactly proud of my need for reassurance that she understood, but I said it anyway, “You realize it means you will not go back to school, right?”

Emma wrote, “Yes.  Taking my awesome nice teacher named mom what cabaret kind of life awaits me, I can only guess.”  A little later she wrote, “Know that love teaches more than doubt.”

I asked Emma how she wanted to do all of this.

She typed, “make a schedule mapping out lots of topics both written and spoken.”  Then she shocked me by writing, “sometime I want to learn another language, how about german?”

“Wow!  Seriously?” I asked.


So here we are some eight months in and we are still finding our footing.  Each day is slightly different.  I still rely heavily on that old fashioned calendar where I fill in what we are working on and for how long.  Every morning I ask Emma for her input as to what she wants to learn.  I still, occasionally, feel I’m not doing enough.  I still, though far less frequently, find myself panicking and wondering how we are going to do this.  I still, though rarely, wonder if what we are teaching is enough.  But through out these last eight months, I have never felt so sure of anything we’ve done as this decision to homeschool.

As many of you know I am no stranger to regret.  Homeschooling is not on that list.  In fact, the only regret I have about homeschooling is that we didn’t do this sooner.

We have been blessed with a couple of wonderful family members who volunteer their time via Skype and one non-family member who teaches Emma literacy.  At the moment Emma is ripping through Act 4 of Romeo and Juliet.  Her sessions with K. are a highlight of her week.  K. tirelessly and enthusiastically comes to our home with new ideas of how Emma can make notes on text so that she can later cite parts of the play to back up her answers to questions like:  “At the end of Act 3, Scene 2, Juliet is of two minds about what has happened.  What are some words that demonstrate her split thinking?”

Together K. and Emma are exploring “writing craft” and delving into language, tension, foreshadowing, story arc and character development.  We use Khan Academy, Brain Pop, books, lots and lots of books and the internet to research and learn, as well as Rosetta Stone for German.  I also am using Duolingo to supplement Rosetta Stone for German, but Emma is not yet able to use it as it relies too much on writing.  The beauty of Rosetta Stone is that it relies on pointing to images to match text primarily.  In addition, we have a Graduate Student who comes to work on art and Emma is taking ceramics, swimming/diving, gymnastics and piano and guitar lessons.

We have created a little nook devoted to various materials we use for lessons and while it’s usually in a state of complete disarray, there is some semblance of order, even if only to me and Emma.  The single most essential item other than the keyboard and stand for the iPad in the photograph below is the Timed Timer.  Without it we would be lost.  Emma explained to me that when I forget to put on the timer she is filled with rising panic and anxiety.  She told me that without a visual timer, “time can stand still, while anxiety pushes all out of its way.”  We now own three different sizes of the Timed Timer, though Emma’s preference is the largest one they have, twelve inches, for our home sessions.

A nook of one's own...

A nook of one’s own…

Ideas, Insights and Discovery

This morning I had an idea, which turned out to be something I thought was a good idea, only to find that what might seem like a good idea to me, is not necessarily a good idea to my daughter, and the reasons why were not something that ever occurred to me.

I am continually surprised by the insights Emma, so patiently, gives me and am reminded again and again that my assumptions limit my views.  Thank you Emma for giving me permission to post our conversation.

Ariane:  I thought we could begin the day by discussing who you might like to interview and about what topic?

Emma:  Is the way here, thinking, knowing, and asking about another, helpful?

Ariane:  I think it’s interesting and certainly can be helpful to get to know other people’s experiences of life.  Asking is a great way to understand another’s perspective.  Who would you like to interview?

Emma: Using questions to sing truths meaningfully speaks to all.

Ariane:  That’s so true!  Music is a universal language that can transcend words.

Emma:  What did those we cannot ask, say?

Ariane:  Who are you thinking of, Emma?

Emma:  Those who cannot speak and have no one who believes in their ability to communicate in other ways.

Ariane:  Here’s the thing though, we can ask.  We may not get an answer we understand, but we can still ask and I think that’s the beginning, right?  We ask anyway and then do everything we can to understand the answer, even if it’s not in spoken language or in ways we understand at first.

Emma:  Understanding that all human beings want connection is natural and fundamentally human.

Ariane:  I agree.  So Em, what was it like before you were able to type?

Emma:  Days bloated with tears, frustration, anxiety and raging questions that only made daily living harder.

Ariane:  Ah…  can you tell me more?

Emma:  Thinking and wanting to ask questions, but knowing the words would come out wrong was too painful, best to silence asking than to be in the smothering feelings of tremendous frustration.

Ariane:  I imagine interviewing someone must be hard, even now that you can type.  Would you say that’s true?

Emma:  Sometimes ease is not an option.

Ariane:  You do not need to ask any questions unless you choose to, Emma, I wasn’t considering any of this when I first introduced the idea.  I’m sorry.  What else should we do right now?

Emma:  How about a conversation using music and no words?

Ariane:  Great idea!

Some of the instruments Emma chose for us to use in our "conversation."

Some of the instruments Emma chose for us to use in our “conversation.”

Question for Non Word Based Thinkers

Four mornings a week Emma begins the day with a Skype call with a professor in New England who is a bio-chemist.  We call him Dr. C on this blog.  They have a close relationship and their conversations flow easily between them.  I am very much the observer most of the time.

This is a sample of one of their more typical exchanges:

Dr. C:  So if water were linear and not bent what effect would this have on life on Earth?

Emma:  Hydrogen would not be able to find connections to create networks, life as we know it could not be.

Dr. C:  Right, so there would be no dipole or tiny magnet, thus water would not align with a + or – side….

The session before this one, Dr. C asked Emma, as a homework project, to construct a Benzene (C6H6) model, which Emma then did.  It looks like this:



The final piece of the homework assignment was to draw the corresponding Lewis Bond Structure.  This proved much more difficult and took about five attempts before she drew the structure below. (It is awesome and fabulously impressive!)

Lewis Bond Structure

Lewis Bond Structure

The Lewis Bond Structure is basically a replica of the actual three-dimensional model, so much so that you can literally place the model on top of it and it will pair up.  While making the molecular models of things like water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide are now fairly easy for Emma, drawing the Lewis Bond Structures are not and it reminds me of a similar problem that writing, handwriting and to a lesser degree typing presents.

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on why this might be so, but watching Emma cheerfully putting together these models is absolutely fascinating.  And it makes me wonder if this isn’t a key to better understanding how teaching methods might take a page from organic chemistry…

If one thinks in a more three-dimensional way, does it then follow that trying to write, formulate the words to correspond with the thoughts, would present a whole series of challenges?  Doesn’t it suggest that this is more than a “word retrieval” issue?  I’m wondering if there even IS a word retrieval issue, (I plan to ask Emma later) but instead there’s a spatial issue presenting itself as non word based and therefore very difficult to transcribe.



I haven’t felt like blogging lately.  I’m busy.   Emma is no longer going to school and we have a number of exciting projects we’re working on, in addition to the ones she is working on solo.  We are covering all the subjects any school would cover, only we are doing it according to what Emma is most interested in.  So instead of saying, this month we will read _________, we say, “Here are some books I thought might be interesting, do any of these interest you?”  And then if they don’t we keep looking, asking and seeing what clicks.

At the moment we are reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (thank you K.), we’ll begin pre-algebra in another month or so, are studying ancient civilizations beginning with our earliest known ancestor (thank you Mom), learning about chemistry (thank you Dr. C), have a variety of craft projects, writing projects, music projects, and that doesn’t even begin to cover all the other things that come up in any given day.

In addition to all of that, German (Emma’s very specific and insistent request) is coming along nicely though we are very much beginners, so all you German speakers, please do not start commenting in German and expect a response, unless it’s something like – Meine Tochter trinkt Apfelsaft, aber ich will Wasser, bitte.  Yeah, I just wrote that…. like a BOSS!  You have no idea how proud I am of that sentence, particularly as two months ago I couldn’t have put more than three of those words together.  And even though this was Emma’s idea, I’m (obviously) enjoying myself enormously.  (Oh you have no idea!)

But the point of this post was not to itemize the topics we are learning about or to show off my German (!), but instead was to say, yes, we are busy and so that makes blogging more difficult to get to, but the bigger point, the point I was thinking of when I sat down to write this evening, is this:  I don’t have to blog if I don’t want to.  I can just stop blogging.  In fact, if I felt like it, I could say – I don’t feel like doing this anymore and that would be the end of it. But my daughter doesn’t get to just stop and walk away from her neurology and how that is perceived by the majority of people out there.

So here I am, because this is about countering all the negativity that abounds when it comes to autism.  There is stigma and prejudice and yes, oppression and people saying and doing all kinds of things to Autistic people that are horrifying and appalling and the vast majority of people in this world see nothing wrong with that.  We have to stand up and say, no.  This isn’t right.  People are being beaten down, literally, beaten, threatened, murdered and it’s not okay.  It isn’t.  Our children are growing up in a world where autism is synonymous with all kinds of awful ideas and beliefs that hurt them.

Autistic people are being shouted down, ignored, trampled on, gas-lighted, abused, treated with contempt and some fear for their lives.  Non-speaking Autistic people are routinely treated as though they are incapable of thought and if they type, they are faced with suspicion, doubt and ridicule.  Speaking Autistic people are presumed incapable of understanding others, or believed to be using their neurology to get away with something.  If they speak out in anger they are told they are being unreasonable and that this is yet another example of their neurology.   I’ve seen non autistic people accuse Autistic people of being unable to understand the nuances of an argument because they didn’t like what the Autistic person said.  One woman wrote to an Autistic friend, “Oh, you’re autistic, now I understand why you said that awful thing about that poor woman.”  Seriously.  WTF?

The intolerance some non-autistic people show those who are not like them is staggering and horrifying.  The prejudice that is out in the world is rampant and everywhere.  So as busy as I am, as much as I don’t feel like blogging these days, my daughter doesn’t get to take the day off.  She doesn’t get to say –  I don’t feel like being treated badly or differently or as though I’m not capable of understanding.  I don’t really feel like hearing what that rude person just said about me right in front of me.  She has no choice.  And that’s what this post is about.  Some of us have a choice and others do not.

My daughter does not.


Some Emma Quotes

Each day is a day of discovery with moments of elation and excitement…  at least this is my take away from the past few weeks.  Here are a few of Emma’s comments along the way that she gave me permission to post.

Discussing black holes  (Dr. C and Emma are kindred souls.)

Dr. C:  What has happened to the atomic structure within a black hole?

Emma:  Opportunity to riot.  Structure is chaotic.

Dr. C:  Basically this is correct.  The gravitational pull is so strong that the atomic structure has collapsed.  Thus nuclei and electrons are fused together with no space between them.

Emma: Just like society during a riot.

Dr. C:  These societal people have collapsed onto each other to further this analogy.

Emma:  Exactly.

After reading  Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet

Ariane:  So what do you think so far?

Emma:  Understand that it is a heady play and play on words that pities human rage and love equally.

Reading and discussing the Texas Revolution 

Emma:  Because of dissent a culture was born.

Regarding the Trail of Tears and how the Cherokee were the last tribe to make the grueling 800 plus mile trek to the “Indian Territories” I asked Emma to tell me something about this picture. 

Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

Emma:  Exodus.  Forced displacement of people with little choice.  It tells something about man’s wish for power.  Oppression is an ongoing story.

And finally on the topic of being home and not in a classroom setting – Emma typed, “naturally living in world’s infinite candy store of learning is to be in constant awe.”

Just Another Day…

I think this has been one of the best days of my life.  We had a full day of learning.   I’m exhausted.  Seriously.  I feel as though my head is going to explode.    We began the day with our daily Skype call with Dr. C.  Emma and Dr. C. had great fun teasing me about the fact that every time Dr. C. asked Emma something like, “How many F- will bind to a single Mg^2=?” Emma typed the correct answer while I looked on with befuddlement.  Every so often Dr. C  explained something incomprehensible and then asked, “Got it?”  Emma immediately typed “Yes!” while I muttered, not so quietly, “NO!”  As I was continuously slowing them down with clarifying questions, it was suggested, jokingly, that I put a metal bucket over my head.  Emma then typed to Dr. C. “Do you have one?”

As Dr. C. gave Emma increasingly difficult and complex questions, I resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have a clue what they were going on about, but Emma did, and that filled me with unspeakable joy.  There was lots of uproarious laughter and shouts of “Go Emma!  You can do this!!” after each question and Emma literally bounced up and down with glee.

Science was followed by a break, then math, a break, American history, a break, creative writing, where Emma wrote the most amazing piece that, sadly, I cannot post because it has been submitted to an anthology. (Any who type to communicate are encouraged to submit.  Click the link ‘here‘.  I believe the deadline is October 1st.)   After Emma cranked out her absolutely mind blowing essay, we did German and then she had her book club with K. where they discussed George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.  Oh and did I mention Emma did all of this dressed in the most fabulous red gown?

Quick aside – We are so incredibly fortunate to have people in our lives who have enthusiastically and generously volunteered their time to help teach.  To those people, a million thanks.

Now it’s time to do nothing.  Emma?  She’s in the back with Richard watching Seven Wonders of the Universe, I kid you not…

Red Gown

“No More School” and Other Important Topics

Emma (and I) will be presenting at the TASH Conference in Washington DC December 3-5.  We haven’t been given the exact date for our presentation yet, but once I know I will inform all of you.  I will be co-presenting with Emma, but the title, Rethinking Your Beliefs About Autism, and topic are Emma’s idea and I will be following her lead (as always.) 

On the “no more school” front, we are busy.  So busy I am having difficulty finding time to write anything for this blog.  I keep thinking once we get into the swing of things that will change.  I keep thinking if I just plan better, each day will move along easily and we will (miraculously) get the list of all the things we will do and cover, that I so painstakingly made upon getting up in the morning, done.  I even bought a Daily Planner, one of those things everyone used to use before we had smart phones, so that I could record all the subjects we are covering and the length of time spent on each…  Before you fall off your chairs laughing, I DIDN’T give in to my impulse to use a color coding system, so there’s at least that.  (Not that using a color coding system isn’t a great idea and if you tell me in the comments that’s EXACTLY what you do and how fabulous it works for you I promise to be impressed and probably quite envious as well.)

Here’s the thing about all of this.  So much of the problem I’m having is less with our daily adventures and more with the ideas I have about what we SHOULD or SHOULD NOT be doing.  It’s reminding me of the presentation Emma and I gave earlier this summer here in New York City.  I wanted to write everything I was going to say out onto little index cards, which I then planned to read out loud, pausing now and then for Emma to type whatever she wanted to add.  Emma, though, had very different thoughts about how we should do our presentation.  And in the end, as it was Emma’s presentation, we did as she wanted.  We winged it.  (What the hell is the past tense of “to wing it?”)  Winging it is pretty much what we are doing now, only instead of doing this for one presentation, we are doing this every single day and I know, I really, really know there’s got to be freedom in that once I stop hyperventilating.  

Meanwhile, just as she did during our presentation this past July, Emma is having a great time amidst learning about the cosmos, Hubble’s Law, light years, our ancestors, one of whom was a Colonel in the garrison of the King of France in the battle of Seneffe, where he died, against William III of Orange (who knew?) learning German, discussing current events, creative writing, AND planning a dinner party Emma intends to have, along with making up the guest list and meal I am to prepare.

There are several more exciting things in the works writing-wise, but more about all of that another time. 

It’s time for bed, though Emma may well stay up far longer than me.  She has a number of things she wants to do before going to sleep…

The Duke of Enghien saving his father, the Grand Condé at the battle of Seneffe: painting from 1786 by Bénigne Gagneraux

The Duke of Enghien saving his father, the Grand Condé at the battle of Seneffe: painting from 1786 by Bénigne Gagneraux

Being Home aka When School is No Longer an Option

Last spring we made the decision to pull our daughter from her middle school.  We did not come to this decision easily or without a great deal of thought.  Ultimately we decided we had no other choice.  Neither Richard nor I are “teachers.”  We are both far too impatient.  For the longest time I thought homeschooling meant recreating “school,” but at home.  This thought was both so awful and terrifying to contemplate, and was probably the reason it took me (I can’t speak for Richard) so long to come around to the idea, that having a child at home would be a good thing, and not bad.    

In many ways I wish school was still an option, but it isn’t. Richard and I know this. The conventional route is evidently not in the cards for us and frankly it never has been, but it’s taken me awhile to come to terms with what this means. That feeling of exhilaration and freedom, so many who do not have “school” as a part of their children’s lives talk about, is only now something I’m starting to feel and experience.  So it was with great joy that I read Emma’s thoughts on not going to school.  

Emma wrote, “Bathing for the first day of school is better when your classroom is closer by.”  When asked what she thought about not going to school, she wrote, “It’s invigorating.”  Then she paused and finished with, “I am a lucky gal.”   

When asked for advice on how we can help her learn and pursue her interests, she wrote, “Relax and relax some more.”

Which… yeah.  That’s sound, solid, advice for just about anything one is doing.

Back to school


Homeschooling, Unschooling…

We are homeschooling, or unschooling or…  I actually don’t know how these terms are defined and haven’t had time to do the research necessary to speak about any of this with any authority, let alone knowledge.  In fact “time” and what that means has kind of blown up in our faces as there never seems to be enough of it.  Richard and I are scrambling to make this work, while making jokes about how many clones we would need to do so, if cloning were an actual thing.  All of this is very new and we have not fallen into a routine yet.  I guess the best description of what we are doing at the moment is – winging it.  We are winging it, though this will change as time goes on, we think.  We hope.  We expect.  What I can say is that Richard asked Emma what part of history she was interested in learning and she chose ancient Egypt and ancient Rome.  This then led to several lessons on the Druids.  Who knows where all of this will lead next!

Meanwhile, Emma and I have embarked on the exciting adventure known as the German language, as per Emma’s request.  We had a particularly hilarious conversation a few weeks ago when Emma first brought up her interest in learning German.  I was somewhat incredulous and kept saying things like “Really?”  and “Are you sure you want to learn German?”  and “What about Spanish or French?”  But no, Emma was not to be swayed, so German it is.  And guess what?  It is SO much FUN!!  We are using a couple of different programs, one is Duolingo, which was recommended by a couple of people.  It’s a free online language program.  Did you know all nouns in German are capitalized?  Why?  Who knows, lots of theories, but there is no one answer as to why, that everyone agrees with.

In addition Emma is working on several writing projects.  One is a chapter idea, in which we will write alternating chapters.  Emma wrote, “How about starting on what you presumed parenting would be before I was born.”  I said, “Can you ask me questions, things you want to know?”  Emma wrote, “Very happy to ask.”  I said, “And what will your chapter be about?”  Emma wrote, “What I presumed the world would be like when I was a baby.”  I cannot wait to hear what she has to say about that!

We continue to make our way through Malala’s autobiography, I am Malala about the Pakistani girl who fought for her right to have the same education as boys and was shot by the Taliban.  This has led to some terrific discussions about advocating for one’s rights, oppression, prejudice, violence, silencing, education, and the lack of.  Recently Emma wrote, “Her life is unlike mine.”  (Referring to Malala.)  “But the oppression is similar to what I have experienced.”

While I continue to go through periods of abject terror at the thought of what we have undertaken, these moments are tempered with the excitement and joy I feel knowing that pulling Emma from school was by far the best thing for her.  She is ecstatic and the marked change in her anxiety and stress levels makes all of us very, very happy.

Emma chose this image for today's post.

Emma chose this image for today’s post.