Mum’s brilliant home education helped me thrive as an autistic student

Mum's 'brilliant' home education helped me thrive as an autistic student

You may have noticed we've been featuring more young people recently. It's a deliberate move to broaden the the conversation from what it's like for parents or practitioners, to hear the voices of those at the heart of why we're here.

It was my youngest who expressed frustration with only hearing the parent perspective. While, of course, we do need to advocate for our children and young people, it's equally essential to amplify the experience of those young people who do want their voices heard. And it's a privilege to be able to do so on SNJ.

Today we hear from autistic A-level student Alix, who has been home-educated by her mum, Anne, after a bad experience at school.

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Let down by mainstream education but still heading for success

by Alix Brown

I’m 18, home-educated and will take my A-levels this summer, just like normal, school-educated people do. I’m also high-functioning autistic, and never planned to be home-educated. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was looking forward to going to school and having a “normal” childhood with kids my own age, but it wasn’t to be. Being autistic made me stand out so I was bullied. To make matters worse, the school saw the things I couldn’t do rather than everything that I could, so three out of my four years at school stank like a rotten fish. 

Alix Brown

Compared to most of my classmates, I’ve had an unusual educational experience over the last nine years, because I was literally in a class of my own. I’ve been able to work independently and at my own speed and the right level for me in each subject. Mum is a brilliant teacher who kept putting me back on track when I inevitably tried some of the things I would get away with in the classroom to avoid doing lessons. She wouldn’t accept less than my best and always believed I could do anything I wanted, even if I didn’t always do it in the normal way.

Skype has enabled me to make friends my own way

I’ve also had a much better social experience than I had at school. I had a greater choice of kids to become friends with in both age and locality, because Skype is a wonderful thing for talking to friends from the other side of the country in between meet-ups. This also meant that there was much less of a chance to end up dealing with somebody who didn’t see anything wrong in targeting and tormenting somebody who wasn’t just like everyone else.

Mum was patient enough to answer my questions without making me feel small and stupid like school had, and believes that life skills are just as important as book work. Being autistic meant I had to learn a lot about dealing with people that neurotypical people know automatically, so I was able to practice those skills in real-life situations and at quiet times. This built my confidence and I now love volunteering for half-a-day each at two different charity shops. This teaches me how to work as part of a team and employment skills like punctuality, presentation, politeness and customer service skills.

A lot of people think that home education is just working at the kitchen table, but we’ve also done workshops, visited museums, explored the coastline and attended historic reconstructions at various castles and other places. These social aspects helped me to overcome my fear of crowds and strange places because I could start by going when it was quiet and gradually build up my exposure.

I got five IGCSEs, (including the dreaded Maths), even though I had to go up to Wales to do them, because there weren’t any exam centres locally. Still, at least I’ve got a more local exam centre for my A-Levels. It’s only 30 miles away from home and you can spot it easily because it’s two doors down from the Dalek, which is an excellent omen if you love Doctor Who as much as I do.

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Looking ahead - and a hiccup

At first I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I finished my education, but then we were adopted by a lovely stray cat, (or her Impurrious Majesty as she prefers to be called), followed by the unexpected arrival of three kittens despite the vet assuring us she’d been neutered. I loved helping to train the kittens to be friendly and cat video-worthy. I also enjoyed helping their mum with caring for them, which was quite a lot of work: as soon as they could walk, they were off all over the place. 

This unexpected series of events helped me decide that I wanted to work with animals, so I applied to a local agricultural college. I had an EHCP, the council were on board and keen to help and I already had my IGCSEs under my belt, so I had everything they said they wanted. I was really excited about having a more normal educational experience because the staff at the open day had been really welcoming.

Unfortunately, the college leadership got involved after my interview and decided that I had to have work experience even though it wasn’t a course requirement, and I couldn’t arrange it because we’d had less than a month’s notice. They then said I’d have to take a Level 1 course and retake my exams because the Government wasn’t accepting IGCSEs any more. This wasn’t true, but after we complained they withdrew the offer. They claimined they couldn't meet my needs, as there was no one available to meet me from the bus for the first two weeks of term. They’d previously said that they could meet my needs, but my EHCP hadn’t been finalised so there was nothing anyone could do about it.

That hurt, because the college was the only one in the area that offered the course, and I was really down because I assumed it was something I did. We had a complaint upheld by Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), which made it clear that it wasn’t me, but the college ignored it and ESFA have no powers to enforce their recommendations, so I might as well not have bothered. 

Mum said we weren’t going to be beaten, so we went round all the local pet shops and catteries and found out what qualifications they wanted and then signed me up for online courses. I now have qualifications in all the areas I’d have done at college and the other ones the shops and catteries wanted, along with retail experience. I'm on the waiting list for a part-time job at a local pet shop. I wish it had been different, but I can see that it’s better to find out that you’re not wanted before you go somewhere and I’ve also studied two A-levels, so I’ve got a wider variety of career choices available to me.

The importance of mentoring

While I was feeling down, Mum helped me organise a trip to the Bournemouth branch of Barclays Digital Eagles, which is a creation space for businesses and innovators. I am now lucky enough to be mentored by one of the 50 best female engineers in the country. I regularly go there to work on a complex jointed dragon design to be 3D-printed, and to attend ‘Women 4.0’ a support group to get women into engineering. I was really proud when I gave a presentation there at short notice, because none of the non-autistic people in my group wanted to sum up what we’d discussed; it showed me how far I’d come.

I’ve always loved art, so I decided to apply for a BTEC Level 3 Art and Design course at another local college. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother to interview me, look at my artwork, see my EHCP or give me a trial day, before they decided that I'd be offered an entry level course aimed at people with moderate learning difficulties if I applied there. Being rejected a second time left me feeling as if I’d never achieve anything and there was no point applying anywhere, but yet again Mum put me back on track. She found an open access degree course at the Online College of Art, which will lead to a degree from one of the best ‘new’ universities in the country. This means that I can study at my own pace and in the way I know works for me, while continuing to volunteer at charity shops and local arts events, and start a part-time job at a pet shop. Studying this way is not only cheaper, but means that I can become independent gradually rather than having to do it all at once.

I don’t know what my future will hold once I’ve done my degree, but being home educated has taught me how to motivate myself and learn independently. The colleges have taught me how to be resilient and that there is always more than one way to do anything so I may be autistic, but it won’t stop me from going where I want to!

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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