Book Review: Clare Lawrence (2012) Autism and Flexischooling. A Shared Classroom and homeschooling Approach.

Book Review:

Clare Lawrence (2012) Autism and Flexischooling. A Shared Classroom and homeschooling Approach.

Jessica Kingsley, London.

ISBN-10: 1849052794 

ISBN-13: 978-1849052795

By Peter Humphreys

 It was with no small degree of self-interest that I came to review Clare’s book. As a headteacher in the mid 1990’s autistic children ‘appeared’ somewhat ‘out of the blue’ and populated my speech and language resource base attached to the school. Up until this point the base had dealt with a very different kind of child predominantly with expressive and pragmatic challenges. The staff in the base soon became uneasy as they had little experience or skills to bring to the support of these new children. Over the following years the majority of the children in the base became ‘ASD’ (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) and everyone throughout the school went on a steep, difficult and often traumatic learning curve. The whole school needed to adapt, change its learning culture to best meet the social and academic needs of the ASD children. They also had to learn to work in partnership with parents who had been battered and exhausted by the bureaucracy and rigidity throughout the special needs procedures and schooling system. We set about that task acknowledging that the ASD children that we had did need specialist provision and security of the resource base environment if they were to achieve as well as they could. However, equally they were able to be sensitively integrated throughout the school as long as all staff and pupils understood and supported their needs and the curriculum was operated flexibly. I believe these dispositions made us a better school in meeting the needs of all our children. Clare’s book takes this flexibility a further step to consider a real partnership and shared responsibility between home and school.

 How we would have loved to drawn upon Clare’s professional and personal expertise in the field. Her book provides really practical advice and evidence for families and schools seeking to focus on meeting the needs of the ASD learner. So often families give up entirely on the school system and choose to home-educate. There are many, many successful case studies of how home educators do make this work, but of course, home education is not a practical option for everyone. Clare’s book however, offers a flexischooling approach as an alternative. The notion of flexischooling is still not on the agenda or even the radar of parents, schools or local authorities. The book argues the case that it should be and, that for some ASD learners and families, could provide considerable benefits over either home education or full-time schooling alone.

 Clare identifies the flexi-time at home as full of opportunities. The child can recharge batteries after the social challenges of school and learn to ‘self-repair’. It’s a time where parents can maintain their involvement and develop their skills and understandings. It’s an important time for emotional bonds to develop, particularly with the mother. It is an opportunity, unfettered from bells and lessons to pursue subjects, passions and aptitudes; where learning can be child-centred and self-directed. It is a time to focus on important functional and social skill gaps. She explains how far greater social interaction can take place outside schools with non-peer individuals and groups.

 The book is open and honest about the limitations of what can occur in schools and the structures and organisation within them. Often, despite best intentions and efforts for some ASD children school ‘…is a confusing, hostile, frightening and horrible place.’ At the same time Clare acknowledges that mainstream systems can adjust and accommodate flexischooling. ‘… In California up to 10 per cent of students on a school’s register may be enrolled at least part of the time in an Independent Study Program…’

 What underpins a successful, shared responsibility for a child’s education is a continuing dialogue and willingness to adapt. It’s a two way learning process where schools may also be ‘…more willing to accept and adapt techniques introduced at home…’ The ASD child sees the world differently and processes information in entirely different ways and so it is essential that his learning style is appreciated and accommodated.

 Sam’s Story is a wonderfully uplifting perspective from a flexischooling mother. It translates all the preceding rational argument into a very positive tale of how home and school can work together and the youngster flourish. If all settings  were able to work with these solution-finding attitudes many of the profound challenges of schooling would disapppear. What was particularly encouraging was that Sam’s story evidenced how flexischooling can work through both primary and secondary schooling flowing seamlessly beyond into adulthood, further education and employment.

 There’s a range of practical advice on approaching and working with schools. Again, it moves beyond just the rational strategies and considers the human, emotional, aspects of relationships with school staff and appreciating their perspectives and drivers. There’s a lovely little section on ‘Facing Your Critics’ designed to empower parents with confidence about their decisions and understandings.

 Clare has pulled together a little gem of a book, accessible, authoritative, honest and balanced. It will be a total breath of fresh air for families of ASD children and a great source of hope and guidance. Equally, staff in schools will learn much about the wider context of life and learning for the ASD child. There is enough here for home and school to begin to evaluate whether flexischooling might provide a successful learning pathway for any ASD child. Despite my own ‘prior experience’ with ASD youngsters I learned much throughout the book and I’m grateful to Clare on a personal level for refreshing my own awareness of issues.

 Ultimately, not only has Clare cogently argued that flexischooling is worth considering for the ASD child and family, she has inadvertently made the case for flexischooling any child of any ability. There is every reason to believe that flexischooling is actually a positive choice for any learner. If flexischooling was properly promoted as an active parental choice and guidance clarified for all parties I suspect their may be a significant minority of families taking up this option. Further, the focus on tailoring and personalising to a child’s learning needs could be an important catalyst to realign our schooling system onto more effective and efficient foundations.

Come and meet Clare (and purchase her book!)  at the Flexible Futures–Progressive Education Flexischooling conference on 2 Nov in Coventry, UK .


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