This Outschool mom helped her son discover his superpower

How We Outschool Sep 17, 2020

When Angela Blanchet thinks about the journey of homeschooling with her son Ben, a 15-year old learner with Autism, she describes it like this:

"I joined his world, and then he joined my world."

For many parents, beginning to homeschool can feel overwhelming. And for a parent of a child with unique learning needs, these challenges can feel even greater.

From the beginning, though, Angela has taken a truly learner-centered approach to homeschooling based on meeting her children where they are, so that they can make progress together.

We sat down with Angela as part of our How We Outschool series to talk to her about her family's homeschooling journey, which includes helping her son Ben become a published author!

Hi, Angela! Can you introduce us to your family?

Hi! We live on Long Island, NY. My daughter Lily is 17, and recently graduated homeschool. Now she’s on to art school. My son Ben is 15.

Ben takes a quick break while working at his computer.

Can you tell us about why you started homeschooling?

There wasn’t just one thing that led us to homeschooling. My son Ben has Autism and is immune deficient. Even before COVID, the spread of germs was a worry for us. Homeschooling is a safer option for us.

At our first meeting at school, when Ben was starting kindergarten, the school looked at his scores and gave him a tablet instead of teaching him to write. They said he was mentally retarded based on his scores. He was nonverbal. But from observing every day for five years, I had already seen that he had some special skills.

For example, when Ben was being tested, a psychologist showed him a picture of a rabbit. He didn’t say the word “rabbit,” but he was saying “Max!” I knew he was making a connection to the show Max and Ruby, which he loved at the time. I knew that this was something. And there were a lot of those “somethings” that I saw in Ben.

So I told myself Let me give him a year at home. One year turned into two more years, and I kept seeing him progress. I did look into putting him back into traditional school a few times. But his scores went from mental retardation  in kindergarten to low IQ in 2nd grade to average in 5th grade to above average by 8th grade. And he’s written all these books!

Ben had many different interests and skills. That’s why Outschool is such a good match for him. Many kids like Ben are interested in things outside of the general set of interests. When I found Outschool, it was a game changer because of the unique classes.  Outschool had classes that matched his varied interests, for example immunology. Where else are you going to find a class on pathogens or blood types for a 10 year old?!

Ben's book Maybe Autism Is My Superpower was published in April, 2019.

How did you begin homeschooling? What did it look like in the first few days, weeks and months?

Everything took a long time in the beginning. When I first started, I thought it had to look like a school. I had a room with desks. It was a school at home. At first, I felt a lot of pressure.

Then, as I saw things improve, and I started to relax into it, I was able to use things my kids liked in order to engage them. For example, if I asked Ben if we add two cupcakes and two candy many items do we have in total? He couldn’t do that. But if I changed those things to airplanes, or presidents, then he could start to focus.  

I had to change all of our learning materials to meet his interests. Some people had issues with that -- that Ben was driving the “Ben World” instead of having Ben live in the broader world. But the stress of him having to come to our world was too great.

Slowly, we increased the things that Ben didn’t like in proportion with the things he did like to broaden his education.

Ben gives his signature thumbs-up before an Outschool class.

What role does Outschool play in your family’s education?

Kids with autism love to listen to things over and over again, so Outschool’s flex classes and recorded videos are great for Ben.

We ask if he wants to tell his Outschool teachers that he has autism, and he always says yes. We’ve never had an issue with a teacher losing patience with him.

Sometimes he has to turn off his camera, or if he’s really excited, he might make vocalizations, and he knows to shut off his microphone when this happens. He’s aware of these actions, so he does what he needs to do and can also make changes to not distract others.

Sometimes he has insomnia, or isn’t feeling well, but he’s always up for Outschool. It doesn’t seem like work to him because he’s so interested in what he’s going to learn.

Ben's signs books for fans during an author event at a local bookstore.

What have been some of the most helpful resources or tips for you in homeschooling?

Here are a few things we’ve used that have been helpful to Ben:

  • A checklist, which helps us stay on track and organized
  • Smencils, which are pencils that smell good
  • Lap pads, which are comforting to him while he’s sitting

Ben loves Brainpop, too, and I’ve realized how much he likes learning from videos. He can re-watch and follow content in videos easily. Also, just integrating Ben’s interests into the things we do. Ben is very musical. Everything is a pitch to him, and he plays multiple instruments by ear.

His speech therapist would speak to him outside on his swing and have much more productive sessions. Using his environment is much more conducive to his learning.

Ben is deeply focused during an Outschool class.

Ben is a published author! Can you tell us about how his career as an author began?

Ben is the author of Maybe Autism Is My Superpower.  Here's the story of how that happened: The day after Ben watched Marvel's Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to do any school work.  

I asked him if he would write about the movie, and he said, “sure, because I think I have superpowers, too” After he said that, my writing prompt to him was “what do you think your superpowers are?”  and he answered with “Maybe Autism is my superpower.”  

From there I asked him to tell me more about what he thinks his superpowers are, and he went on to describe things like perfect pitch, a great memory and the ability to speed read. This led to Ben writing the book.

Around this time, it was almost Autism Awareness Month, so we self-published the book, and it’s taken off from there. It all came from relaxing into the day and finding something that Ben’s minds was excited to explore.

Ben wants people to know, I flap when I’m happy. Some kids laugh, other kids smile, and some kids flap their hands. Flapping your hands is OK. Lining your toys up is OK. Making these noises is OK.  His writing helps to shift the perception of society away from dismissing kids with Autism.

Sometimes he has moments with his behaviors, and I know people are thinking "oh that poor mom!" and I’m thinking "no, he’s just having a moment to calm down. Then he’s going to go home and write a book!"

Now, Ben is working on his Autism - It’s Okay book series. The mission that Ben has for the series is to educate others about the behaviors associated with autism and the strengths that people with Autism have.

Angela and Ben pose at Ben's author event.

What advice do you have for new homeschooling families who have learners with unique needs?

I think parents are used to teachers or therapists coming in and taking over. But what I’ve learned is that parents are the #1 educator and therapist for their kids. We have instincts, we know how they learn. You have to trust that you can do a good job.

Children with Autism get 20 hours of in-home therapy at age two. Parents fight for these hours because they think the more therapy the better. But I was watching Ben, and more therapy equalled more stress. He’d cling to me more. And then they wanted him to talk! But when I’m stressed, I can’t find my words either.

I decided to reduce his therapy hours, and we began to see more progress when he was more relaxed.  I modeled speech while joining in on his preferred activities and interests. This took off a lot of the pressure and resulted in positive changes.

Overall, my advice is this: Do your best. Don’t work 1000 hours a day. Have fun. Don’t feel like you need to be a school or school district. Relax and observe your kids. You know them better than anyone else.

Learn more about Ben's work:

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.