Unschooling with atypical kids: would you care to explain?

What does it mean to have an “atypical” child? I’ve been wondering that, lately, talking and writing and thinking about my kids as I do: Ray, 16, was surely atypical as a child, but now merely lives an atypical life, even for an unschooler; and my daughter, Mo, who is nearly nine…

Uh, oh, here it comes… an explanation.


Unschooling parents understand about explanations; it’s a function of our atypical lifestyle. People don’t “get it” so we’re faced with the same, recurrent questions: do I explain this? And: how? Living with an atypical kid involves the same dilemma over and over. Do I say something or let the other person come to her (or his) own conclusion? If I say something do I fall back on some short hand, a label, and risk the assumptions that come along with that label? Or do I go for something long-winded and risk sounding uncertain, defensive or conflicted?

In person I rely upon a mix of strategies. I hold my peace or give out labels that are, I hope, unobtrusive and let strangers and acquaintances think what they will. I proactively explain to people who matter in order to offer those people tools and strategies. I’m asked about labels – diagnoses – and I brush those aside with blithe comments about school (as in “oh, I’m sure if she was in school…”) while maintaining that such concerns have little place in our unschooling life.

I’m saying “my” and “our” – this is personal, not generic, okay? I’ve looked and thought, researched and questioned; I’ve found insights and value and right now (and unschoolers may recognize both truth and tactics in those words) the best possible option is full blown radical unschooling – neither intruding nor stepping back, but striving for partnership.

You’ll note I have, so far, avoided explaining anything.

Writing about my kids as I do, I run into a wall again and again. How do I paint an adequate picture with inadequate words? The experience of a person is never the same as a description. Words fail to convey the nuance of posture, the vibrancy of focus, the firm rock of stubbornness… and most of all, that thing Morgan does when she speaks. Describing her as “not terribly verbal” utterly fails to convey the gap between printed and spoken words, between comprehension and perception, between sensory overload and expressiveness. “Disfluency” can’t begin to express the way you get lost in the middle of one of her sentences when it’s bro+ken+up+in+to+so+me+thi+ng li+ke+sy+lla+ble+s or the frustrated sigh that comes before the utterly perfect repetition, articulated with such inflection you can hear the difference between a comma and a semi-colon.

Recently – days ago, as I write this – a friend and neighbor engaged me in a long conversation about Morgan and her “atypicality”, which reminds him of his own. It was charming and I let his mentions of “early intervention” roll over me as I listened and validated, chatted and enjoyed, recognizing the conversation had more to do with him than with her.

His own experience of atypicality involved struggles to express and communicate, to defend his boundaries within the confines of an educational institution, but Morgan isn’t living that struggle. She is free to choose to express herself verbally or not, free to refuse assistance or any communication tool that doesn’t appeal to her, and as such she takes self-expression seriously. When she actively chooses to be understood, she is.

You’ll notice I still haven’t explained much and one of the results of that is the word “atypical” is becoming almost meaningless. A hundred atypical people will have a hundred different experiences. Commonality lies in the question: to explain or not to explain. Both options come with slings and arrows, with peacefulness and dreams. Like “coming out” those of us with atypical children and/or lives are caught in the headlight glare of expectations, transfixed with the memory of how those expectations can change, with a single utterance, from bad to worse.

A couple decades ago some hopeful soul coined a new term, an analogy with which to express atypicality as a function of typicality; difference as a function of our common human nature. It was a bold new venture into the realm of mutual understanding that has crashed tragically on the twin buttresses of popular psychology and institutionalized education.

The “spectrum” is a good idea gone bad; an affirming image of human diversity bastardized into diagnoses and badges of difference. I’m bitter about the spectrum – can you tell? It has lost its utility and become, at best, a shorthand explanation, a tool to get “services” or a way to tell someone to back the fuck off. It’s useful in that capacity, but otherwise says nothing at all about real human beings with complex needs and unique personalities – you got that? Do you fucking hear me? I haven’t explained agoddam thing!

Excuse me.

One of the recurrent marvels in my life is friendship. I know amazing people, many of them atypical many others with atypical lives. I live amidst spectacles of passion, scintillating personalities who light up the room, astonishing visionaries, and remarkable craftspeople. I’m a dormouse surrounded by superlatives.

One of the recurrent marvels of unschooling is getting to be friends with my kids; fascinating, superlative people in their own right. Among people with atypical lives I see my kids make connections that defy expectation. Unschoolers and misfits, freaks and faeries all provide opportunities to move beyond explanations to places of commonality.

Human beings defy explanation. We have superpowers of language and mathematics, of artistry and humor. We are atypical animals, continually drawn to be more than we seem. Describe, express, invent, display… explanation is too limiting, too small to elucidate this big, rich life.

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