Monthly Archives: May 2016

A Door Can Be Happy: thinking outside of the box and homeschooling with Catelynn

yellow door by Leung Cho Pan on Canva Untitled design

Is this door happy? image by Leung Cho Pan on I’m calling this: unlocking intelligence and creativity.


A few months back I met a woman after my own heart on Facebook. Mother and writer Elizabeth Ann West. Elizabeth decided to homeschool her autistic daughter, Catelynn, and to share this experience on Facebook. Although I am a researcher with years of experience, I am not qualified to make any comments regarding the development of an autistic child, yet there is a lot – and I mean a lot – which we all can learn from Catelynn and her mother. Thank you, Elizabeth, for granting me permission to share your experiences with my readers.


Here is Catelynn, engaged in a typical activity we are also familiar with in the classical classroom context:


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.49.24


What is it that Emily likes, we wonder? In our minds we select appropriate verbs (possibly also gendered activities…). Depending on the structure of the worksheet, we may perhaps even go further and add and object and even a location:

Emily likes to eat apples in the garden? Emily likes to skip in the playground?

There are so many things which Emily could like. What do you think Emily likes, Catelynn?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.15


That’s pretty original. But why not? This is a writing activity so Catelynn must write down her answer. And when she doesn’t know how to spell a word, she knows where she can get help:

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.23

The response to Catelynn’s ingenious answer is unanimously positive:


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.50.10


Why does an Emily swimming in a toilet catch us by surprise? It is a perfectly correct grammatical sentence that reveals to me the limits of my fantasy in comparison to the sheer boundless wealth of a child’s imagination. In between the act of naming things, everything is possible/thinkable. It is the act of pinning words to thoughts that force us to slice up our otherwise untamed imagination. And this reminds me of a quote by Derek Sivers I recently read: “What’s obvious to you is amazing to others.” Way to go, Catelynn!

I go online to see if Elizabeth’s available. She is.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Hi Elizabeth. I loved that post about Emily swimming in the toilet and I’d like to elaborate it a little for my education blog, if I may. A question: you said Catelynn looked up how to spell swim and toilet. Where did she look this up? In a traditional dictionary? Or an online dictionary? In either case, how much did you assist her in this?


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Hi Joan. She uses a picture dictionary. For her reading workbook the question was: “What cannot be happy?” A door? A bird? Children? and with a literal kiddo, she goes: “A Door can be happy if it’s a happy color, right Mommy? Like Yellow?” Another question was: “Where do ants want to live?” A door? A hill? A pond? and again, she’s just analyzing that at a much higher level than the book ever intended: “An ant would like to live in a door, it would be warm. And they like hills, and a pond would give them access to water.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Amazing!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   When you have a high-functioning autistic child it can be difficult to explain to them that the workbook is dumber than they are . . .

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That’s precisely what I was thinking!


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   or better phrasing: they are smarter than the person who wrote the workbook because their analytical skills are superior.  I asked her what does she think the person not as smart as her thinks the BEST answer is?

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   In my posts, I want to show how much we stand to learn from children like Catelynn.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she was able to pick “the boring” answers. I love the idea of a Happy door. That’s what I would name the post, “A Door Can Be Happy.”

But on the sad side of this, when she writes a word incorrectly before she erases she will hit herself on the head.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11  I love the element of surprise in just about everything I’ve witnessed about Catelynn so far. It leaves me feeling so humble.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Teaching a special needs child is wonderful, but it’s also very exhausting because they can manifest emotions in a physical expression that can hurt them.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   How do you manage to rechannel her frustration?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I have to sit right next to her and reach out before she hits and I stay calm and remind her it’s okay. We also read a book about our brains and learned that our brains grow when we make mistakes, not when we do things the right way the first time so I will remind her “mistakes make our brain smarter.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Why does she think hitting herself is an appropriate response? Did she witness anything like this when she used to go to school? How did the teachers react to ‘wrong’ answers? Or how did the other children react to ‘wrong’ answers?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   It’s from cartoons. It doesn’t HURT her to hit her head. She has a reduced feeling to pain.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Ah! Tom & Jerry and the like, I guess…

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she doesn’t develop social skills naturally so she copes by mimicking what she sees on TV and sometimes that works!!!! And other times, it’s explaining to her, no, you cannot do dangerous stunts and elimination challenges like on Total Drama.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I remember when you said she tried to crush a coca cola tin like on tv. Didn’t quite work!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   So her reaction when she makes even an audible mistake is a very dramatic close her eyes and pinch her face and slap it with her hand, like DOH, but even though we redirect, it’s something that is in our culture EVERYWHERE when you think about it… commercials… shows. So in her brain it’s the appropriate reaction to anything, even something as minor as saying “Mommy can we go to the playground, I mean the store, so we can get ice-cream?” Joan, gotta go. I have to get her to playgroup. Oh, and the visual dictionary is a great tool for kids because if they can hear the first letter, they can find the picture and spell it, it’s great for their writing independence.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That would be great, Elizabeth. Thank you SO much. Thank you BOTH so much!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I’m happy to help. More parents are in similar situations with me and maybe they don’t homeschool, but if they help with homework they should know they’re not alone, that with autistic children an assignment that takes a NT kid 5 minutes suddenly can turn into this 30-minute discussion about existential issues: Can a door be happy? How do we KNOW if a bird is happy? They can’t smile by the way.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I’m a great admirer of you both and am honoured to be able to share your experiences with my audience, Elizabeth. It’s so refreshing for me and I think it will be so motivating for others!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Thanks. Happy to help!


Chat conversation ends. Thoughts bubbling over in my mind. Definitely more about Catelynn to follow.