Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

What does he learn at home?

What does Joaquin learn at home?—he asks, with tone that suggests nothing.

At the moment I start this post, Joaquin is coding an html table that we will wrap with PHP logic so he can produce many different basketball box scores dynamically by entering team and player statistics in php variables to then place the generated html output in new posts for his basketball highlights webpage.

coding html at eight years old

So he’s learning html, php, the basics of computer programming, patience, new concepts like “dynamic content generation” and “variables”. He’s practicing self-regulation by taking basketball breaks because PHP at eight must be even more mind-blowing than at 30. He’s also perceiving the difference between my app and his app, appreciating which features are more usable to him. His brain is perceiving a million different bits of information which will enrich his whole network of interconnected neurons and every skill they power.

This morning, he filmed a video while he animated a stuffed bear cooking chicken curry in a pretend TV cooking competition against my animated stuffed animal. He came up with the dish, animated the bear preparing it, held the camera and composed scenes, presented his dish to judges, and later this week will edit 60 mins of video to create a 15-30 min final show with voiceovers and soundtrack.

Animating his doll and watching me for ideas

I remember when he was two, and the autism diagnostic specialist tested his abilities by presenting him with a sad baby doll who supposedly was having her birthday. At the time, the doll was just a sad uninteresting object to him (because it was; a dirty old baby doll whose whole purpose was to label children as “dysfunctional”). Today he has created a rich fantasy in which his stuffed dolls live for real, they cook, they go to college, they run businesses, they’re actors in our movies, they have inspired storytelling in him. His imagination is bright and expansive and it enriches every other one of his interests.

Judging a chef's dish in a pretend cooking competition show

By the time I finish this post, he’s had a chance to use the php page I coded based on his specs. He started programming it with me and got to declare a few variables and enter the instructions to print their values into the html. I love echo!—he cheered. Then he needed to take a break and play some basketball. Now he gets to the page and excitedly exclaims I love this! as he starts to understand the way I’ve structured the data, and enters it appreciating the fact that my page does some math for him. But it doesn’t do it all. In order to create a good box score, his numbers need to add up in different ways. Total minutes played need to add to 240 and team points need to total a certain goal he has in mind, so he needs to split these totals among his players. Points per player are calculated from the data residing in three different columns; there is addition, subtraction, and multiplication here, and his ability to scan the numbers and calculate results far surpasses mine, as I’m only starting to understand how these basketball scores work.

In the last month, his questions and experiences have taken us on rich conversations about economics, government, politics, global warming, the coming presidential election, nutrition, emotions, people’s jobs, extraterrestrial beings, his fears and how to deal with them, why people do X, what would happen if Y, etc. In the last month, he’s used his mind to engineer a solution for the recurring problem of his stuffed friends falling off from bed while they all sleep at night. He has finished an original movie, created a TV show and filmed six episodes of it, discussed with me and created the full story for his next movie, tackled a filmmaking project completely on his own sourcing assets from the internet, building stages, composing a song for the sad scene; he’s discovered web publishing and coding, created visual and written content for his web pages, followed the NBA season to the latest detail, played basketball with a league of kids. Shall I go on?… He has rested too. He’s gotten bored and I haven’t rescued him.

Simulating the election of candidates for the democratic party

People’s questions and doubts about Joaquin’s education come from the belief that traditional school is the only avenue to learning and to “a future”, and I say: Everything he did, learned, and perceived today—and the rest of this week, and this month, including the breaks and the moments of inactivity—is not less (perhaps more) important than learning the names of every river, mountain, and animal category in the planet. I don’t remember 99% of those names, and have never needed them. So much of what I memorized in school has no practical use in my life, but the real life skills and functional abilities have come from so many other experiences.

School has value, of course, but if someone can’t thrive in that environment (and I get the sense that this is the case for more and more kids these days), let him be in the environment that is most nourishing to him. Let him self-direct his learning and support him. Let him feel safe, give him the freedom and space to be curious, and explore, and create, and get passionate, and succeed, and run into problems, and solve them. School teaches you how to think and develop logic, they say. If that’s the case, so many other experiences do too. There is nothing more powerful and enduring that what you learn from your own interest and passion. And school also teaches you that you can’t learn on your own, that you need teachers and a curriculum, that their agenda of topics is more important than the thing that makes you come alive. And that is very disempowering. And just wrong.

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  1. On , Martha wrote:

    Joaquin is so blessed to have you both.
    What do you think has help out to succeed your program besides love and acceptance?

  2. On , Maria wrote:

    Wow Martha! That is such a big question…
    I’m not sure if you meant our “autism recovery” program, or our “homeschool program”. Either way, the principles I think are the same.

    Love, acceptance, being present with him, allowing the space and TIME for him to take steps at his pace, when he feels ready and excited to take them, and the presence of something that can inspire him to expand his interests and abilities.

    A few years ago, that something was us and our volunteers playing intentionally with him every day, joining his activities, allowing him the space to zone out and disconnect, and enriching him with our ideas and energy when he was available for that.

    Now, that something is a little different. He has our presence (mama and papa) and our subtle intention for his growth. But we’re not guiding his activities, interests, or areas of learning; we don’t pursue social or any other type goals like we did back then. We transfer values and beliefs, of course, just by being us. And I’m at home for him, doing my own projects, answering his questions, participating in his activities (not always), giving him my ideas, supporting him gently when he needs me, and all of this, little by little builds his independence…

    Of course I’m just guessing here :)

  3. On , Amparo wrote:

    Perfecto! Recibe educacion individualizada lejos de criterios fijos y estandarizados lo cual le permite ver lo q la generalidad no. Esperemos como fructifica toda esta siembra!