Charlotte Mason: Our Heroine for Special Needs
By Kelly Ann Buster
We had a great homeschool day today. The house was buzzing with the activity of four little boys. Good, purposeful activity, mind you. After breakfast, my oldest, Josh*, who usually begins the day with independent reading, plopped onto the couch with book in hand. Upon seeing the book was about sharks, his six-year-old brother sat down next to him and listened while nine-year-old Josh read the whole book to him. During a short break before math, the two of them played “Jaws” and built boats from Legos®. I watched for a long time as Joshua rammed his tiger shark into the Lego® boat, “ripping” it apart. I know it sounds strange, but this just made my whole day. I even took a picture of it. You see, imaginary play does not come naturally to Josh because he has Asperger syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, and he’s not always this social with his brothers. Yet, lately it seems that changes in our homeschool methods have brought positive results that just make my heart sing.
Three years ago, after a disheartening experience with public school kindergarten, I surrendered to God’s plan for Josh. He made it very clear that we were to begin homeschooling. But what a rough adjustment period! Josh would not obey me, and I had a baby and a preschooler to look after. After a crash course in obedience training, we began to have more enjoyable days together. I was using traditional curriculum. Josh would usually obey and do the worksheets I set out for him, but he “stimmed” a lot during breaks. (“Stimming” is autism-speak for repetitive self-stimulating behavior such as rocking, spinning, or waving objects in front of the eyes to stimulate vision.) The “activity choice” chart created by the school wasn’t much help, as it was tough finding activities he enjoyed to put on the chart! He would have stimmed most of the day if I would have let him. Josh showed little interest in playing with his brothers. He was quickly becoming a good reader but otherwise wasn’t getting excited about learning. I was getting worn out fast from trying to keep him engaged so he wouldn’t stim.
Around this time I was introduced to Charlotte Mason’s refreshing ideas of education. However, I didn’t think her methods could work with Josh, because she assumed that all children have an inborn curiosity and imagination . . . exactly what children with autism lack! So, I set aside Charlotte Mason and plunged into unit studies, which did increase Josh’s enthusiasm for learning and gave us many fond memories. I now had a fourth child though, and I didn’t have much time to plan or gather materials.
I decided to read Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion. Karen’s beautifully written book inspired me to start doing history Charlotte’s way, by simply reading well-written biographies and historical fiction to Josh and having him narrate out loud successively longer passages. He also kept a journal of pictures and copywork. The books we read were so engaging. Josh began to enjoy learning! He would often ask if we could sit down and read together. He was making real connections with heroic men, such as George Washington and Ben Franklin. He requested more books, read some on his own, and his narrations gradually improved. He enjoyed learning a great deal about a few historical figures, rather than just a little about many. We were following Charlotte’s advice to “ . . . linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period” (Home Education, p. 280).
Charlotte thought children should be raised on living books, which are usually written by a single author who deeply loves his subject. Living books are not written “down to children.” They ignite the imagination; textbooks and “twaddly” books dull it. Living books are attention-getters and can help expand the narrow repertoire of interests that children with autism often have. Charlotte said children should develop a “relation” with as many ideas as possible. In the past, it was so hard to interest Josh in anything. Now I am amazed at the relations Josh is developing simply from the living books we have read—no expensive classes or activities needed!
For us, living books provide a memorable peg on which to hang social skills instruction. Children on the autism spectrum lack a “theory of mind.” This means they have trouble with empathy and predicting others’ intentions or behavior. Most social skills groups focus on teaching specific social behaviors but do not adequately address thought processes. Josh did not benefit from these groups or from social skills training in school. Recent research has shown the ineffectiveness of school-provided social skills training, possibly because the behaviors learned in one setting fail to generalize to other settings.
Reading living books is an enjoyable way to help remedy thought processes, which is more likely to result in generalization of learned behaviors. This reasoning flows from a cognitive-behavioral theory of psychology, which emphasizes how thoughts determine our behaviors. While Josh and I are enjoying a good book together, we talk about what each character may be feeling and why the character did what he did. Then, and this is crucial, I connect this with a real social situation he has experienced or one that he will experience soon. We discuss a variety of social settings. Perhaps this goes beyond Charlotte’s idea of simply narrating a book and not picking it apart, but I find this justified when I am trying to drive home a social skills lesson to Josh. Interestingly, two of the recommendations the above study mentioned for improving social skills instruction in schools were more frequent “dosing” of instruction and providing instruction in more natural settings. Well, homeschooling has these covered!
Living books have also strengthened the social bonds between Josh and his brothers. Shared interests from the books have become good bridges to play activities or discussions between them. Many times, though, Josh still does not translate the stories into imaginary play activities, as many children raised on living books do. Recently, by chance, I found something that is beginning to help with this—videotaping! Josh had been reading lots of true stories about sharks, but he did not use his toy sharks in pretend play like his brothers did. One day on You Tube he saw a video of a toy shark and Legos® “acting out” the Jaws movie. That day he joined his brothers playing with toy sharks and Legos®. It seems odd that a video could teach play skills better than seeing his brothers play firsthand, but hey, whatever it takes!
Besides social skills, another frequent area of difficulty for children on the autism spectrum is language. Josh loves reading and being read to. He is being drenched daily with the language of the best living books. How could this not improve auditory processing and other language skills? Narration has also strengthened Josh’s auditory memory and expressive language skills. He began by first narrating a paragraph at a time, then a chapter. I would usually just listen but sometimes type it up. One day I took a leap of faith and asked him to narrate the entire book he had just finished reading, Stone Fox. Honestly, part of me was expecting this to be laborious for him. Turns out I could not type fast enough! The words flowed effortlessly out of his mouth, and he demonstrated excellent understanding of the book. Just as Charlotte theorized, this oral composition practice resulted in Josh showing good written composition skills with very little instruction from me. How painless for both of us!
Narration also seemed to alleviate a stammering problem Josh had developed. I was on the brink of searching for a speech therapist, but also during this time I felt prompted to increase the frequency of his oral narrations. I did and never had to call the speech therapist!
Narration has helped Josh improve his attention span. Charlotte said it develops “the habit of perfect attention” because only one reading of the passage is allowed before the child must narrate. This notion is so simple yet powerful. Oral narration also can reduce the need for mechanical writing, which fatigues a child with fine-motor difficulties. It exercises deeper thought processes than searching for answers to reading comprehension questions. With narration, the child must search his memory bank and extract the main ideas, sequence, and relevant details all at the same time. It has been amazing to watch this skill develop in Joshua!
Charlotte Mason placed great emphasis on time spent in nature. She advised short focused lessons during the morning hours and several hours of outdoor time each day for children. I noticed a new calmness about Joshua once I began to take this mandate seriously. Active time outdoors helps meet Josh’s sensory needs, and he then attends better to his studies.
When my husband and I shared our long-dormant bird-watching interest (passed down from my mother) with our children, they took to it right away. They caught our enthusiasm and loved the stories from The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton Burgess. Josh, who often had to be dragged into activities, was now running to the window with binoculars and perusing bird field guides. He delighted in keeping a nature notebook. His stimming decreased dramatically. I had fun one day watching Josh and his brother trying to construct a bird-catching device using cardboard boxes and duct tape. It was Josh’s idea, and he was working with his brother as a team with no intervention from me. This activity occupied the whole afternoon, something that would have been unheard of for him in the past. Over the last year, Josh and his brothers have become amateur naturalists. They are rarely bored anymore!
Today Josh is an excellent reader doing grade-level work, is kind and polite, and is more inquisitive than ever. He is involved in Tae Kwon Do, taught by a wonderful Christian couple, and Cub Scouts. He has a few friends he feels comfortable with. As far as speech therapy, social skills instruction, auditory memory training—well, these occur every day right on our big blue comfy couch.
Charlotte Mason did not have much occasion to consider the effects her methods would have on children with autism, because there simply were not many diagnosed with such in her day. She would be very proud of the impact her methods are having on these special children today. Because of Charlotte Mason, I believe Josh will have a delight in learning and in God’s beautiful creation for the rest of his life.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Kelly Ann Buster and her husband Michael homeschool their four boys aged 9, 6, 4, and 2 in Metamora, Illinois. Kelly has a master of arts degree in community-clinical psychology and is a former mental health clinician. She enjoys reading, writing, piano, camping, and decorating wheat-free theme cakes she makes due to her boys’ dietary intolerances. She welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Andreola, A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning, Quarryville, PA: Charlotte Mason Research and Supply Company, 1998.
S. Bellini, J. K. Peters, L. Benner, and A. Hopf, “A meta-analysis of school-based social skills interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders,” Remedial and Special Education (2007), 28(3), 153–162.
Charlotte M. Mason, Home Education, Quarryville, PA: Charlotte Mason Research and Supply Company, 1989.
©2008 The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of The Old
Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.