by Anne Ohman
Our world is a very different place from what it was in 1999, the year I was inspired to write this article. Averi, our Glorious, Magical Non-Binary adult child was a 9-year-old autistic assigned-male-at-birth child at that time. We humans were not evolved enough then to have the language and concepts that we have today when talking about autism, queerness and trans people. Sure, the words existed, but they were used in hushed tones, carrying the weight of shame for a person being “different” from typical society.
Now that the world has caught up with our wayshower Averi, we can find everywhere the energy of embracing, celebrating and LOVING being queer, trans and/or neuro-sparkly! Those are the very concepts around which I created our Shine with Unschooling Community in 2004 ~ all children SHINE when celebrated for BEING Exactly Who They Are!
All of this to say that I have revised this essay from its original many times, out of deep respect and celebration for Averi’s expansion, growth, transitions and evolutions! And so their anxiety I write about was most likely also due to the fact that they were not comfortable in their Assigned Gender at Birth AND confused about the confines of the standard binary gender roles!
With all of that in mind, I give to you the latest revision, updated 1/23/2024.
I Am What I Am
Their note is now where I can easily see it, on the wall just to the right of my computer. I look at it from time to time and each time, I stop and pause and breathe in the glory of those five words and all that they mean to me… “I AM WAHT I AM.” Five words. Five short, simple words. But what a message. What a huge, wonderful, powerful concept for the author of that note, an eight-year-old child, to possess.
That eight-year-old child is now my magical non-binary adult child. It was Averi who brought us to this glorious path of radical unschooling, even though we didn’t know the concept existed back then in those pre-internet days. And so we often say that Averi invented radical unschooling!
To me, unschooling is trusting in the fact that learning is a by-product of living a rich, full life and of following one’s interests, passions, questions and curiosities. Just as children learn to walk and talk without being pushed or tested, children will continue to LEARN and children will continue to LOVE to learn when it is simply a part of their JOY.
The TRUE founder of unschooling, John Holt, said it best ~ that unschooling is about faith. “This faith is that by nature people are learning animals. Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do – and all we need to do – is to give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for, listen respectfully when they feel like talking, and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.”
The Universe put John Holt into my hands ~ literally ~ one afternoon when I was in the library searching for parenting answers for my Gloriously Unique, then two-year-old child, Averi. I was SO TIRED of mainstream views of parenting, I was there at the library for a different kind of inspiration. I don’t know how I ended up in the education section of the library, but there I was, and my hand landed on How Children Fail by John Holt. And my heart CELEBRATED with every word I read, which was CONFIRMING my parenting of this amazing child by letting them lead the way! John Holt was validating all that Averi was already showing me about how it was absolutely necessary for them to learn in their own way, in their own time.
From the moment they were born, my husband and I recognized that Averi had an exceptional awareness of their world. Their eyes had such depth and knowingness…this child came into our world knowing truths that some people take a lifetime to discover… or rather, remember.
As Avi grew, our initial impression of our child was continually confirmed. Their acute awareness of the world made everything seem new to us, as we were seeing it through their eyes, from their unique perspective.
The typical adults we encountered were confused, as their “Standard Approach to Talking to Children” did not work with Averi. They subtly demanded and challenged adults to treat them as an equal, even as young as 18 months old. They spoke in perfect sentences at that age, corrected other people’s grammar, and interrogated everyone as they emerged from the bathroom as to the cleanliness of their hands. Before they were two years old, when an unsuspecting family member asked if Averi could say, “Liverpool” (the city in which we resided at the time), Averi conversationally responded with, “Yes. Can you say micropachysapholosaurus?”
Averi’s world was so large, their mind always working. This child showed us the meaning of REAL learning, for not only did they want to find answers to their questions, they wanted to ask their own questions, too. MY HUSBAND AND I REALIZED THAT WE WERE NEVER ALLOWED TO ASK OUR OWN QUESTIONS! And so, of course, we loved that, followed that, nurtured that, encouraged that, and learned from that. We were learning all the time from Averi, as they were learning all the time from the world.
We steered our lives toward Averi’s strengths, their gifts, their questions, their desires, their observations, their JOY and their PEACE. This is how children SHINE! We made the mindful choice to live a life that would NOT extinguish Averi’s light.
I don’t remember the exact moment when we decided that Avi would not go to school. I, myself, was questioning school even before I was pregnant with them. I knew a homeschooling family and I was excited about that prospect. After Averi was born, and my mothering instinct confirmed that school felt wrong.
With every new day, being a witness to all this child was absorbing from the world, it became more and more clear that this was right. At two years old, they would stand at our door in the morning, watching the neighborhood kids get on the school bus. They were fascinated by it, as if it was a science experiment. They would ask so many questions about it ~ about why the children were leaving home, leaving their family, to go to this building all day… Averi never settled for anything less than the truth and so we had very deep, honest conversations about it back then. They were two years old at the time.
So, of course, it was Averi who decided once and for all that school was not for them. And yes, we wholeheartedly agreed that this child should not be confined to a room in a building for most of their day. Their world was SO HUGE! They were showing us that they were learning so much every day simply by LIVING in the real world, we couldn’t imagine making their world smaller and taking away the best parts of their joyful life.
Thus, from a very early age, we knew we would be homeschooling Averi. Or rather, Avi would continue to educate and enlighten us.
Our homeschooling method was painfully determined with my first attempt at teaching this child some “schoolwork.” They resisted. I insisted. They cried. I cried. And it was over. Thankfully!
Our attempt at schooling at home had “failed.” And my GOODNESS, I was so relieved! I most certainly was not happy with the person I thought I had to be in order to school my child at home.
As a result, our glorious unschooling lives were born, even though, as I said earlier, at the time we did not know that the concept even existed, let alone was in practice. For us, it was just a natural extension of the life we were already living, the life that Averi had shown us was best and most fulfilling for them, and it turned out to be the best and most fulfilling path for all of us.
As Averi reached age nine, challenges surfaced that previously had gone unnoticed because of our free unschooling lifestyle, our focus on their Joy, and our conviction to allow Averi to BE completely Who They Are. They had always held a small level of anxiety in their spirit, for their awareness of the world not only brought enlightenment, but also disturbing knowledge for which their young years were not prepared. When their mild anxiety increased, their fine and large motor skills showed no signs of advancing as they got older, and their beloved quirks became more intense, my husband and I felt it was time to find some answers.
It was not our plan to label Averi. It was not our intention to research their challenges in order to improve, change, or fix them. They were perfect just the way they were, of course. They were CELEBRATED for Being EXACTLY Who They Were!
It was merely our intent to own a better understanding of them, their mind, and their spirit. It was our goal to find answers that would enable us to bring more joy and less anxiety into Averi’s already very free life.
So I started researching. And I was shocked at my findings. I found label after label that my child fit into…a little bit here, a little bit there…labels ranging from Autism to Gifted to Sensory Integration Dysfunction and everything else in between. How could this be? Yes, of course we knew for sure that Averi was different from any child we had ever known…but it never ever occurred to me that the very traits which were a celebrated part of Who They Were would be considered dysfunctions…and while we understood that they were gloriously unique, we never once looked at them and had the term “a-typical” pop into our heads. All we had known was that WE were so incredibly blessed to have this child who was unlike any other we had known before!
I developed a hunger for information about the labels, mostly curious about the other children and what their lives looked like WITH these labels. I read all I could…I joined message boards, lists…I read many books. And I only grew increasingly saddened with what I was finding.
The focus of the books and the lists was always the same: advice was given to assist you in forcing your “special needs” child into that society-typical box, mainly the school box. Parents are given the message that their child needs to be fixed, that their child is the one that needs to changed in order to fit into that box, no matter how demeaning and defeating it is to the child’s happiness and the child’s spirit. And right there in black and white in all of the books were experts to give you advice on how to do it…how to change and fix Who Your Child Is in order to have them fit into the box of society’s expectations. According to these “experts”, there was no alternative.
My sister-in-law was employed as a Direct Support Professional for our local ARC at that time and she asked me if I wanted to attend a support group meeting for families with children on the autistic spectrum, since she was attending anyway. I was interested, but not so much for MY child as for my interest in these families who WERE living according to society’s definitions and that box and these labels.
As the meeting began, the attendees were instructed to go around the room and share stories about our children. I felt so excited! I love talking about my children. I couldn’t wait to hear other people’s stories.
But as I listened, my heart began filling with a heaviness and a deep sadness for the children, as their parents’ stories were about the child’s “disabilities,” and their struggle to get appropriate services from the school and understanding from the teachers. Their stories were filled with pain and anger and a fierce determination to fight the system.
From my perspective, one thing was clearly and devastatingly missing from their stories: the children themselves.
When it was my turn to share, I took a deep breath and held my sweet Averi in my mind, in my heart. And all I could see was my child’s amazing SHINE. I smiled. And then I spoke.
I spoke of my child who has always been so aware, so unique, so funny, and so creative. I spoke of the ways in which they have blessed our lives, how WE are always learning from THEM. I spoke of my child who does have some challenges, but what child does not? What human being does not? From Averi’s challenges, we were able to learn things about ourselves and about the world and about our lives and about love that we could not have learned otherwise. From Averi’s challenges we were able to steer even more deliberately and determinedly toward their JOY.
I spoke of my child who has never been forced to be someone they were not. Who never was and never will be expected to fit into someone else’s idea of who they should be. I recalled with a chuckle how Averi wouldn’t allow us to even TRY, thank Goodness! I spoke of how my child has always been celebrated for being exactly who they are. I spoke about our unschooling lives ~ the JOY-led learning that we completely trusted, following Averi’s passions and interests, questions and curiosities.
I paused and noticed the silence in the room. It was a sharp contrast to the constant chatter that had been filling the room as the others spoke, as parents were talking over each other, sharing their methods to battle the school establishment to get the “services” their child required. In that silence, I realized that I hadn’t been looking at anyone as I spoke ~ I had been thinking so much about my Avi. And when I finally looked up, I saw every single face turned toward me… every EYE on me, many of them containing tears. And on every lip was a gentle smile.
I had spoken that day with the same passion with which I parent….a passion for my child and a focus on how they Shine in this world. That is the focus of our lives…not the challenges…but the Shine. There is never a lack, never a need to fight with the world because we create our own world and we fill it with the ABUNDANCE of the GOODNESS that my child creates, simply by Being Who They Are and CELEBRATING that.
I strongly believe that all children Shine when they are celebrated for being exactly who they are…and when I spoke that night of how Averi shines, I know for sure that I reminded the other parents about how THEIR child shines, too.
I learned all I needed to know that night. I learned, once again, that the answers were already within us and we were living them every day. I knew that the best way to help other children was to continue living our lives, because I saw first-hand that night how sharing our Shining perspective allowed others to relax into the Truth of their child’s own light.
We walked forward in our lives from that point with a new level of understanding, with even more compassion and empathy for those gifts that have always made Averi so wonderfully unique. And because I was better able to see the world from their eyes, from their spirit, I found ways to help them with their challenges while still Celebrating them… in fact, it felt like we were celebrating them even MORE after having seen the other side.
I Am What I Am.
To us, these five words that Averi wrote when they were 8 years old simply mean that ALL children should be celebrated for Being Who They Are.
~ updated January 2024
Want to learn more about unschooling? Read my free book, What is Unschooling?