Interview Tamara Harpster: Raising an Autistic Son to Adulthood 

Interview Tamara Harpster: Raising an Autistic Son to Adulthood 

We thank John M. Harpster and Tamara Harpster for their guest post introducing their book, “You Don’t Want to Go for a Ride”: Our Family’s Journey with Autism. We hope to learn more about raising an autistic son to adulthood with this interview.

Tamara Harpster writes, “We started in the 1990s, before widespread Internet access and when autism was still viewed as a lifelong disability that needed to be cured. Over the last twenty-seven years, we have seen the view of autism change.

John writes, ” One of the purposes of this book is to show that while there are differences between people on the autism spectrum as opposed to those who are not, the conflicts that occur can usually be smoothed over with patience and understanding.”

Lorna: Congratulations on your autism parenting book! How old is your autistic son now? How is he doing?

<<  Tamara Harpster:  Thank you, my husband and I hope that sharing our experiences can help other parents and their children. Our son is 27 and he is doing well. He takes photography classes and he enjoys designing Lego models and using mass transit to travel around San Diego to take his pictures. He continues to change and become more comfortable with the world.

Lorna: You decided to homeschool your son. Did he ever attend a public school? What motivated you to expend all the effort it takes to homeschool a child?  Have advice for other parents of autistic children on homeschooling?

<<  Tamara Harpster: Our son did not attend public school except for the brief time at the pre-school that we described in our book. Part of my interest in homeschooling was due to my experience with public schools and with bullying. Our other motivation was the apparent lack of skills and knowledge with public schools for autistic children. I researched the homeschooling laws for our area and worked with my husband to structure the classes. It was scary at first but my husband and I were willing to learn and adapt as we needed to.

I started by finding homeschooling groups and subscribing to homeschooling magazines. I would recommend looking for on-line groups local to parent’s area and who is familiar with the legal requirements. There are also options for working with the public school while teaching your child at home. I know of a parent in our area that is homeschooling but works with the school for the lessons and their child can join in on class field trips and other events. I believe there are also on-line schools a parent can start with.

I also recognize that homeschooling is not for everyone. If parents are more comfortable with public schools, then they should do what is best for their family. I recommend for all families finding a local support group for parents of autistic children. I attend a group in our area and the other parents have a great deal of information about services at schools and elsewhere. Each family has different needs and resources, I don’t feel there is a one size fits all solution for school. I’m glad to see more options for all families.

Lorna: How old was your son when he built a three-foot-high model of an oil rig based solely on pictures he found on the Internet. It was complete with people, cars, piping and a little cart. There was an amazing amount of detail that exactly duplicated what he saw in the website’s image? Has he been able to use his skill in noticing detail and for building in areas of his life now that he is an adult?

<<  Tamara Harpster: I had to dig through my photos and it looks like he was 12 when he built that model. I have some other pictures that show the detail of the model, it was amazing to see everything that he included. I have a close up that shows a cart on the platform with people working at stations to direct items. He also built a small boat for the platform. I wish I had taken more pictures of it!

Yes, he continues to use this skill, it is interesting to see his photographs and the details that he finds in the world around us. He is also interested in maps and he has memorized the transit schedules for the trolley and bus routes in our area. I would like to help him publish a book of his art and photos but he isn’t quite ready for that step yet. In the meantime, he helps me with my blog. I give him my publishing schedule with themes and he is paid for photos that I choose to use.  It helps him learn about scheduling, performing work for pay and getting to see his work in the world. It helps me out by adding to my text content and contributing to our family business.

Lorna: You say during your years raising an autistic child to adulthood, you have seen the view of autism change. Please elaborate on some of these changes.

<<  Tamara Harpster: During the early 90’s there was still a negative view about the outcome for autism and a strong focus on curing autism. There was some information but a parent had to do research in order to find it and to find support groups that were out there. Based on my research over the last few years I know now that there were groups but because of my own difficulties, I had no idea on how to find this support. I also feel that there was a less accepting view of autistic behaviors than there is now.

Now, there are many books from many different viewpoints about raising autistic children, autistic adults have written about their experiences, there are movies and television shows that portray autistic children and their families, there is definitely a lot more information and awareness about autism and how it affects families. I have also seen a change from curing autism to supporting autistic people and realizing their differences can make everyone’s lives richer. Things aren’t perfect, there is room for improvement but increased acceptance is much better than it was.

Lorna: Looking back at your son’s teen years, tell us about one high point and one low point during those years.

<<  Tamara Harpster: I think the high point was seeing him trying new things, like bike riding and web site publishing and finding success and confidence in his activities. I am still very proud of him for coming home after falling off his bike and figuring out how to patch himself up and make it home on his own. It felt very normal to see him trying to be independent like other children when they reach their teens.

For me, the low point was when my husband and son had to miss flying out for a reunion with my family one year. My son was in an angry teen mode and my husband and I worried about him at the airport and on the plane. Because of this, we decided that just I should go. When I left that weekend he snubbed me and it just amplified the friction that would occur between my son and myself at that time. I think that was the lowest I felt about his rebellious behavior and I wondered if things would ever improve. Fortunately, they did, but there were some rough times when he was a teen.

Develop Language Skills

Lorna: When your son was very young, when he wanted to communicate with you, but did not have the language skills, he used his pictures to reach out.  How was he helped to develop his language skills?

<<  Tamara Harpster: When he was about five he started adding to his vocabulary and he repeated words, a lot. My husband and I listened and responded by repeating the words back to him as he pointed to the objects. Over the next year or so, my husband was better at working with his speech. John would read to our son when he home schooled him and my son liked to sit and listen. When J.T. brought me drawings, I would point to items and repeat the words for it if he had trouble.

After a while he would bring me his drawings and point to things and repeat the words. He would draw out a story and tell me about it, I would listen and occasionally correct his pronunciation or offer suggestions when he didn’t seem to have a word for what he had drawn. For his first website, he would tell me his stories about Legosville and I would record them, and then read them back for his approval. He would tell me what I had gotten wrong and after some back and forth, the story would meet with his approval and I would publish it on his website.

My husband would make simple drawings for social situations and then describe the steps such as greeting a person or asking for directions. I think they were similar to social stories that are used now with autistic children. We tried many different things, the common thing was to find something he was interested in and used words to describe it or ask him to describe it for us. It took a lot of patience for everyone and we didn’t always communicate clearly but we always tried to encourage some kind of back and forth with our son.

Teach Autistic Kids Life Skills

You Don’t Want to Go for a Ride”: Our Family’s Journey with Autism by John M. Harpster and Tamara HarpsterLorna: At the end of your book, you say “We have found, as many others have, that there is no cure and no clean or simple solutions for a young adult with autism who wants independence…” What are a few things you tried with your son to help him become more independent?

<<  Tamara Harpster: As much as possible I tried to have activities for our son that helped him to learn life skills or as I call it, chores. We have given him an allowance, helped him to learn to ride mass transit, cook, manage his personal hygiene, do laundry and other practical tasks. After so many years of watching out for him I think I find this the hardest stage of parenting, learning to let go and allow him to make his own mistakes just like I did as I learned to be independent of my parents. We are working with him to figure out what he wants to do next and helping him to find his way at his own pace. There is a lot less tension and stress in our household as J.T. learns more about the world but in some ways I think this is the hardest step, learning how to let him find his way around in the world.

Lorna: Thank you very much for the guest post, photos, links, and now for this interview. The team at Special Needs Book Review wishes you the best.

Follow John and Tamara Harpster:


Read Also: Review of “You Don’t Want to Go for a Ride”: Our Family’s Journey with Autism

Buy “You Don’t Want to Go for a Ride”: Our Family’s Journey with Autism

  • Release Date: 9/19/2017
This post was written by Lorna
Lorna d’Entremont: Co-owner of SentioLife Solutions, Ltd. the company behind KidCompanions Chewelry (2007) and SentioCHEWS (2013), mother of three, grandma of 5 and wife. She is a retired teacher and special needs advocate. Throughout she has taught all levels from grade 2 to grade 9. Lorna loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the students progress in the school system. During her 30 year career she took a few years off to raise her three children.