Homeschooling and PDD: A Success Story

Matt Savage is described on the front cover of the Boston Globe Living Section (Feb. 9, 2010) with this headline: “The Improviser. Is this autistic 17-year-old from Sudbury the next great jazz pianist?”

Savage, who has a type of autism called Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), displayed much musical promise by the time he was seven but his behavior was so erratic that even three years ago his parents didn’t think he could find the self-control to become a top-tier jazz pianist. The article notes, “Today, after years of specialized therapies and dietary changes, Savage navigates a daily maze of classes, practice sessions, homework assignments and dorm life at Berklee.” Berklee is a music college in Boston that focuses on jazz, an art form Matt Savage is mastering before he’s old enough to vote. Until this article came out very few of Matt’s teachers and fellow students were even aware that he is disabled by PDD.

I’m struck by the fact that his parents homeschooled him and continue to homeschool his sister. The Savage family took matters into their own hands at a time when other parents would throw in the towel and they were able to help their son flourish by homeschooling him. Speaking to the reporter, Matt “describes his autism now as “almost a gimmick” used to get his young talents noticed.

‘There’s still the issue of communicating with friends,” he says guardedly. “I really don’t have much of it anymore, though, thanks for the therapies my mom put me through.’”

Later in this article we learn that the Savages moved in 2002 from Massachusetts to a farm in New Hampshire. His mother mentions how music and travel helped her son a lot too, so there are a lot of factors at play in making Matt connect with the world in addition to his unique therapies and diets, which, unfortunately, we get no details of in the article.

One of my favorite La Leche League sayings is that the proper course of child development is for children to move from dependence on their parents for everything to independence from their parents: “Baby the baby so you won’t have to baby the man.” Of course, this isn’t easy, but the payoff is worth it. Diane Savage says, “…the more he’s shown he could solve problems on his own, the more we’ve been able to pull back. It’s really been harder for me than him, though, because Matt’s early years were so intense, his behavioral issues so extreme.” Now Matt is not only attending college, jam sessions and playing in bands, he is donating proceeds from his concerts and CD sales to groups that support autism research and outreach.

It is important to remember that sending such a child into the care of others is no guarantee they will come out whole; professionals struggle with these children too! In fact, as many homeschooling parents of special needs children have noted, sending such a child to school can be counterproductive to the child’s emotional and social development. But parents of special needs children are often so worn out by their responsibilities that the thought of homeschooling in addition to all else they do for their children seems impossible. However, there are stories like Matt Savage’s that let us know that parents can work with their children to seek and secure the help they need while homeschooling them, which is why having the homeschooling option, even if you don’t use it, is important.