• Special Needs Spotlight: Autism


    Welcome to our Secular Homeschoolís Special Needs series. Each month we will bring you successful ways to homeschool your special needs child and point you in the right direction for any help and resources you may need. While I do not consider myself a special needs expert, I am a parent of a special needs homeschooled child as well as a special needs childcare provider. This gives me the insight and background to assist parents of special needs.

    This month, we are tackling autism. Weíll review some basic facts about autism and discuss how best to homeschool an autistic child. Homeschooling a special needs child will not always be easy but we are here for you. If you have any questions, comments, or experiences you would like to share, feel free to PM or email me, [email protected]
    How to homeschool a child with autism?

    Whether you have decided to homeschool your autistic child since diagnosis or issues with the public school system have helped you make the decision to homeschool, we are here for you. First, homeschool is homeschool. No matter the child. You are now their teacher, your home is now their classroom. If your child is in therapy, especially speech or occupational, I recommend discussing your decision to homeschool with them. They should help you implement any educational needs at home to be successful at this.

    As with any homeschool parent, youíll need to think about how best to instruct your child. Teaching kids with autism is no different in that respect. Do you want to create your own curriculum and pick from a variety of formats? Do you want to use an online tool with curriculum, grading and reporting all in one spot? Many online programs are geared towards special needs children, allowing them to learn at their own pace. Will you have to adjust their grade levels? Possibly. Some autistic children are behind, some are ahead and some are spot on ďgrade level.Ē It may take more than a typical school year to complete one grade level of school. That is not a problem. Donít sweat the small stuff. You may need additional programs to assist your child, whether you picked book learning or online learning. There are programs that will read to your child, ones that can write spoken words and even programs that can assist your child ó and you ó with learning sign language, which is a great communication tool for non-verbal children. You may need to adjust whatever learning format you choose as you go along. Flexibility is one of the many perks of homeschooling. I recommend starting out small and slowly adding in what works best for you and your child.

    How to create a homeschool schedule?

    Learning tools for kids with autism are beneficial. All children, especially autistic ones, do better with a routine and schedule. In my experience, visual schedules are very helpful, but if your child is more of an auditory learner, Iíve provided an option below.

    • Younger children often benefit from a ďFirst and ThenĒ schedule. It is more of a pictorial chart of what we are doing now and then what we will do next. You use it as you would a normal schedule, just changing out the images as needed. Images may also contain the activity word to help with speech and word recognition. For example, First: Eat breakfast; Then: Brush teeth.
    • Older children often benefit from a clock schedule. Inexpensive analog wall clocks work great. You create a coordinating color chart schedule and then mark the numeric times on the clock face (most can be taken apart to get to the paper numeric part to do this, it just takes a little finagling). So if you have breakfast from 8-8:30, you would say this is represented by the color blue on the paper chart and then mark the 8-8:30 time on the clock face in blue as well. This not only helps them see what is next, but they can learn to tell time and know when it is time for their next step in the routine.
    • Alarms can be a great way to enforce your homeschool routine. You can supplement either of the methods above with an alarm or use it as a stand-alone. Use your phone or digital watch and select an unobtrusive audible prompt to let you and your child know when itís time to move on to the next activity.
    • Constant voice prompts may be needed if they cannot handle the sound of an alarm but are more auditory learners. Which means, 30 minutes until shoes. 20 minutes until shoes, 10 minutes until shoes. 5 minutes, you need to be getting shoes on now. Yep, it will drive you batty but you get used to it. Creating a routine will save you a lot of headaches.

    Tools for Homeschooling an Autistic Child

    • Work with their pediatrician, therapist(s) to help create a plan. Teamwork and support are essential.
    • Adjust this plan to suit you, your child and your life. You know what will work. Iíll say it again: the biggest perk of homeschooling an autistic child is flexibility. Donít be afraid to tweak what needs to be tweaked!
    • Get a notebook. You need to keep track of any changes in their day. What upset your child? Did they get enough sleep? Did they have too much screen time? What did they eat today? Why? Because small changes can have a big impact on an autistic child, and tracking those changes will give you the key to knowing what worked.
    • Print or purchase a planner. Remember that schedule we mentioned before?Use this.
    • Take breaks. Breaks are imperative for both of you. Even if it means just getting the wiggles out or grabbing a snack.
    • Create a quiet, calming zone. One they can retreat to when things are challenging. Meltdowns are unavoidable with autistic kids, no matter the level. Being able to help them is key.

    Homeschooling a child with special needs has challenges. Each child is different and therefore each plan and goal will be different. Remember that trial and error is a normal process to develop your childís customized homeschool plan.
    Autism Homeschooling Tips by Grade Level

    Elementary School Level:

    • Breaks. Do a lesson, take a break. It might take all day for school at the beginning but that is ok. Understand that a typical homeschool day covers all subjects in a much shorter period than a public school day. Autistic kids move at a different pace.

      • Kindergarten: 40 minutes
      • First Grade: 1 hour
      • Second Grade: 1 hour, 20 minutes
      • Third Grade: 1 hour, 40 minutes
      • Fourth Grade: 2 hours
      • Fifth Grade: 2 hours, 20 minutes

    • If they are a wiggler, invest in a child-sized yoga ball or a wiggle chair. Something about it gives them the sensory relief they seek, yet allows their mind to focus on school. My son could be all-school on top and that ball was rolling around like he was at a roller rink.
    • Listen. This is a perfect time to learn their homeschool needs and requests. Especially if this is a life choice. The more you learn now, the better it will be over time. Take notes. Remember that notebook I mentioned before.

    Middle School Level:

    • Expect puberty to set your autistic child back. Read up on how puberty affects special needs kids. You may need to adjust your homeschool for this time period; flexibility is paramount here. Our son was in the 9th grade when puberty hit and, while we pushed through, in hindsight I wish I had unschooled that year. If we had remained flexible and let his interests take the lead, it would have saved a lot of meltdowns.
    • Curriculum choices may change. The program that worked in elementary school, may no longer hold their interest now. What is considered standard middle school level may be too boring or hard to comprehend. I recommend programs such as Time4Learning or Oak Meadow. Iím sounding like a broken record, but be flexible.
    • Diet and lifestyle play a big part. Because of puberty and body changes, their system is going through a lot. This will affect their schooling, their ability to focus and even how well they comprehend lessons. You may need to add more protein to their diet, more omega-3 oils, or even switch to small meals more often. Sleep is important. Special needs children do not always sleep well, but finding what works for them, will work for you. Tweens/teens are notorious sleepers. My son became more of a night owl but would sleep until 10am. We adjusted our school schedule and he schooled mid-day instead of early morning like his brother.

    High School Level:

    • Break out the fidget bowl. I cannot recommend this enough. I bought a small bowl that sat on the homeschool table. I changed it often. It had legos, little linking rings, magnets, fidget spinners, rubber bands, etc. Keeping their hands busy while they did an online lesson was key. It falls into the same category as the yoga ball and fills a sensory need, allowing their mind to focus.
    • Develop life skills. High school is the perfect time to start working on life skills. Start off simple with things like laundry or cleaning the bathroom. I always feel like I never did enough life skills with my boys. We continue to add new things all the time. Make a list of things you consider essential life skills and start conquering them.
    • Let them explore career options. Autistic people work in all career fields. Consider dual-enrollment in a field of their choosing. They can earn both college and high school credit in one class.

    Finding Groups

    My last tidbit of advice is one I would give any parent of a special needs child. Find other parents. You need a tribe. And while parents of non-special needs children can be supportive, only parents of special needs kids understand what we go through on a daily basis. Being the parent of a special needs child holds many emotions and challenges. Finding people who know what you are going through, can help you advocate for your child in your area, to bounce ideas off of, or even offer a shoulder to cry on-is imperative. Your local disability office should be able to help you, your pediatrician, your school, and even your library may have insight into groups in your area. Facebook is a great resource, always. Whether local or worldwide, these parents understand and support. Knowledge is the best support. The more you know, the more you can help your child be their best. The more you can help yourself and others understand autism.
    As I said before, if you need to chat, vent, cry or have some information you would like to share with me, feel free to PM me or shoot me an email; [email protected]
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