‘Tis the season for back to school! With the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic and mask mandates, a large number of parents will be looking at homeschooling as an option for the first time this fall. If you have a child with special challenges, this can be a particularly daunting decision-making process…but it doesn’t have to be. I’d like to share 10 tips for homeschooling a child with autism.
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When it comes to homeschooling a child with autism, there are some things you must keep in mind…
- Ditch the textbooks
Education is best acquired through stories and those stories can be found in living books. Sure, for higher math and science, textbooks are most appropriate but when you want to inspire your child with nearly any other topic, it is best done through a great story.
If your child has very specific interests (and most people on the spectrum do) start there and work your way out. Charlotte Mason talks about “spreading a feast” for our children and having autism doesn’t make them exempt from that. They deserve the feast, too. But the journey might look different. Start where your child is at. If his special interest is hats, start there. Let me give you an example…
“Did you know one of our presidents was known for his hat? His name was Abraham Lincoln. He even carried important letters around in the hat – isn’t that cool? There’s actually a book that tells all about it – I can read it to you!” (This is history happening).
Then maybe you mention that there was this speech Lincoln gave in a place called Gettysburg and you pull out a map to show him where Gettysburg is (Geography). You could say, “it’s pretty far away from where we live – let’s figure out how far (Math). He gave that important speech while he was there because everyone in the country was fighting with each other but he loved our country so much he thought it was worth fighting for (more history).”
We’ve now moved from a hat to the Civil War.
And if he’s interested in the war, well we’ve fought a few of them so maybe next we’ll talk about the American Revolution and our founding fathers and how the government is run and oh where did they get all those ideas for how to run it? I hear Alexander Hamilton (as well as the other founders) read a lot of Greek and Roman stories…and didn’t those stories talk a lot about how to be a good citizen?
And now we’ve moved from hats to Plutarch.
You are, essentially, becoming Amazon for your child. “If you liked this, you’ll love…” You are helping them make the move outside of their comfort zone one baby step at a time. You can do this with any topic – just find the beginning of the thread (your child’s interest) and follow it as far as he’ll let you.
- Ditch the mold
You’re going to have to step outside the box to do well homeschooling a child with autism…that’s just truth. Picking up a boxed curriculum may work for you if you are willing to severely modify (or completely throw out) the schedule but in most cases, you will find yourself wrestling between the schedule and your child. Since those moments of passion generally prevent us from thinking clearly, let me say it like this: Your child should always win over the schedule.
This is not to say your child cannot learn to adapt over time or that he wouldn’t benefit from a consistent routine (he would) but when we are looking at the HOW’s of homeschooling, you need to look at your child first and a not a pre-determined schedule.
An example of this might be if a science curriculum is laid out to be taught five days a week but on Wednesday your child spends most of his time falling apart or would rather be in his own world, then you don’t force your child out of his world to learn the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates. What you can do is join him in his world and accept the fact that science is not gonna happen Wednesday. This brings us to our next point…
No means no…for now. Your child not being in a place to do science on Wednesday does not mean you need a new curriculum, or to revamp his daily routine, or to research new supplements…it might mean those things (or something else for that matter) if it’s happening consistently but for this example, let’s say it’s not. Let’s say it’s just…Wednesday. And right now science is not working. Keep your cool. Smile. Tell your child – who, remember, you would lay down on railroad tracks for – that it’s not a big deal. You can say something like,
“I can see you’re not ready for science right now. No worries. Vertebrates are pretty interesting and I want to tell you about them but we can do it when you’re ready.”
And then drop it.
Your child not being able to do science on Wednesday and you acquiescing does not mean he’s running the household. It doesn’t mean he’ll never learn what an invertebrate is. It means science is not working right now on this particular Wednesday and that’s all it means. If you have time to revisit it later when he’s more relaxed and available, do that. If not, try again tomorrow. If he is just hating invertebrates (or whatever subject you’re trying to cover), try to find a way to explain it in a way he’ll appreciate. This leads to the next point…
- Motivation is key
People learn better when they are motivated to do so – especially children with autism. If you are intrinsically motivated to find out more about something, you will want to learn. You’ll be curious. Your mind will be open.
Now don’t flip this; I am not talking about a reward system. I am talking about what does your child enjoy doing, anyway? What does he already love? (Like the hat example above). We need to take that and marry it to the goals you are trying to achieve for him right now whether that be how to potty train or how to do long division. Now motivation and reward are always getting mixed up by people so let me give you an example of how they’re different…
*Reward System: “Jimmy, I want you to do this page of multiplication. If you do the math page without complaining, I’ll give you extra time on Minecraft today.” (DON’T do this)
*Motivation: “Jimmy – tell me this…if you had four pigs on your farm and I told you they multiplied by eight, how many pigs would you have?” (DO do this)
Do you see the difference? Jimmy could care less about his times tables (let’s be honest…do any of us care until we need them?) but he’s definitely interested in how many pigs are on his Minecraft farm.
Spoiler alert – The motivation approach takes more effort than the reward approach. You’re going to have to be creative and engaged. But more effort is required to raise a child with autism (I bet you already knew that ;)).
- Ditch your expectations…but not all of them
In many ways, this experience is not going to be what you thought. Earlier I talked about letting go of a strict schedule. That being said, it certainly does not mean that you have no expectations of your child. Here’s an example…
*Incorrect thinking: “My child is 10-years-old so he should be doing fourth-grade math like his peers.”
*Correct thinking: “My child is 10-years-old. He should be doing math that he can grasp right now that will challenge him but not frustrate him to the point of shutting down.”
What is your goal? For many special needs parents, it sounds something like this…
“To make my child self-sufficient.”
“To help him live productively in society.”
“To help him make a friend.”
Those are great but remember your child is a kind Creation. While grade levels and ages can be helpful in guiding us, they are never an absolute standard because every child is different. And pushing your child towards your goal is usually never as productive as meeting him where he is at and helping him to move forward.
- Remember slow and steady wins the race
Your child might not graduate “on time.” There, I said it.
Did the world go on?
It did. Do you know why?
Because if it really happens, your world – and your child’s world – will go on.
That might not be your goal and by no means am I suggesting you should look at your six-year-old or even your twelve-year-old and throw your hands up saying, “well, whatever happens, happens…”.
No, work towards it. Set the goal.
But dear heart, don’t despair…
if he’s thirteen and still hasn’t mastered long division.
If he’s eleven and still a struggling reader.
If he’s fifteen and still needs you at his elbow while he does his work.
Read the fable again; remind yourself, slow and steady still wins the race. And we’re not looking to win a race even, just complete it with our heads held high. Work diligently. Work consistently. Focus on forward motion and nurturing a love of learning. Remember that you eat an elephant one bite at a time.
- Mind your ears and eyes
Close your ears to judgmental voices around you and keep your eyes on the child the Lord has given you. You are not homeschooling to appease the people around you; you are homeschooling to educate the child in front of your face.
This will require a bit of tunnel vision. The world will be quick to point out everything you are doing wrong…so will your weary soul. So focus on filtering the voices you allow into your heart and mind. Seek truth, beauty, and goodness. Be accurate in your assessment, but kind. And for goodness sake, if someone (IRL or online or in print…) makes you feel terrible every time you engage…disengage.
- Keep things short
One of the greatest joys of a Charlotte Mason education is the implementation of short lessons. Short lessons are exactly what they sound like…lessons that are short. That means if your child can understand the math concept in ten minutes, you don’t drag on for thirty because you’re “supposed” to. That means read-aloud sessions need to last for as long as your child can attend – that could be five minutes to start with – and then you build on that.
- Accept that academics aren’t what’s most important…seriously
This sounds counterproductive because you are homeSCHOOLING but it’s not. Your relationship with your child is priority number one – bottom line. Knowing when to challenge your child and when to focus on your relationship instead is a dance you should work to perfect. The therapy we do has taught me all about this dance via a practice called “red lights and green lights.”
- Remember your child is already a whole person
This sounds a little silly at first read but here’s what I mean. Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” Children are not blank canvases. God already made a person for you to care for. Who is this person? What are his interests and strengths? What are his challenges? A child – even a child with autism – is not an empty drum waiting to be filled but rather a new land waiting to be explored.
Autistic children certainly have more pronounced challenges and more passionate interests and strengths but they are a pre-made child just the same. No matter where you believe the autism came from – that he was born with this or that something caused this change to occur – his autism is a part of who he is right now.
Your job as a parent is to fill the treasure chest of his soul with good things – nurturing relationships, excellent stories, solid truth, beauty found in art and music, and the great outdoors – but this is a gift you give to an already whole person. We can grow and change. We can learn and adapt. But we are born with absolute potential that should not be dampened or dissuaded.
- Remember attitude is everything
I know I said ten tips but this is a bonus for you, mama. You are the thermostat of your home. It’s true that “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” So get happy.
What fills you up? What drains you? Be sure you are filling up enough to accommodate how much you pour out. Your child will respond much better to you if your attitude is a pleasing one. Don’t complain – force a smile instead. If you start to feel snippy, step outside. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, take a quick assessment; 9 times out of 10 for me this happens when my expectations are not being met. Are they really realistic expectations? Can they be altered slightly to fit the day better? When all else fails, drop everything and do something fun for 5-10 minutes, then try to pick up what you were doing.
You are your child’s best advocate and most natural teacher. Homeschooling a child with autism may be a challenge some days but it is always, always, worth the effort.