Is homeschooling a good option for my child with autism?
Once a child with autism reaches school age, parents ask themselves how to provide the best possible educational program for their child who has special needs. There are a number of options: public education, private school, or homeschooling. First, let’s look at the public educational system and how it serves a child with special needs.
Parents may begin with a public education for a variety of reasons. They want their child with autism to socialize with other children and assume they will receive good teaching from the teacher who teaches the neurotypical kids. Often the reality is other parents are resentful that their child is receiving less attention because of the presence of a child with special needs. Classes are large often with no time for a teacher to provide extra attention. The teacher may have no special training in autism spectrum disorders and personal aide time is limited if provided at all. Traditional teaching techniques used in most classrooms involve too much listening, sitting still, and not enough breaks. Lesson plans are not modified specifically to accommodate special learning needs.
Public schools may lack the resources to provide a sound education for a child with autism. The school may not have a professionally trained staff, teacher aides, or special equipment such as a laptop computer. Laptops can be beneficial for children who have difficulty with motor control (read Take the Pencil Out of the Process article). They often find it easier to type than to hand-write. Many autistic children enjoy working on computers so providing them with one to use is motivational.
The other option to full inclusion is the segregated special education classroom. Although not an option in all school districts, the classroom houses children with all types of disabilities, not just children with autism who require special one-on-one attention and unique teaching methods. In Canada, there are only a handful of autism-based classrooms.
The special education teacher is often a generalist and may have little or no experience with autism spectrum disorders. The autistic child may have limited access to mainstream school activities with neurotypical children. There are no best practice standards for aides in the classroom or compulsory training requirements.
Public schools are noisy places to be. Loud sounds can be upsetting to children with autism. Sounds such as school bells, PA systems, buzzers on a scoreboard in the gym, or chairs scraping across the floor can be irritating and painful to the ears. Fluorescent lights visually bother some autistic children because they can see the flicker of the 60-cycle electricity. It is hard to imagine for a non-autistic individual that these everyday things can be distracting for a child with autism.
Finally there is the socialization issue, the very reason many parents opt for public schooling. Children are often cruel, a hard fact of life. A child with autism can suffer teasing, bullying, and abuse at the hands of their peers because their disorder is misunderstood. Certain behaviors indicative of the disorder make them stand out. Children with autism often get fixated on one subject and talk about it incessantly. They engage in self-stimulating behaviors such as hand flapping. The ability to make eye contact or carry on a conversation is difficult. Approaching other children to engage them in play does not always happen. Autistic children are often content to be left on their own. All of these factors can isolate the child with autism from his peers.
By law, every child has a right to an appropriate education and needed services based on an assessment. What is a parent to do when the special needs of their child are not being met?
Homeschooling a child with autism is a legal and viable option in North America. More parents are homeschooling because of the failures of the public education system. Why homeschool? In addition to the problems mentioned about public schooling, there are the needs of the individual that must be met. No one knows your child better than you do. The love and understanding that only a parent can provide has enabled many families to homeschool their special needs child successfully.
Parents who homeschool can create an educational program that fits the learning style of their child. Most children with autism are visual thinkers and learners. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Colorado State University and a woman with autism. She says she thinks in terms of pictures, not language. All her thoughts are like videotape running in her imagination. Nouns were the easiest words for her to learn because she could create a picture in her mind. To understand verbs, she needed a physical demonstration. Temple’s suggestion for teaching the word “up” would be to take a toy airplane and have it take off from a desk.
A homeschool program can incorporate repeated and simplified instructions, written instructions rather than verbal ones, one-on-one instruction, clear expectations and immediate feedback, student centered curriculum, and frequent breaks. Your home can provide the ideal learning environment free from stress, excessive noise, and wasted time.
Homeschooling provides parents with the opportunity to educate by focusing on a child’s unique strengths, interests and abilities, compensating for weaknesses and allowing success to inspire more success. Many autistic children are good at drawing, art and computer programming. These areas of talent can be incorporated into learning. Some children can sing better than they can speak. They may respond better if sentences are sung to them. Some children with extreme sensitivity to sound will respond better if spoken to in a whisper. Autistic children often fixate on one or two subjects. If the child is focused on airplanes use them as a way to teach reading and math. For example, read books about airplanes and do math problems with airplanes. For example, calculate how long it takes a plane to fly between Chicago and Los Angeles.
So what about the big socialization question? Won’t homeschooling isolate an autistic child? The answer is not necessarily. Homeschoolers participate in inclusive community activities such as sports, church choir, and music lessons. Parents can select social settings to maximize the child’s talent and minimize distractions.
We do not socialize in large groups of people exactly our own age. Adults socialize in groups of different ages and so should children. Autistic children should not be put together in groups defined by age because an autistic child can stick out due to his/her delays. Homeschoolers socialize in more natural social settings such as libraries, church, shopping, and family gatherings. Homeschooled children are less aware of differences because they meet many kinds of people. They are tolerant of others in the absence of peer pressure.
If you decide to homeschool, how do you start? Begin by researching. Contact local homeschoolers, delve into websites for homeschoolers of children with special needs, and read books. A list of resources is provided at the end of this article. Deschool your child – in other words, let the child do his own learning. Provide materials to nurture the child’s interests and hobbies. Review educational/medical records; observe how your child learns best, and note sensory needs, strengths, interests and weaknesses. Keeping a daily journal of activities can help you do this. Attend workshops about social stories, learning styles, behavior, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)– anything to do with autism. Locate therapists to work with you and your child on speech, social skills, and fine and gross motor skills. Remember that no one is an island so don’t be afraid to ask for help for your child. Make sure you include your child in community activities. Slowly introduce him/her to homeschooling support activities.
Homeschooling a child with autism is challenging and requires dedication and patience. You may want to consider other alternatives to homeschooling if you feel: you don’t have the patience to teach your child, you are a perfectionist, you do not have an optimal home learning environment (younger siblings may be too distracting), your family is coping with other major stresses such as health problems, or your family relationships would become adversely affected.
If you do decide to take the homeschooling plunge, make sure you enlist the support of family, friends, and other homeschoolers. Find professional resources that offer support for your choice of education. Above all, take time to take care of yourself. Too many parents neglect themselves when rearing an autistic child. Seek counseling if you need it, use respite care for breaks, and develop your own personal interests that you find rewarding.
Homechooling can be a successful educational option for those rearing autistic children. There is a lot of support out there and the homeschooling movement is continually growing, particularly on-line. Whatever educational choice you decide to make ensure that it is the right choice for your child. The greatest reward we can have as parents is a happy, loving child.
Education.com – Website for worksheets, workbooks, activities
Khan Academy – On-line courses on many academic subjects and topics
Do2Learn – an on-line educational resource for children with special needs
A to Z Homeschooling -Resources and tips on homeschooling a child with an ASD
Editorial Policy: Autism Awareness Centre believes that education is the key to success in assisting individuals who have autism and related disorders. Autism Awareness Centre’s mission is to ensure our extensive autism resource selection features the newest titles available in North America. Note that the information contained on this web site should not be used as a substitute for medical care and advice.