How to Homeschool Your Autistic Child

Why Homeschooling May Be the Right Choice

father reads with son

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There's a well-known saying that goes: "if you've met one child with autism you've met one child with autism." In other words, every child with autism is unique, and every set of needs and strengths is different. That can make it surprisingly difficult for school districts attempting to create autism support programs, classrooms, or training programs.

You may find that your district is unable to provide the services your child needs. When that happens, you may want to consider the possibility of homeschooling your child, at least for a period of time.

The Setting

Schools are required to provide free and appropriate education to all children, with goals and accommodations in place to help each child learn in the least restrictive setting. In theory, you'd think that every child should receive an ideal, personalized educational experience designed to help him achieve at his highest potential. The reality, however, is often quite different from theory.

There are many reasons why public (or even private) school may not be the right setting for your particular child at a particular point in her development.

  • Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) are built around a student's challenges, and goals are focused on the student's deficits. As a result, your child's education may not build on strengths or even provide opportunities to expand on her areas of interest. In addition, in order to take advantage of therapies or specialized programs, she may miss out on opportunities to participate in classes such as art, music, or gym.
  • Schools, in general, can be a perfect storm of challenges for your autistic child. Many schools are loud, bright, crowded, and confusing. Social norms vary from moment to moment—children are expected to behave differently depending on whether they're in an academic class, the cafeteria, the gym, or the playground. Each teacher may have a unique set of expectations, rules, and schedules. The list goes on and on, and for some children, no school setting will be ideal.
  • It's common for children with special needs to be bullied in the school setting, and children with autism are a particularly easy target. Even if your child is unaware of the whispers, stares, and sarcasm around him, it can have a devastating impact on his school career.
  • If your child is able to be in a general education setting, she may run into challenges based on her learning style. While autistic children tend to be visual, spatial, and mathematical learners, most classes assume a verbal learning style.
  • If your child is in an "autism support" classroom, he may find it stressful (many such classrooms include children with behavioral issues). He may also be higher or lower functioning that the other students in the classroom.

Benefits

If you are a parent who has the time, energy, money, and inclination to homeschool (and those are a lot of ifs) and you happen to live in a homeschool friendly state, homeschooling can be a terrific option for your autistic child. Here are just some of the benefits:

Targeted Learning

Parents can target learning directly to their child's interests and strengths while finding appropriate ways to help remediate challenges. For example, a child who loves trains can use trains to learn how to count, read, draw, pretend, and explore the community.

Parents can also develop or find visual, video-based, or hands-on learning tools to support their child's learning style.

Targeted Support

Parents can support their child appropriately in a much wider array of community settings, carefully selecting the right time and place. For example, a child might enjoy and learn from a library program if a parent is on the spot to manage any behavioral issues and help their child learn to find and check out favorite books.

Tailored Experiences

Parents can seek out appropriate experiences for their child, based on his particular profile. Swim classes at the Y, Challenger League basketball, local video opportunities, nature hikes, museum visits, trips to the playground, and much more, can be accessed with the right preparation and support.

In some cases, parents can plan to introduce new settings slowly, and prepare to leave whenever their child is ready. 

Specific Talent Development

Some children with autism are extremely capable in certain areas, and parents can support those talents in a way that schools might not through (for example) art or dance classes, music lessons, computer clubs, etc.

Greater Therapy Opportunities

Some children with autism are likely to do better with therapies (or therapists) not available through the schools. Play therapy, Floortime, and many other therapies are rarely provided in school settings.

Community Connections

In some communities, parents can seek out homeschooling or special needs groups, Scout troops, or other organizations where their children can find social outlets. By meeting other parents and children, they can facilitate social interaction and growth.

Improved Learning Environment

It's far easier for homeschooling parents to create an autism-friendly learning environment with natural and incandescent light, lower noise levels, a slower pace, and shorter class sessions.

Making a Decision

If you choose to homeschool your autistic child you'll be joining a growing group of families with the same idea. Homeschooling, however, is not for everyone—and while it may be a good choice for a particular stretch of time, it might not work for the long term. Homeschooling may be the right option for your family if:

  • School options are truly insufficient or inappropriate for your child's growth and happiness.
  • One parent has enough time to dedicate to the process without compromising the family's financial welfare or structure (going broke in order to homeschool is never a good choice) or you have the resources to hire tutors who have the skills and ability to work with your child. 
  • The homeschooling parent is capable of and enthusiastic about homeschooling a child with special needs.
  • You and your child actively enjoy spending time together.
  • Local state and district regulations make homeschooling a reasonable option for you and your child (in some states laws are quite restrictive; in others, there are few if any laws regarding homeschooling).
  • You feel confident that your child can and will do better in a homeschool situation than in another available setting.
  • Your child is either eager to be homeschooled or so unhappy at school that any change would be a plus.

If you don't agree with any of these statements, homeschooling could be a poor choice unless it's a last resort in an extremely difficult situation.

Helpful Resources

If you decide to homeschool your autistic child, you're not alone and you do have quite a few resources at your disposal. In fact, depending on where you live, you could have more resources than you could possibly use.

Books and Blogs

Search for "homeschooling autism" and you'll find entire books and ongoing blogs describing techniques, curricula, teaching styles, discipline styles, socialization ideas, support groups, and much more.

District Resources

Even if your child is no longer in the district schools, the district still has a responsibility for your child (and there's a decent chance she'll return to district schools at some point).  Before pulling your child out of school (or as soon thereafter as possible), start discussions with your district about available resources. Depending on your needs and preferences and your child's strengths, you may well be able to access therapists, specific classes (such as art or gym), afterschool programs, or extracurricular activities for your child. 

Special Needs Recreational and Social Programs

Many areas have autism-related groups that run afterschool programs. Most areas have Challenger Clubs, Best Buddies, Easter Seals, ARC, or other organizations that run activities, social groups, support groups, outings, and more. Some museums, theaters, and even stores offer autism-friendly hours or events.  Dig deeply, as there are often "hidden" programs such as Scout troops that welcome children with special needs—but you have to ask around to find them.

Consider participating in typical programs and activities including homeschool classes.  Now that you can be your child's 1:1 support, there's a good chance your child can participate in a much wider range of programs than ever before. Look at the Y (always a great choice for inclusion), as well as 4-H, museum programs and events, rec programs run by your town, fairs, art classes—in short, anywhere where your child can participate, learn, and interact with others. While you may need to support him or even cut some events short, he'll be doing more than he could possibly have done in a school setting.

Online Options

There is an unending range of educational tools available online. Use them, but not to the exclusion of real-world interactions which are key to your child's learning. Depending on your child's abilities and interests you can combine online courses with real-world learning, or make use of videos and games to help your child grasp concepts.

Challenges and Opportunities

Often, parents homeschool their autistic children because it's tough to teach children with autism, especially in an institutional setting like a school. While taking your child home can alleviate some of the challenges, you will nevertheless be faced with the reality that autistic children:

  • May have intellectual challenges and almost certainly have compromised communication skills
  • May have significant sensory and/or behavioral issues that make it difficult to ensure compliance or even to go out into the community
  • Are very unlikely to learn through imitation or without direct instruction
  • Are very likely to have difficulty in typical groups, associations, sports, or classes
  • Will need a great deal of support in learning to socialize with typical peers, manage time and money, plan their time, and complete their work
  • Need, in addition to academic programming, an array of therapies some of which can be provided by parents but all of which must be planned, managed, and tracked.

In addition to all these challenges, you may find it tough to identify groups, coaches, instructors, or peers willing and able to work with or befriend your child.

On the other hand, homeschooling will alleviate a great many problems that are actually caused by the school environment. Once your child is out of a setting that constitutes a daily sensory assault, they may find it much easier to attend and learn.

Once your child is allowed to focus on topics and disciplines of real interest, her academic skills may expand rapidly. And when you are able to cherry-pick inclusive experiences and support your child as needed, you may be amazed at her "hidden" abilities.

Tips for Starting

Autistic children are challenging students, and autistic children with behavioral issues are even more challenging. Before getting started, you'll want to have a clear plan, support, tools, and therapists set up and ready to go.

Some homeschoolers strongly advocate very loose, unstructured programs and "unschooling" as a great way for children to explore their own interests. This may work for some kids, but it is extremely unlikely to work for a child with autism.

Autistic kids can become very upset when routines are broken; they're also likely to spend unstructured time on a favored activity such as finger flicking or toilet flushing rather than (as advertised by "free range" advocates) exploring and learning about the natural world.

Here are some tips for getting started.

Get Organized

Line up your ducks in a row before you get underway. Remember that kids with autism rarely go with the flow, and are likely to do best in a structured situation. Know which educational tools you'll use, and have them ready to go. Know what therapies you'll be providing, and how and when they'll be provided. If you're going out into the community, make plans. If you think you'll need support or respite, line it up before you start feeling overwhelmed.

Start Slow

Line up a structured day, but don't overwhelm yourself or your child with hours and hours of academic or therapeutic activity. When you're working 1:1, a little goes a long way—and a trip to the playground, library, or park can be built into your school day.

Consider Your Child's Learning Style

Most, but not all, children with autism learn best through a combination of direct instruction, visual and interactive learning, and hands-on experience. Many need a great deal of repetition and practice to master a concept or process. Some do well on computers while others are hands-on learners. Most do best when they know what's coming next.  Spend some time observing your child, experiment, and stick with the learning tools that work.

Include Academic and Social Teaching

All too often, schools neglect either academic or social teaching when working with autistic children. You'll want to include both, designing each "program" to fit your child's specific abilities, challenges, and interests. That may mean making playdates, joining groups, or getting involved (as possible) in teams, organizations, church groups, etc.

Keep Expectations Reasonable

While schools are required to include your school and provide accommodations and supports, no one else is. Your child (or you, on behalf of your child) may be interested in learning to dance, participating in the rec department's baseball team, but if your child has too many challenges or is disruptive the organization or teacher has the right to ask you to leave. 

Your best bet, depending on circumstances, is to address your child's issues head on ahead of time; if the organizer or instructor is very nervous about a child with autism it's best to avoid getting involved. Otherwise, consider "shadowing" your child as needed.

A Word From Verywell

Homeschooling is a time and energy-intensive business that requires a great deal of patience and a certain degree of isolation from adult activities and interests. In addition, depending on circumstances, it can be expensive. As a result, many parents decide it's not a good option for them. If you're less than enthusiastic about homeschooling your autistic child, there are many in-between options available. Just taking some time to engage with your child through play can make a real difference in his life. Bear in mind that the happiness and stability of the whole family will play an important role in ensuring your autistic child's best outcomes.

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