Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all children are entitled to a “free and appropriate education” through the public school system. The problems begin, though, with the term “appropriate.” This word is subjective, open to numerous interpretations. It also leaves plenty of room for school improvement. Federal law doesn’t require schools to provide the optimal or best education for children with special needs. Appropriate simply means that children with special needs must receive similar opportunities as children without special needs.
Most public schools today face serious budget shortfalls, and special education budgets are being whittled along with everything else. Your child’s IEP may not include everything he needs to be successful, and the emotional cost of working with school districts can be exhausting.
Children with autism often struggle in a regular classroom setting even with adequate adaptations. These kids may seem “different” or have difficulty relating to other children. Sometimes they become the target of bullies. Children with autism often have sensory processing difficulties, and the constant barrage of noises and visual stimuli takes a toll. Kids with autism usually learn best through a multi-sensory approach, a philosophy most teachers are unequipped to offer. They may become intensely interested in one or two subjects at the exclusion of other topics.
Benefits of Homeschooling
If you and your child are facing these challenges, homeschooling just might be the answer. Some of the benefits of homeschooling an autistic child include:
- A comfortable, familiar environment free of the bright lights and noises found in a classroom.
- The ability to adapt curriculum to suit current interests.
- A consistent, predictable schedule.
- The opportunity to teach social skills in a small setting, which is less overwhelming to children with autism.
- The freedom to take learning wherever you want. Take a class, visit a museum, work in the garden, or talk with an expert.
- Time to incorporate religious teaching with secular learning.
- Increased self esteem. In a classroom setting, children with autism are constantly reminded of their differences and weaknesses. At home, you can build on your child’s strengths, rather than focusing on weaknesses.
Homeschooling a child with autism may seem like a daunting task. You may worry how your child will respond to you as a teacher. You may wonder how you’ll survive taking care of your autistic child’s needs and behaviors full-time. You may also worry about managing other children’s needs as well as taking care of your household.
Your first step will likely be that of enlisting some help. In most states, if your child qualifies for services under IDEA, the school district must legally provide those services even if you choose to homeschool. This means that your child can still receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, or other services free of charge. The school may opt to hire private professionals to come to your home, or you may have to take your child to the school to receive those services.
You can also contract with specialists, independent of your school district, to come to your home. Many states now require insurance companies to cover some of these expenses for children diagnosed with autism. Your state may also cover respite care, so you can have some time to take care of other responsibilities.
Take advantage of these services. Homeschooling a child with autism is a big job, and the more support you have, the more successful you’ll be. To learn more about the services available in your state, contact Exceptional Parent or the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.
One note of caution: public school districts vary in their support of homeschooling, especially for children with disabilities. Sometimes, well-meaning school officials can become intrusive or downright confrontational, believing that only trained professionals can educate children with special needs. Don’t allow school officials to undermine your confidence or interfere with your day-to-day teaching. Their purpose is to support you in nurturing your child’s educational needs. If you find officials intimidating, coercive or unhelpful, you’re probably better off opting out of their services. If you need further support and advice, contact the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Tips for Instruction
Many books have been written on the subject of teaching children with autism, but the most important point to remember is that as your child’s parent, you know her best and are uniquely qualified to develop a program that fits her needs. Trust your intuition when developing curriculum and don’t be afraid to make changes if something doesn’t work. Additionally, you are always free to ask for the help of the Lord! Pray over every aspect of your child’s educational experience. Ask for the inspiration to know which methods work best as well as the strength and wisdom to pursue this endeavor.
Having said that, below you’ll find some strategies and ideas that have worked for many parents who are homeschooling children with autism. Try a few of these to find the ones which work for you.
- Set up a predictable schedule based on your child’s preferences. If your child is most attentive first thing in the morning, then use that time for academic learning.
- Use visuals to keep your child on track and emphasize learning. Download a trial subscription to Boardmaker. This software program allows you to easily make illustrated charts and schedules for your child on almost any subject imaginable.
- Base learning on your child’s interests. If your son is obsessed with snakes, then do a project about snakes. Conduct research on the Internet, write stories, read books from the library, visit a zoo, make snakes out of clay, or talk with an expert.
- Use a multi-modal approach, which simply means that you incorporate a variety of sensory activities in the day. Act out stories, draw and paint, go for a walk, and sing songs. The beauty of homeschooling is that you’re not constrained to learning at a desk.
- Consider incorporating ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) into your curriculum. This method is considered one of the most effective ways to teach children with autism. Many insurance companies now cover ABA therapy. The Lovaas Institute is just one in-home provider of ABA services.
- Join homeschooling groups specifically tailored for children with special needs. These groups provide opportunities for field trips and social gatherings. Many libraries, museums, and even theaters now offer programs tailored for children with spectrum disorders. Use these outlets to enrich your learning.
Homeschooling a child with autism is a constantly evolving process. You’ll have some very satisfying, successful days, and you’ll also have discouraging, exhausting days. Such is the nature of teaching, whether you’re a homeschooling parent or a teacher in a regular classroom. Keep experimenting until you find a program and schedule that works for you. Talk with other parents and look for new ideas. Few things in life will be more rewarding than helping your child with autism reach his or her potential.