As parents of children diagnosed with autism, we have more jobs than most parents. We are therapists, nutritionists, researchers, advocates, playmates, managers, poop analysts, sanitation workers, human moon bouncers, squeeze machines, chefs, their voice and more, while loving our kids more than life itself.
In the midst of this swirling time, we’re teaching our kids every time we’re around them: teaching them how to let us know what they need, whether it’s with a communication device, words, sentences, sounds or gestures. We’re teaching them how to use the bathroom and all the steps that are involved, some with picture cues or videos. This is a natural part of our job as parents and caregivers—to teach. Many of us have taken that “natural” part of our parenting style and have expanded it by homeschooling.
Some parents decide on homeschooling upon the birth of thier child, or for religious reasons. Others do it because the public and private school system fails to meet their child’s needs, or perhaps have taken away crucial services without notice. Overcrowded, understaffed classrooms and bullying are other issues.
Food issues also loom large. It seems to be the norm lately to use chemical candies and other fake sugar treats to promote math, reward success, and celebrate special occasions. The toxic food environment is a battle for parents trying to manage allergies and sensitivities. It’s more and more common to have a week where Johnny brings in artificially flavored chocolate circles that contain casein for the entire class, and it’s also Susie’s birthday, and the One Hundred’s Day party.
It means that within that week, a child with autism will have had two very processed, chemically laced mercury-coated big-box store cupcakes that caused out-of-control bowel issues due to the yeast beast overgrowth from the extra processed sugar… on top of the hyper child it created. Not much learning going on that week for sure, but a whole lot of pain for this family. If only the school was more organized and gave the parent the heads up and allowed alternatives to be made, per the IEP, all of this could be avoided.
For many families, attending school in the traditional manner has just gotten to be too much of a struggle to be practical. Our family began the journey four years ago, after our oldest child experienced an overcrowded and understaffed kindergarten classroom. There were no available enrichment programs to keep him interested, as he had mastered the skills being introduced in his class. In addition, he had an inexperienced teacher who wasn’t handling the situation well nor keeping control of the child who constantly used his hands on my son. He became increasingly bored as the year progressed, which is never a good situation. Moving wasn’t an option, so we chose to homeschool. Even though it wasn’t planned, it has worked out very well for our family, and currently we have four homeschooled children.
It is important to consider the pros and cons involved before reaching a decision on homeschooling.
IS IT LEGAL?
Every state (and country outside of the U.S.) has its own laws regarding homeschooling. Some areas are completely hands off, like Illinois and Texas in the U.S., where no notification of any kind needs to occur to the school, district or state. You don’t have to turn in any records or materials proving that you are indeed teaching, and your child doesn’t have to take the state assessment exams.
Other states and countries require a parent to have a teaching degree and/or meet with a certified teacher bi-weekly. Some countries—for example, France—have made homeschooling illegal. Know your local laws before deciding to homeschool, as they may or may not be a deal breaker. Check with your local education department or the Home School Legal Defense Association (see Find Out More, p27).
DO YOU HAVE THE TIME?
You really need to be honest with yourself about this. Homeschooling doesn’t just take up your child’s time, it takes up yours too, and this can affect the entire family. I know families who would love to homeschool, but between working, therapy, traveling to appointments and wait times, caring for siblings and daily tasks, there’s no time to give or get. Others have successfully rearranged everything to fit homeschooling into the family schedule. Planning and teaching can take minimal time, but for others it can be very time consuming—it depends on your style and personality, in addition to what your goals are for that day, week, month and/or year.
Keep in mind that as you develop your teaching style, the more you’ll come to understand how best your child learns and the more organized the process becomes. For our family, the academic day is about three to four hours, and for Nick just a couple of hours at this point. I use every teachable moment I can, which doesn’t really take any more time than the task at hand. I focus largely on life skills for him at this point, like putting clothes on the right way, cleaning up after himself, washing himself in the tub, practicing good bathroom habits and sitting at the table during meals.
ARE SCHOOL SERVICES NECESSARY FOR YOUR CHILD?
School districts offer speech and occupational therapy for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), in addition to other services. The number of minutes a child gets varies, with some receiving as little as 20 group minutes a week and some up to 30 minutes daily. School districts also offer social work interventions and specific modifications based upon the needs that have been identified.
Instead of utilizing school offered speech and occupational therapy, families frequently choose to use their health insurance plan to cover those needs. As we all know, however, not all health insurance plans are equal so make sure you check to see if you have limits on the number of sessions and what your cost is for those therapies. In a traditional school setting, some children have a one-on-one aide for various reasons. Homeschooling may eliminate this need, as we are constantly with our children and can assist them as required. If you still feel your child needs those services, you may still have that option while homeschooling, since some districts will let you utilize your child’s IEP at home. They will send the therapists to the home or ask your child to come for just those services. Check with your district.
WHAT SHOULD YOUR CHILD LEARN?
Once you’ve done the necessary research, decided that homeschooling is the best option for your family, and notified anyone you need to according to local laws, it’s time to work out what your child should learn, and what’s available to you in the way of support and resources.
Most states and countries have their own standards and benchmarks to categorize what should be learned and with what subject at what grade. Looking at those is a good place to start to get an idea of what skills the government has identified should be known or introduced at a particular grade. You truly need to consider your own child’s capabilities and what goals you feel they need to accomplish within that year. It may or may not align with what the government has stipulated. In addition to traditional academics, life skills—such as potty training, putting on appropriate clothes, independent feeding, and more—can be a part of or all of your goals and curriculum.
I know what you’re thinking—homeschooled kids lose out on social activities and have no idea on how to make friends. But actually, homeschooled children have as many, if not more, opportunities to be social than children at traditional schools. It also happens in a setting that allows parents to gently guide them into being successful socially.
Most local, state, and country educational goals don’t actually include socialization or manners—they’re weighed heavily towards academic subjects such as math and language arts. Socialization skills and manners are learned from other students and from the way teachers model them.
Many homeschooling families take the time to teach how to play with other children as we play along with them. We have the opportunity to model conversations and manners on a personal level, and to reiterate the emotional connection of friendship in a positive way to our children. Social opportunities are everywhere, and we get to take advantage of them at anytime we want. We get to choose where and when we want to socialize, and have the opportunity to surround ourselves with families who couldn’t care less that the food has to be GF/CF/SF… phew!
Need Support? No Problem!
Homeschooling support groups can be found everywhere, be they religious, secular, ability specific or otherwise. Even park districts and museums are offering homeschool classes just for our kids. Smaller class size means—in addition to being more hands-on—more opportunity to learn and socialize. Some areas offer co-op classes, discount memberships, and organized activities specific to homeschooled children.
Need some help in the house? Many homeschooling families have older children who can be utilized as “Mother’s Helpers” for little to no money. In addition, there are websites you can join to hire additional help, and don’t forget your local college: it can be a great way to find a student who is studying physical, speech or occupational therapy, or special education. Also check your Yahoo groups, Mothering.com, Meetup.com, Cafemom.com and Google to find local or online support.
You’ll be amazed how much support is out there, as homeschooling has been around for such a long time. Starting your own group may be a great option as well—that’s what I did in Chicago, and I’ll be forever grateful and bonded to those families, no matter where we move!
Our third child, Nicholas, who has autism, has done extremely well homeschooling. A lot of his learning we can do naturally through play and day-to-day tasks. Technology has helped as well—he enjoys the computer and hand-held devices. The repetition designed into those games have helped him master his ABCs, letter sounds, counting to 100 and more.
I really let Nick take the lead on his learning as I know forcing him to sit when his thoughts require action and movement will only hinder his learning at this point. I need him to love learning on so many levels that it will allow him to reach his full potential and be who he wants to be, whatever that is. Action and activities are what work best for now.
Your Child’s Curriculum
Homeschooling has come a long way, with many states and countries offering a free curriculum and all the supplies to go with it, from the textbooks, a computer and stationery to support as well, via online education (see Find Out More, below). The online curricula they offer can be modified for your child, preferably in consultation with a certified teacher from your area.
There are more options, like purchasing all-in-one curricula independently. You can select from the traditional textbook form, online and even video curricula that has a teacher going step by step with your student. Complete curricula can be bought new and used, so if you choose to select an all-in-one you might want to consider looking for a deal on a Yahoo or Google group, and even Ebay. Prices range from under $100 used to over $1,000 new. You need to consider how your child learns—is he or she visual, auditory or even both—when selecting a premade curriculum. There are many styles of homeschooling, including traditional, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Unschooling and others, in addition to eclectic approaches that take something from each of those.
Our family uses a set Math curriculum—the University of Chicago’s Everyday Mathematics—and Handwriting Without Tears, as well as teacher-store bought lesson units and units I’ve created myself or purchased online. In August, I’ll be starting Nick on a lap book system. This style of lesson is very visual, allowing for art to be utilized and offering the freedom to not do it everyday.