Homeschooling Your Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Basics
By Holly Bortfeld
This article is not a step-by-step guide to homeschooling your child, but rather an overview of what homeschooling a child with ASD would entail to help you make an informed decision. As a long time homeschooler of 2 kids with ASD - one with Asperger's and one with moderate autism, I wholly recommend homeschooling, when possible and appropriate, but it’s not for everyone.
Firstly, ask yourself this: Do you want to give up every single moment of silence, solitude and the ability to go to the bathroom or the grocery store alone? Great, Homeschooling may be for you!
Seriously, no alone time. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Still with me? Ok, good.
What is good about homeschooling your child with ASD?
- It’s special time you get to spend with your child watching and helping them grow and learn.
- You will KNOW s/he is getting what they need, when they need it.
- You know they are safe.
- You know they are fed properly.
- It will teach you more than you will ever teach your child.
- No more IEP meetings! (well, replace them with lesson plans)
Why homeschool your child with ASD?
- A truly individualized program that fits the child’s needs and can change hourly/daily/weekly as needed.
- Less stress/anxiety for the child.
- Curriculum choices: You choose and adapt curriculum to suit your child and work at their speed.
- Safety: Abuse, neglect, bus drivers/aides, restraint rooms, bullying, etc. happen all too often in school settings.
- Educational viability: If your child cannot process the sensory surroundings of school, home can offer a great alternative.
- Fitness: Since schools have all but given up PE, or don’t adapt it well to kids with ASD, you can create your own program to fit your child’s likes and needs.
- Flexibility of schedules: Some kids learn better in the morning, some in the evening, some need longer breaks in the day, homeschooling offers you more flexibility.
- Less wasted time: Commuting to/from school takes moments, and you don’t have to shovel the snow out of the driveway to get there.
- Field trips: My favorite part of homeschooling is turning any trip, even a walk down the road, into a learning experience.
- Less time fighting the school and more time working on goals.
- Comfort: You can homeschool in your jammies. Enough said.
When shouldn’t you homeschool?
It’s very common for parents to get fed up with a school, public or private, and want to rip their child out and “just homeschool” but you should be able to answer these questions first:
- What does my child need to learn now?
- What does my child need to learn next?
- How do I present/teach it?
- How do I evaluate the effectiveness of the program?
If you cannot answer those questions, please STOP and don’t do anything rash. Finish reading this article so you’ll get a better idea of what is needed, then you can make a more informed decision.
First Things First: Things you need to know
Homeschooling a child with ASD is both very similar and very different to homeschooling NT children. There are many reasons to homeschool children, but the need for individualized teaching, safety, health and behaviors are the most common for pulling ASD kids out of the traditional school system.
Laws, Your Rights and Responsibilities: When you begin your homeschooling adventure, know what your state’s law is before you do anything. Every state has it’s own laws about homeschooling. Some are very lax and some are very strict. If your state requires a portfolio of your child’s work, and most do, be prepared or you could end up in trouble with the state. I encourage you to join HSLDA and learn what your laws, rights and responsibilities are before you embark on this journey.
Costs: Homeschooling can be done very cheaply but there are things you may need to pay out of pocket for. When you are in the public school system, all services are free to you. When you homeschool, that is rarely the case. There are certain things you can use from the public school system, even as a homeschooler, but the rest you will need to pay out of pocket, and then write off on your taxes.
Evaluations: The evaluations you will need will be the same at home as in school – speech and language, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychoeducational, assistive technology and specialty behavior, as needed.
Annual psychoeducational evaluations are very beneficial but are generally done every 3 years as they are quite expensive, ranging from $1200 to $4000. If you don’t have to foot the bill, or can afford it, getting one done every year is recommended.
A good psychoeducational evaluation will cover diagnosis, strengths, weaknesses, memory, attention, behavior, areas of need, present level of performance (PLOP), IQ tests, language and math tests, curriculum recommendations, modifications, suggested goals and more.
Getting evaluations covered by insurance: Most insurance will cover the OT, PT and speech evaluations and treatment without a fuss, but the psychoeducational and behavioral evaluations can be trickier. Learn more about how to bill your insurance.
Itinerant therapies: Just because your child is not enrolled in public school, doesn’t mean s/he cannot attend private therapies at the public school. Related services may include occupational therapy, physical therapy, orientation and mobility training, audiology, health services and/or transportation. Instructional services include speech and language therapy, adapted physical education and/or specialized instruction from a certified teacher of the deaf and visually impaired. Local districts can limit the amount of services they will provide. Check the law for your state at http://www.hslda.org.
Supplies:The bad part about homeschooling is that you alone bear the cost of curriculum and supplies. There are no state agencies that pay for homeschooling. Fortunately, you can write off homeschooling supplies and expenses on your taxes
Methods of Teaching
Since every child is different, and as with all things autism, you may want to use a mix of approaches when educating your children, but keep this in mind: If your child cannot function in his/her community, it doesn’t matter if they can do long division. Teach functional skills in every way you can.
Unschooling generally means that the children can learn whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want, without curriculum. Like the Floortime method, it’s wholly child-centered and child-focused, though Floortime has more concrete goals that you work towards.
Homeschooling generally means teaching your children at home with curriculum. You can use standard ed curriculum, specialized ASD curriculum, modify either, or create your own completely.
Since the needs of children with ASD change with time, functioning and health, you may use different approaches as your child’s needs dictate, and that’s one of the best parts about homeschooling – fitting the program to what YOUR child needs, when they need it.
There is also something called “Flexschooling” which is basically half day at home and half day at school. Most US schools don’t like this option as they may not get paid for only half time and they have less control over what’s being taught, when and how, so the IEP would have to crystal clear as to who will be responsible for which goals. There is a book on the subject: Autism and Flexischooling: A Shared Classroom and Homeschooling Approach by Clare Lawrence, but be forewarned, it’s written about the UK school system, not US.
Varied Approach: Whether you choose a strict ABA/VB-type approach, a more child-directed approach, a more Montessori/problem solving approach, a typical brick and mortar approach, or a mixture of many approaches, it’s up to you and your child to choose what works.
Lifeskills for children with ASD are paramount: My children are now adults and my best advice about educational goals would be this - Every child with ASD should have lifeskills goals in every home program, IEP and IFSP, because if your child gets lost and cannot navigate his or her own world, it won’t matter if they can spell Montana, or do long division. Life skills like self-care (laundry, bathing, cooking, cleaning), safety (crossing streets, not touching hot burners, knowing their name and phone number/address), communication skills (even if nonverbal, there are skills they can use to get help) just to name a few.
Work with Cyber Schools: Cyberschools, aka Virtual Charter Schools, are paid for by state funds so they are free to you, and they provide you tools like: computer, printer, curriculum, assistive technology devices, learning support help, evaluations, therapies, social outings and much more. The school also deals with the state for attendance, state testing, portfolios, etc., so you don’t have to. The only thing they don’t offer is the 1:1 in-person support. These schools are not available in all states but are in most. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_virtual_schools and do a web search for “cyber school and your state” for more information.
Get connected locally: You don’t want to isolate yourselves when you start homeschooling and thankfully, there are many homeschool groups in every state. They can help you understand state laws and requirements, make friends, get support and recommendations for local providers or services, find social outings and much more!
HSLDA's Groups list
AtoZ Homeschooling Autism Groups
Social Opportunities: Don’t fear that your child will never have any peer interaction again as there are homeschooling groups all over the US that you can connect with, plus there are 4H Clubs, Scouts, theater clubs, sporting teams, and many other kid-friendly programs your child can join.
Many kid-friendly places have “homeschool days” already so you can go during those times and participate. Libraries have ASD Storytime, almost all recreational places like fun centers (think mini-golf, go karts, video games), kid gyms, skating rinks, ski resorts, zoos, museums and many, many more, have “homeschool days”. Go and make friends!
There are MANY autism-specific Meetups on http://www.meetup.com for both kids and parents, so be sure to check them out.
Guidance: Every good program needs a team – therapists, teachers, evaluators, parents - and homeschooling a child with ASD is no different. You shouldn’t quit all therapies when beginning a home program, just move the core program to the home. The rest of team, if they are good, should stay together and refocus on home-based goals and skills. If all of your team was at school before, you should try to find and secure new providers for therapies BEFORE transitioning away from the school. If that’s not possible, just get them on board as soon as you can.
Curriculum: Specialized curriculum can be expensive; some are $1000 per grade level and may still need to be modified to fit your child. Of course, you can create all of your materials from scratch but it’s very time consuming and still may have to meet the state’s guidelines. During a psychoeducational evaluation, curriculum should be discussed and recommended for all areas of learning. Here is a website that has curriculum reviews.
How to know what curriculum to use: Here is where your team comes in handy as they should have experience with different tests and curriculum used with children with ASD. If you get a psychoeducational evaluation, it should include curriculum recommendations. Parents are also a very good source of recommendations.
Set your child up for success: Set up a separate room, just for school. Your home is a place of comfort, which is great, but you should create a separate workspace just for schooling. Keeping the distractions to a minimum, all the supplies in the same area, it helps keep kids (and you) focused on learning.
If you have a whole room, great, you can put inexpensive white boards on the wall or paint one wall with chalkboard paint and list all the day’s activities and lessons as a visual schedule.
If you have a child who fidgets or needs sensory input to stay focused, try a Ball Chair or a seat cushion.
A bookshelf and a table (preferably an indestructible one) and a set of storage drawers will get you started on the right foot.
Portfolios: Homeschool portfolios are legally required in most states, so keep them current, professional looking and ready to be presented to the state when needed. Portfolios show what your child has learned, how it was accomplished, what resources were used and how much progress was made. A portfolio will contain lesson plans, progress notes, hours per week spent learning, any written work (get in the habit of dating papers to keep track), photos of projects, proof of trips (tickets, flyers etc), proof of volunteering and any legal papers like an IEP.
PE: Physical exercise is very important for kids with ASD and needs to be daily. Fortunately, PE doesn’t have to be boring and you can tailor it to your child’s abilities and likes. Consider organized classes like Taekwondo, YMCA, kayaking, swimming, CrossFit for Kids, tennis, and even a home gym; and you can write off the equipment and classes on your taxes. Get more exercise ideas.
You no longer are beholden to the same old standard boring field trips that are subject to cost, district approval, time, travel, etc. You can go anywhere, anytime and turn it into a learning experience! I have taken my kids all over the country and turn every trip into a homeschool learning experience. Working on math skills while snow tubing by measuring speeds and temps, working on money skills at the grocery store, or on safety and navigation skills in the airport, the choices are only limited by your imagination.
State Standardized Test Exemptions: Did you know you can get exemptions from state standardized tests whether your children are homeschooled or in regular school? Yes, you can!
I have a religious exemption to both the standard test that all children are “required” to take as well as the ‘modified for special education students’ version for my son. There is no way my son could take a standard test and we tried the modified test once and it didn't benefit my son in any way, and only stressed him out, so we refused to allow it again. Here is a site listing laws for exemptions throughout the USA or join on Facebook.
State Vaccine Exemptions: If you live in the US, you can get exemptions for “mandatory” vaccines. There are 3 types of exemptions – Medical, Religious and Philosophical. There are only 2 states that only allow Medical exemptions, and many offer all 3. Read up on your state’s laws.
Asperger's Special Concerns: I have 2 kids with ASD, one of whom has Asperger's. The public school systems were wholly incapable of keeping up with her needs, both academic and social, prompting us to pull her out. When she was 11, the "gifted" program's director said "she's just TOO advanced and we want to move her to the high school, without an aide". Picture a small 11-year old girl being trampled by giant 18-year men in the hallways and being exposed to the social graces that are inherent in public school teenagers. Yea, I think we'll pass.
Here is a quote from Parenting Your Asperger Child by Alan Sohn Ed.d, and Cathy Grayson, M.A. that sums up home teaching kid's with Asperger's Syndrome:
"Schools tend to focus on academics. Many Asperger children have fairly well-developed academic skills. It will be the cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional issues that will be the most important ones for your child to learn. You will be your child's most important teacher because you spend more time with him than anyone else and, also, because he needs to demonstrate the appropriate skills in the real world, not just in a classroom."
Academics are not the primary reason for homeschooling most kids with Asperger's, but rather the low-stress environment and social-emotional support that will help them soar!
So, now that you know the basics of what you'll need, do you think you're tough enough to homeschool your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder? I hope so. While not for the weary, homeschooling offers so many benefits for the child, the parent and the family. You have a long, exciting, exhausting road ahead of you, but it's going to be awesome!
Recommended Reading and Resources:
Home School Legal Defense Association
VB MAPP skills testing
A to Z Home's Cool Homeschool website
Homeschooling Autism Blog
Homeschooling ASD Pinterest Boards
About.com's Homeschooling Resources for Autism Page
National Association for Child Development
Choosing a Homeschooling Curriculum for a Preschooler with ASD by Jeanne Mifflin
A book on deciding to homeschool a child with Asperger's (not how to actually do it)
Is Home School Right for Your Child with Asperger's?
Home-Schooling the Aspergers Child: Pros and Cons
Autism and Unschooling on Pinterest
Free curriculum Resources: