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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

9th Grade Boy's Autism Curriculum

9th Grade Theme: Decisiveness  

True Story #1:

I came home from an hours shopping trip to find Jackson on the couch with a towel wrapped around his waist.  He had taken a shower while I was gone, and upon finding no clean shorts in his dresser, he just sat in his towel until I got back to find him clean clothes.  He promptly said, "Pants please" when I walked in, to which I responded, "this year, buddy, we are going to work on your problem solving skills!".  There were clean shorts in laundry basket NEXT TO the dresser! 

True Story #2:

Jackson's favorite drink at Starbucks is a Cool Lime Refresher, but occasionally they are out of the mix that is required to make the drink.  When this occurred last week, I turned to him and asked, "What would you like instead?"  He looked at me like there were worms crawling out of my head, even though I know he likes many other drinks there, like lemonade, iced tea and this yummy berry concoction.  So I said, "this year, buddy, we are going to work on your decision making skills!" and promptly ordered him an iced unsweetened green tea, which he sucked down before we left the parking lot.  

I have always assigned a general theme to each year of Jackson's homeschooling, and this year is no different:

6th:  Recovery Year - Trying to undo the 8 weeks of stress that middle school caused and get his academics back up to speed, so the vibe was peaceful and comforting.  

7th:  Push Forward Year - Challenging him in all areas of academics, behavior, and life skills, which lead to a more angst filled home as we challenged him to push himself. 

8th:  Free at Last Year - After a year of raising our expectations for Jackson, he beautifully embraced his independence and showed us just how much he could do on his own!  This did cause some friction with people and organizations that still treated him like a needy child and not the confident young man he was becoming.  

9th: Decisive Year - This year we are going to focus on helping Jackson learn to be decisive.  This is a character trait the my husband values above almost anything else (go figure as a former Army officer), and one that we have emphasized with out 12 yr old daughter so much that she knew the meaning of that word at 5!  We have never expected decisiveness from Jackson though, and we can see how this has been a detriment to his development.   Problem solving activities and decision making scenarios will be the two focus areas that will help foster this skill.  

Problem Solving

1. Critical Thinking Book Series:
Each of these books come in a series ranging from K-5th grade.  I have started at the 1st grade level for all 3.  This will help Jackson quickly gain confidence in his problem solving and critical thinking skills.  Each book addresses a different topic and helps build his non verbal, written, and audio problem solving abilities.  

2.  "What Should We Do?" Scenarios

Instead of trying to always make every experience with Jackson and smooth and trouble free as possible, I am going to create daily situations that require him to think through solutions, without me jumping in to fix everything.  For example, if his book on CD is skipping, instead of giving into the "Mom, fix the CD please",  I will ask him what to he's seen me take it out and clean it with my shirt 50 times. These may seem like little things, but creating an environment of self-reliance is crucial to his future ability to function independently, and me jumping in at every wrinkle will not set him up for success.  At this very moment, the dog is barking at a crew of painters who are roaming around the outside of our house.  Usually,  I will just go quite the dog down as to not upset J, who hates the sound of him barking, but I need Jackson to figure out how to handle the dog on his own. If that means him deciding to ignore the barking and deal with the loud noise, then that is a problem solved as far as I'm concerned!   

Decision Making

1.  Schedule 

In the past I have always dictated his daily schedule...see them all here: 
But this year, he will be required to plan out his own day.  I will give him a packet of work for the week on Mondays, along with a calendar of the pre-determined activities, i.e. yoga class, Adapted PE, appointments, Caroline's classes, etc... But from there, he will need to make decisions about when he wants to work out, shower, eat, study, play, shop, and so on.  I imagine there will be a steep learning curve for both of us, but I am willing to stick it out if he is willing to engage in this process.  

2.  Life Skills Book Series:
Each of these books will present everyday choices for Jackson to learn how to work through.  I plan to use each of these scenarios as a jumping off point to recreate in his daily life.  For example, he will be required to read Caroline's basketball schedule and decide which games he's like to go to.  He will also be required to begin paying for all his items in cash so he has to make some hard choices about whether or not he is going to buy strawberries or grapes with the $10 he has, because he can't get both. This might take a loooong time to master, but we need to begin at some point, and now is as good a time as any!  


This year, Jackson's school work will consist of a math and reading focus.  We will do some special social studies and science units, but both within the context of math and reading.  We will continue to push forward with more complex math that will help with his real life decisions.  Fractions, money management, measurement, geometry, and pre-algebra are all very important for daily life success.  Reading will focus on non fiction and technical materials to help him develop a familiarity with consumer related options and choices.  He loves spending long periods of time reading and listening to books on CD, so we will definitely continue that practice.  He is reading the Artemis Fowl series this summer totally by his won choosing.  We are excited to add a "NightTime" unit to his program, as he is obsessed with being outside at night.  We will be doing everything from constellations to moon phases to animal's nighttime habits to special lighting and photography.  

Life Skills:

Jackson's life skills have taken a giant leap forward in the past 12 months.  He is able to do things we never thought possible 10 yrs ago.  To us, that means he might not have to live with us for the rest of his life, but can possibly achieve semi-independent living.  If history serves us well, we can not even imagine what he will be like 10yrs from now, so we are choosing not to limit him anymore.   So check back with me in June of 2015 to see what amazing things he learned how to do that are not even on my radar right now:)

I hope this summary of J's 9th grade curriculum has provided you with both encouragement and motivation that you can also create something uniquely amazing for your special needs kiddos!  The sky's the limit when us parents are at the helm and throw wide open our doors of expectation and wonderment at our children.  

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

7th Grade Girl's Honors Homeschool Curriculum 2014-2015

  I decided to post my 7th grade daughter's curriculum before Jackson's, because, frankly, it was much easier to put together!  She will be following the public school calendar and the Virginia state SOLs pretty closely, so I was able to create a comprehensive program for her in about a weeks time.  Jackson's program has taken me all summer to think through, and I am still not even close to finished...ugh!! I know many of you homeschool at least one other neuro-typical child, so I thought a quick blog about Caroline might be helpful, and also make you feel less guilty about not having all your ducks in a row for your autistic child's upcoming school year.  

As an FYI, Caroline is 12 and going into 7th grade.  While in public school, she was enrolled in the gifted program (called AAP or Advanced Academic Program here in Fairfax County).  We homeschooled her in 5th grade just for a one year experience, (she was jealous of her brother), but we found that when she went back into middle school for 6th grade, it was not a good fit for her...1500 out-of-control kids between the ages of 11-14 was just too much for my shy, introverted, witty, serious and intense kid.  She will finish all her work for the following program by noon every day and spend the rest of her time with her many other homeschool friends or in the gym, where she is happiest.

As Caroline's mother, this has been my favorite age so far by a mile!  I am so looking forward to spending more time with the most interesting, kind and funniest person I know, second only to my husband.

Math: Algebra 1

Math-U-See: Algebra 1

Caroline is a visual learner who needs a multi-sensory approach to new concepts. Math-U-See uses a manipulative number system to help students learn new concepts in a variety of ways and styles.  This curriculum also offers an option for live online co-op support groups for extra help, as well as instructional DVDs, student & teacher manuals and an extensive test book.

Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra

I love the Life of Fred series, it is a textbook like no other.  It presents math concepts in the form of a novel about a kid named Fred Gauss and his life adventures that revolve around the need to use math to solve his various problems.  Since Caroline's major weakness in math has always been word problems, this series is essential to her developing a stronger understanding of Algebra.

Hot X: Algebra Exposed

This is such a cool series of books written by Danica McKellar, the actress who played Winnie Cooper from Wonder Years.  Caroline has read all her other books up to the Algebra level.  McKellar's focus is to help girls feel powerful and confident in their math skills while maintaining their right to be a girl first.  So many STEM programs attempt to turn gifted girls into stereotypical "math nerds"and disregard their unique identity and interests as girls.  Caroline has the right to like to make-up and nail polish as well as complex equations and brain matter.


Caroline used this introductory algebra program during her 5th grade year.  We had the single student set and finished levels 1 and 2.  It can be used with kids as young as 1st grade, and is a fantastic tool for students with multiple learning styles.  This year, she will be doing level 3 using the iPad app only.  Since we still have all the boards and pieces from 2 years ago,  she can easily incorporate those if the app is not hands-on enough.

Science: Life Sciences

Caroline will be doing all of her science exclusively through a STEM Enrichment Learning Center called Ideaventions.   She will take 3 classes per term that meet once a week for a lab session with a project assignment to accompany each lesson.  This fall there are over 20 class offerings for grades K-8 ranging in topics from Kitchen Chemistry to Newtonian Physics to Ninja Robotics.  Caroline is the most excited about having the opportunity to dissect a cow's brain!

Social Studies:  U.S. History 1865-Present 

History of US

I used this text as a supplement to my 10th grade U.S. Government class because of its excellent use of primary source materials and well organized format.  PBS created a 16 part series, called "Freedom: A History of US", based on this text that is an excellent supplement to the program.  Caroline will only be using books 7-10 for her 7th grade curriculum as they align with the time periods to be studied.  This text also comes with teacher support materials such as an assessment book, resource guide, and teacher's manual.  I enjoy reading them as well, so I am excited to deepen my education into the history of us as well!!

Historical Fiction

I was very dismayed that Caroline was not required to read 1 single book last year during 6th grade.  Not one in any subject!!  I am a strong proponent of the benefits of literature in the development of a well rounded understanding of history.  So as part of each unit (9 weeks), she will be required to read between 3-5 novels that fill out the picture of life during each of these unique periods in American history.  For example, her 1st unit is " Reconstructing America: 1865-1890"   Therefore, she will be reading the following books:

1.  Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia McLachlan
2.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
3.  Water Street by Patricia Reilly Giff
4.  Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli

Language Arts: Oral and Written Presentations

I am very excited to have a new language arts teacher in our ranks this year!  My husband will be taking over as Caroline's writing teacher!  He will be focusing on her presentation skills to include both the oral and written formats.  While she is an excellent creative writer, and feels very confident with short stories and poetry,  she needs to begin developing her organizational writing skills as well.  Paul will bring a discipline to her work that has not been taught, nor even expected before, while challenging her to elevate her writing to a level that rivals the work he edits daily at his job.

Music/Art:  Digital Music Mixing and Drawing

Mixed in Key: MashUp 2

For the first semester, Caroline will be learning how to mix digital music files.  Her music interest does not translate into playing an instrument, or performing, but she does seems to gravitate towards music appreciation.  Through this software program, she will learn to identify and match tempo and key in order to create new and unique pieces of music.


Caroline loves to draw.  She has played around with sketching with charcoals and other pencils.  We found this basic online drawing program that seems to be a good match with her current skills.  We expect to try a new program next semester that aligns with another artistic interest of hers: photography.

Physical Education: Strength & Conditioning

Tennis Lessons

Caroline will be taking tennis lessons from a friend of ours who is a wonderful teacher and super passionate about the game!  She has maybe hit a ball twice in her life, so this is a new adventure for sure.


Caroline's typically takes a few months off from basketball from July-Oct to refresh her body and mind.  She just finished up her summer swim team, and is looking to find a new basketball team for this fall/winter.  This fall, she will be doing light training during open gyms and guest playing on different teams.  We avoid joining teams until the winter season, so she can rest from the intensive Nov-June season that she currently participates in.

Personal Physical Training

As Caroline's basketball gets more serious, she needs to be adding as much muscle as she safely can for a girl her age (12yrs).  She is currently 5'7" and 100lbs soaking wet.  She plays with girls who have 30 lbs on her and it is getting to the point where she is constant danger of getting injured because of her aggressive style of play.  We are looking into everything from CrossFit Kids, to P90X, to a personal trainer (to be done with a friend), to daily workouts here at home with my husbands extensive gym equipment.  She is too young for weights, so body mass resistance is the main focus of whatever program we finally decide on.

Bible Study:  Proverbs 31

This year, Caroline will be focusing her Bible studies on gaining a better understanding of what a Godly woman looks like based on the model presented to her through Proverbs 31.  There are many great small group and individual studies available on this topic.  She will begin with both a new Bible and the book P31 Bible Study for Teens.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Homeschool

Homeschooling is not for the faint of heart.  It is for the determined, the committed, and the passionate.  But before jumping in with two feet, it can be helpful to ask yourself a few honest questions.  Discussing and sharing ideas and expectations with your family is a critical part to the homeschooling journey, as this is not a solo mission!  I answered these 10 questions myself to give you a frame of reference.  And the beautiful part of being a homeschooler is that all of our answers will and should look totally different.  The goal isn't to fit into a "autism homeschooler mold", but to find your sweet spot in a wide open world of possibilities...because that is what homeschooling offers at it's core - possibilities.

1.  Why do I want/need to homeschool? 

Tremendous anxiety in public middle school caused behavioral problems, inability to learn, and stress at home.

2.  Strengths and weakness of your child

S: Disciplined with schedule, hardworking, charming, funny, creative, loving
W: Short tempered, easily frustrated, loud, inflexible, destructive, demanding

3.  Strengths and weakness of you

S: Resourceful, confident, flexible, intelligent, adventurous
W: Short tempered, easily frustrated, isolationist, sensory overloaded easily

4.  Child's Interests

Jackson loves music, TV & movies, iPad, photography, drawing, and shopping.

5.  Budget

I prefer to make a smaller investment up front so I can make adjustments during the year as he seems to constantly change. We allot $200 at beginning of school year and $50-$75/month during the year.

6.  Space

Our house is not huge and I do not like clutter, therefore I like to keep all his materials and work in the dining room area, but they seem to have taken over a corner in the living room as well.

7.  Time

I am not a morning person.  So my husband helps with the early morning activities. And I like to be done an hour before my daughter gets home, so I can decompress before all the afternoon activities.

6:30-2:00 Jackson

9:00-2:00 Me (6:30-7:30 with Dad and 7:30-9:00 Independent)

8.  Community

We live in suburban D.C. which has plenty of access to services, therapies, socialization and educational opportunities, but it's heavily populated, so all outings need to be in the morning to avoid overstimulating situations for both Jackson and I.

9.  Support Network

No family and limited friends, as I'm a bit of an introvert.  Most support comes from husband and a few close friends with special needs children.  This can cause loneliness and feeling overwhelmed easily, so I need to take periodic breaks during the school day and time away on the weekends.

10.  State Requirements

Virginia's requirements are minimal which makes my life a lot easier!  We do a letter from a certified teacher who has reviewed and approved my son's work from the school year.  Check for your state's requirements here as some are much, much more rigid:

Notice that not one of these questions is about what curriculum to use - that is secondary, and the subject of my next blog.  A lot of people get hung up on WHAT they are going to teach, that they forget that HOW and WHY they are going to teach is more important.  It reminds me of the mistake a lot of couples make when they get married...they focus all their time, energy and money on the wedding, and not on the marriage that follows.  Curriculum choices come much more easily once you understand your child's emotional, social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs - all within the confines of your adult realities.

As an optimistic realist, I firmly believe in being brutally honest with myself, but I'm also hopeful that everything will work out in the end:) "What could possibly go wrong??" is the Trotter family motto!

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Broken Things, Not Broken People

I just wanted to post a quick blog about a big lesson I learned toady, one that I have struggled with for years with Jackson.  Earlier today he threw a remote control at our only TV and permanently damaged the screen.  He came up and asked me to "help fix the Tivo please" in a very pleasant tone.  I said, "Sure, buddy" and when I got downstairs, I saw the damage.  I knelt in front of the broken TV and bent my head tears.

As I cried over yet another costly repair resulting from his anger and/or lack of understanding of how to take care of things, he began to rub my back and kiss my head.  He simply said, "You made a mistake and are sorry for the fix it."

I felt like, for the first time, I could put his feelings of remorse in front of my own of frustration or self-pity.  I learned today that people are more important than things, and I'm ashamed to say that it has taken me a long time to get to this point.

Few people outside of autism parents, (notice I didn't say the "autism community" because you really have to be a parent to get this), understand that there is a real monetary cost to autism that blows apart any estimate on how our finances will be impacted by our special needs kids.  We literally spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year fixing, replacing and repairing things that we NEVER anticipated in any reasonable budgeting process.  It can be exhausting and disheartening as the years march on and on...

But today, I feel like I've come to see that Jackson feels a lot worse that I ever could about these situations.  And instead of trying to lie and manipulate his way out of it, like most teenagers would, his only concern was for my feelings.  He is a true servant and the best model of love that I have in my life, and I need to learn more from him and less from the world about the value of people over things.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rethinking Homeschooling as a Boy Becomes a Man

Eight grade is a transitional year for many students, Jackson included. So as I entered our 3rd year of homeschooling, I decided to shift my homeschooling focus from my lesson preparation to Jackson's new found wants and needs as a young man.  The majority of homeschooling lesson planning resources that I have encountered seek to ensure that I, as the teacher, am fully equipped with all the materials and tools that I need to present the best content, coupled with the most appropriate educational technique to meet the needs of my child.  And while this has worked wonderfully for Jackson's 6th and 7th grade years, I was feeling a longing for a simpler and more student focused approach.  I felt a lot of stress regarding my readiness and teaching aptitude - meaning that way too much of his success depended on my success as a teacher.  Not a good formula for an effective and peaceful school year!

So as the summer began to wind down, instead of ramping up as the teacher for the school year, I slipped on an attitude of a student and spent that time learning as much about Jackson as I could.  And what I discovered was that my little boy had turned into a man before my very eyes, and I needed to stop treating him like a child and respect the wants and needs of this young man. He needed more say in his daily educational experience.  He needed to feel more in charge of his body and mind.  In short, he needed more freedom, like all teenagers need as they begin the transition into adulthood.

We decided that his anxiety had become too overwhelming and was beginning to consume his daily life.  So we added a mild blood pressure medicine (Intuniv) that has helped tremendously with his angry outbursts and over reaction to stressful and confusing situations.  We also felt that as he stormed full steam into adolescents, he needed to spend more one-on-one time with his father.  So we added 30 minutes of weight lifting to his schedule - EVERY morning at 6:30, the 2 of them watch SportsCenter and lift free weights in our manly, but unfinished, gym space in the basement.  The combination of these 2 things alone, has been remarkable.  But his school-life had to also be adjusted to fall in line with his new wants and needs as a young, proud and confident man. 

So instead of a rigid daily schedule that stressed consistency and continuity of topics and activities, I decided to give him more autonomy over his courses.  We stuck with a loose outline of the day, but gave him a lot of options within that structure that looks something like this:

6:30-7:00  Weight Lifting with Dad
7:00          Make Coffee
7:30          Make Breakfast
8:00          Treadmill
8:20          Shower
9:00          Book on CD & Devotional
9:30          Starbucks & Shopping

10:30-12  Activities
12-1         Lunch
1-3           Activities

After we get back from our daily coffee run and shopping, which includes everything from the grocery store to the cleaners to Target, we begin going through the 5-7 activities that he chose that morning.  After following this schedule for a few months now, I have discovered that he has definite preferences. This has been very eye opening, and has helped me learn more about what he perceives his strength and weakness are. He loves:

1.  Cooking
2.  Baking
3.  Piano
4.  Science
5.  Puzzles
6.  Cards
7.  Social Studies
8.  Photography
9.  Chores
10. PE/Yoga

He is a cool mix of left and right brained strengths.  He is not "an autistic savant" in any one area (like every other TV special on autism likes to glamorize), but a nice, healthy mix of creativity and analytics. He grown in both physical and mental strength, as he can settle his body and mind much more effectively than ever before.  And while I would not go so far as to say he has mastered the art of self control (as I have not even achieved that feat yet), he has come a long way since the school year began.  I attribute his progress to our shift in perspective from how we want to parent/educate him, to how he needs to be parented/educated, as a new and growing young man, who one day might just surprise us all and be an independent and impactful man that this world could learn so much from.  

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Friday, September 13, 2013

My Most Honest Confession

Their faces say it all. What starts as judgemental stares quickly change to desperate concern as they watch Jackson go from angry and frustrated to full blown wild animal. The flash point is so intense that it scares people and while they move away, I have to charge in to try and rescue him from himself. It is heart breaking to see him suffer and in that moment onlookers can finally see his pain as I do.  I pull him close as he bites me, pulls my hair and scratches my face because he needs love to recover and heal and while it hurts me, it hurts him more to feel so out of control not knowing why his mind fails him when he needs it so desperately. My anger at autism quickly moves to anger at God as I struggle to understand why He doesn't charge in to help Jackson. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Our One Year Homeschooling Experiment Take-Away

Now that our time as a true homeschool family is coming to a close, I have had more time to reflect on the ups and downs, victories and failures, and lessons learned.  With Caroline going back into public middle school this fall, our homeschool will once again, be just Jackson and me.  And while I love and miss our special one-on-one dynamic, there will be a huge hole in our hearts without her here, because the biggest take away I got from this year, regarding both my kids, is that quantity of time always trumps quality of time with children, especially adolescents.

A great analogy for this truth is the dreaded power outage.  I spent the past two days fretting over losing power during the latest derecho warnings in the D.C. area.  We lose power at the drop of a hat in our neighborhood, as it is filled with large, old trees and overhead power lines.  But as I reflect on the times we have lost power for extended periods (blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, Oh My!), there is always that sweet point where having no power frees everyone's mind and schedule to just sit and enjoy each other and slow down to reconnect.  That is what this year of homeschooling felt like to me...a prolonged sweet spot to reconnect with both Jackson and Caroline, and for them to reconnect with each other.

In this day and age, there is article after article about the need for quality time with your children.  Go on a "date" with your kids so they will feel special.  Carve out 20 minutes once a week to really discuss their feelings over an ice cream sundae.  Make their favorite meal to draw them out of their bedroom for some one-on-one time.  And while all of these are great ideas, that I have done in the past, and are sure to achieve some level of connection, what I discovered was that the most meaningful relational moments occur after spending 2 hours lounging on the couch reading or in the daily routine of running errands together.  These are the unsung moments where connection seems to organically sprout.  A comment about a sports star coming out as homosexual, naturally leads to a causal, but meaningful hour long dialog about gay marriage.  An eye roll over a friend's overly dramatic Instagram post while eating lunch together on the couch, spurs an afternoon spent discussing the parameters and pitfalls of social media in the 21st century, as well as how to manage our own emotions when we feel out of control.

For Jackson, these elongated moments of connection have occurred in a similarly authentic fashion. Before he was homeschooled, he could not bath or dress himself.  He relied on me for every daily need.  His development was hindered by his lack of independence and freedom.  His communication skills were limited to addressing his immediate needs only.  But after 2 years of quantity over quality of time together, our connection has transformed from caregiver/receiver to mother/son...which, to those of us in the autism community, we realize is a significant emotional milestone to be recognized and celebrated.

After spending a year getting to know Jackson and Caroline on a much deeper and more personal level,  I can honestly say that I really like them both.  Caroline is witty and charming, thoughtful and tender-hearted, fearless and ambitious, obedient and trustworthy.  Jackson is entertaining and endearing, hardworking and disciplined, strong and brave, affectionate and loving.  And while it was by no means all sunshine and roses, I hope and pray it was enough to lay a solid foundation for the inevitable rocky teenage years in our future. These special bonds were not created during the big splashy moments of childhood, but in the tedium and trenches of daily life that was spent together, arm in arm, during a year with "no power" other than each other, our books and our coffee shops!