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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How to Select an Autism Homeschool Curriculum

This is the time of year that I get the most requests for advice on how to homeschool children on the autism spectrum.  Sometimes it is from parents who have decided to start this journey from day one of the new school year, and other times, it is from discouraged and disappointed parents who have encountered too many roadblocks in their child's traditional school situation to justify continuing to send them to their existing school.  Regardless of the exact situation, it is likely that any parent would feel quite a bit of anxiety at the prospect of bearing the responsibility of their child's special needs education.

So for everyone...

Step 1:  Relax!

Most homeschool "experts" encourage new families to take at least a month off after leaving the traditional school setting.  This is time for both the student and parent to decompress and unlearn some of the bad educational habits picked up from an unhealthy learning environment.  For my son, he left school after an extremely stressful 6 weeks of constant punishment and meltdowns over a terribly executed ABA program that sent him to the corner behind a taped line for 90% of his day.  He needed a full month to stop crying and self-injuring every time he "made a mistake".  We all benefited from the renewed sense of safety and security of a newly peaceful and calm 11 yr old boy!  From this point, I could embark on...

Step 2: Connecting

I have personally found that connecting to other special needs homeschoolers has been an invaluable part of our success over that past 4 years.  I jumped right on Twitter the week we pulled Jackson out of 6th grade.  I started this blog the following week, and joined up with Hip Homeschool Moms shortly after that, then linked them all to a Facebook page a few months later.  Just those 4 simple acts have helped me feel a part of a much larger community of passionate and dedicated parents who are committed to providing their children with the best possible educational experience!  I have also connected locally with other homeschooling families of both autistic and neurotypical children.  These friendships have grown into my closest relationships since my college days of actually living with my favorite people.  Shared pain and shared victories have a way of helping us all through the roller coaster that is parenting - of ALL abilities and gifts!

I encourage you to set up a few of your own social media accounts.  Here are mine:

Hip HomeSchool Moms

Step 3:  Schedules

Even before you select your curriculum and materials, you need to develop an outline for your daily schedule.  I would recommend expanding it from wake-up to bed-time, not just for your expected school day activities.  Homeschooling autism includes so much life skills work, that even breakfast is a learning moment that shouldn't be over looked.  Within a year of homeschooling our son, he was able to shower and get dressed on his own!  That would never have occurred so quickly if I had not been so deliberate about teaching him...often times for up to an hour at a time (and who has that luxury when trying to shuttle them to the bus at 7:00 am).  Prior to this, he was still taking nightly baths, with me pouring a cup of water of his head...sometimes getting hit in the face, sometimes not...

The first year I homeschooled, my son's schedule was broken up into 15-30 minute blocks.  I created blocks for Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science even before I found the materials for each subject.  Once I found the right flow to our day, I was able to insert academic work very easily.  Here are Jackson's daily schedules for 6th-9th grades:
I have used worksheets, clipboards, white boards, notebooks, chalkboards, & iPads to display the daily schedule, as my son needs a visual roadmap to follow along with, and even check off activities as he finishes them.  Once you create a loose outline for your day, you will begin to get a sense for how much work you will reasonably be able to accomplish in a day, weeks and months time.  If your child can only sit for 10-15 minutes at a time and do work (which would be an awesome accomplishment!) that will help you choose the best curriculum for him.  If your child works best with an iPad and/or on the computer, then that will also direct your choices.  Don't invest in any materials until you have a general daily plan.  Otherwise, hundreds of dollars of good ideas will collect dust in the corner as you struggle to manage your day.  At this point you should feel confident enough for...

Step 4:  Curriculum and Materials 

I use both the words "curriculum" and "materials" here, because in the 4 years that I've homeschooled, I have never bought an official, pre-packaged curriculum.  I prefer to buy individual materials (books, workbooks, worksheets, games, puzzles, experiments, arts & crafts, downloads, apps, software, etc...).  I am of the mindset that homeschooling should not break the bank or tax your family financially.  It can be done with a very modest budget and no one should be intimidated by the perceived cost.  The $500 curriculum packs are an option, but definitely not the best option for an autism program because most kids on the spectrum have very uneven academic development.  Investing in a "4th Grade Language Arts" curriculum will likely be a waste of money as your child might be at 4th grade for reading, but a 2nd grade for reading comprehension, 5th for spelling, 3rd for vocabulary, and even 1st for handwriting.  I relied heavily on the following resources during my 1st year of homeschooling.  They were very inexpensive, required no long term commitment, and I simply printed a weeks worth of work and was able to readjust if the materials didn't work.  

Once I gained confidence in both my and Jackson's abilities, I added more resources and activites including:

New York Times
Books on CD
Daily Chores

Some other curriculum and materials that other autism homeschoolers recommend are (in no particular order):

Online/Computer Based:
Easy Peasey

Traditional Materials:
Life of Fred
Beast Academy
Singapore Math
Saxon Math
Horizons Math
Teaching Textbooks
All About Spelling
Spell and Write and Read 
Handwriting Without Tears
A Beka

At this point, you are probably pretty overwhelmed with the choices and possibilities in front of you. This leads perfectly into the final stage of the process to beginning your homeschool journey...

Step 5: Be Flexible 

Unless you are willing to throw out everything you've just read and try something totally different, homeschooling might be a rough road!  Trust yourself and your child.  If something is just not working, no matter how many mommy bloggers swear by it, then pitch it and don't think twice.  Your kid needs exactly what your kid needs.  Don't waste precious time and energy forcing a program that is not the right fit.  If you all have to go a few weeks glued to the TV while you try, and try, and try again to find better materials, then you lose a few weeks, and not a few years, which is what many of us feel was lost to our children while in public school.

Many blessings to you and your family as you begin, what I hope, are the best years of your family's lives!  And just think, your days of making lunches at 7:30am are over's the small things that usually make me the happiest, that and this guy...


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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