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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...