by Christine Engelke
If you wonder whether homeschooling is a workable option for you and your child on the Autism Spectrum, it can be a very positive choice. Many families in Oregon are teaching their ASD children at home. Some things to consider:
Family situation and finances
It’s great if one parent can be home all the time, but families can be creative with schedules. Homeschooling is so much more efficient than group school that the same amount of learning can be done in less hours per day. The cost can be minimal if you use online resources and the library.
Ability to teach
With special needs kids, some parents feel worried that they won’t be able to provide everything their child needs to thrive. School teachers certainly have good general training, but you are the expert on your child. Many great learning ideas come just from interacting closely with a child and being creative.
Another common fear is, “my kid won’t learn from me, only from his teachers.” This is just a habit that will fade as you start down the path of learning together. Your new roles will emerge and be comfortable.
If you have had homework battles in the past and cringe at the thought of doing that all day, remember that learning in the morning when a child is rested is so much easier than at the end of a long school day. There are also no worries about what the assignment instructions are or when it’s due. Evenings can be free of homework entirely.
Needs of the child
Many ASD kids need a longer time to develop before they are ready for academic learning, or learn at a slower pace. Some kids excel in one area and have difficulty in others. Schools classify everyone by grade level, which means that making an exception requires documentation, meetings and constant effort. By learning at home you can customize each subject and proceed with how the student learns best, day by day.
What about socialization?
Homeschooled kids in general are used to interacting with all generations of the family and community. For ASD kids, it is a relief to be able to separate academic learning from social learning. They can have a calm, quiet place to study, then get together with other kids for fun. Children who are never teased or left out grow up to love themselves and feel confident. If your child is very social, there is a large homeschool community in Portland, for field trips, classes, play groups, teen dances, etc. If your child prefers quiet days, there is no pressure to be busy. Take it at your own pace.
What are the laws?
Oregon’s homeschool laws are simple. To start, turn in a basic letter with the child’s name, age, and the fact that you are going to homeschool (or fill out the ESD’s online form). That’s it. Oregon does not require any particular curriculum and the only testing required is math and language arts, in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10. For ASD kids, testing can be avoided or adjusted with minor paperwork regarding the special needs of the child. Check out the official rules on OHEN.org.
Should we try school first?
Some parents of ASD kids get to the homeschooling point only after exhausting their school options. Others want to do it right away because they feel it’s better for the child. Everyone has a different story. Here is one family’s experience:
“For our own family, with two Asperger’s kids, pulling them out of school was the best thing we did. They were overwhelmed by stress, and our family spent all of its energy dealing with school bureaucracy and our kids’ emotional meltdowns. Once we started learning at home, the focus could be on the academics, at our own pace. No struggle to put shoes on, no packing the picky eater’s lunch, no noisy assemblies and lunchrooms, simpler social interactions on our own terms, time for therapy appointments, no “homework”, a predictable calm schedule, and most of all the kids have a say in what they study.”
What and how to teach?
There are many ways to homeschool, but we can loosely define three main methods: Unschool (learning from life and letting the child lead), School-at-Home (online school, or full planned curriculums) and Eclectic (a mix of workbooks, library, classes, and life experience).
Start by asking yourself, “what does it mean to our family to be an educated person?” This may be different than mainstream schools, or how you were raised. What are your goals, short-term and long-term? Remember to involve the child herself in goal-setting when she is old enough.
Some specific options include:
Online school: These are public charters that offer most classes online, with a some in-person supports and provided supplies. Not officially homeschooled since you are enrolled and subject to state curriculum and testing standards. Some ASD students love learning on a computer and are self-motivated to accomplish assigned tasks. An IEP will be needed if grade-level accommodations are required.
Homeschool Co-Ops: Groups of parents who combine resources to offer classes to students on a variety of subjects, along with social opportunities. For ASD children, the co-op would need to be inclusive of differing abilities and approaches to learning.
Individual subject curriculums: Workbooks and print or digital resources on every topic, available at local bookstores or online. Usually divided by grade level and in a lesson format with activities suggested. (Math, Reading, Writing, Literature, History, Geography, Science, Technology, Health, etc.) Some curriculum is made expressly for homeschoolers, others made for classrooms can be adapted. You can choose different grade levels, for example, if a child is 5th grade in math but 3rd grade in reading.
Unit Study Guides: Themed studies incorporating many subjects during the study of one topic. These tend to work well if an ASD child has a special deep interest in one area of study.
Packaged Curriculums: Some providers will send everything you need for a year, including books and supplies, and lesson plans. Not generally designed for special needs learners, but can be adapted and used as a guide.
Free, Online Learning: Online organizations who feel that learning should be free and available to all. Lessons provided via videos and interactive practice available at any time. Some ASD kids thrive on learning through the computer, others need to talk it out with a live person. Other online resources include free worksheet sites, learning games and apps, lesson plans, and student-level research sites.
Online Classes: Take a class using video conference or chat software: learn a language, learn to code, compare poetry, take guitar lessons.
Community Classes: Art, music, sports, hobbies, etc. can be added if your child is interested and able to attend. More and more businesses are adding homeschool sessions during the day, such as archery, swimming, piano, yoga, photography, and many more.
Unschool: Some parents choose to have no particular lessons or curriculum, but to let the child’s interests lead. Plenty of opportunity is provided to be exposed to ideas, learn skills, and participate in daily life.
There are so many options you may feel overwhelmed at first, but remember to take it slow, ask around, try one or two things at first, then add more as you go. Use the first year or two to get settled in.
What if it doesn’t work out?
Homeschooling doesn’t have to be forever. It can be a way to get an elementary student on his feet for a few years while therapy happens. Or a way to help a middle school student struggling with puberty. Some homeschoolers do it for the family flexibility. Certainly a major change of venue isn’t to be taken lightly, but you can still re-enter school at any time. They are used to getting transfer students who have been doing different curriculum.