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Homeschooling Autistic Children: Tips and Ideas

by Jessica Parnell | Apr 21, 2015 | 4 min read

Last week, you read about my personal experience as a parent of a child who has faced learning struggles.

When my son was younger he was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), given his struggles with communication, sensory integration, and fine and gross motor skills. This disorder is often referred to as atypical autism because the criteria haven’t been met for an autistic diagnosis. However, the symptoms can be milder or more severe. We are thankful that our oldest has since “fallen off” the spectrum and has overcome many of his communication, social, and physical struggles, but we still see many markers of autism in his behaviors and learning. He’s happy, healthy, smart, and outgoing, yet teaching and working with him is not the same as with a child who does not have his unique approach to life.
Tackling the topic of homeschooling an autistic student has been on my list of blogging topics for some time now. Because of my familiarity with this topic, I know typical homeschooling strategies won’t work with a child on the autism spectrum.

Here are my top-five rules for homeschooling an autistic child:

  • Work with topic fixations, not against them. Before I dive into this first rule, I want to make sure I clearly differentiate between topic-based fixations and repetitive behaviors. Repetitive behavior, such as arm flapping, rocking, jumping, etc., are often used as a way to deal with stress and anxiety; topic-based fixations occur when children become obsessed with a certain subject, object, or theme, such as computers, trains, animals, etc. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on topic-based fixations. As a parent and teacher, you can use fixations to engage your child through their interests – they don’t have to be a hindrance or something that distances you from your child. Fixations are a window into their mind! Find an aspect of your child’s current favorite topic that can relate to your lessons. For example, my son is fixated on Minecraft, so my husband is learning how to code in order to create video games, creating something they are able to do together.Now, the tricky part here can be balancing healthy and unhealthy fixations. If the fixation isn’t working in the classroom, remove it. You’ll know when to do so by remembering the ratio of 3:1 – 75 percent of class can be about the fixation, and 25 percent can’t. There’s no easy way to know when to pull back on a fixation, but I watch for a point when my son isn’t learning anymore, and is drastically off balance.Considering you’ve identified the point where the fixation is detrimental in the classroom, and are mindful of that, I see no problem with using them to help your child enjoy school and relate with you on a deeper level!
  • Share your power as the authority figure with your child. Empowering your autistic child to make their own decisions about their education, by putting them in a natural position of leadership, will increase their confidence, and keep you focused and motivated to push through setbacks, encouraging critical thinking. Have them help you choose their curriculum to include topics that are interesting to them. This also helps develop their decision-making and critical thinking skills, two areas where autistic kids can struggle.
  • Encourage real-world socialization. The question that often weighs the heaviest on the minds of parents of autistic children is: Will my child be able to function in the real-world? To that I ask, why wait to start preparing? While there are many different types of therapies for autistic children in general socialization, real-world socialization can be done anywhere, anytime! Real-world socialization is also an area where you can use your child’s topic-based fixations to connect with them and enhance their development. If your child is fixated on cars, take them to see a local mechanic; if the fixation is on a time period in history, visit a museum. If they’re old enough, you can even inquire about part-time jobs at organizations pertaining to their area of interest. This can be such a great experience for them – they are able to practice social skills, problem-solving skills, responsibility and so much more, all within their preferred comfort zone.
  • Incorporate physical exercise. Physical movement is crucial for kids with autism, and should be done daily during your homeschool routine. The curriculum for physical education is up to you, and all forms of exercise are acceptable! Read up on sports that can be done in your own backyard, as well as look into the group classes such as karate, swimming, tennis, and more that take place at your local YMCA.
  • Know when to ask for help. Our last tip is perhaps our most important. Undertaking the challenge of homeschooling a child with autism is a huge task, and it’s important that you’re never alone throughout the process. Your first form of support will come from your spouse and your child’s siblings, if they have them. Ask other family members to be understanding and accepting of your autistic child when they are going through a hard time. And, equip them with tools to help handle situations along with you, so that you are occasionally free to get the rest you need. Help can also come from different places outside the home. Your child’s team of medical professionals is always available for counsel, and we recommend getting to know other parents of children with autism. A quick search on the web should help you locate support groups in your area.To help you get started, here are a few links to online resources:

I know firsthand that homeschooling a child with autism can be the most difficult, yet most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. And, we are here to help! Please feel free to contact us by visiting our website with additional questions.

Jessica Parnell
Hello everyone! I’m Jessica Parnell — mom, homeschool evaluator, teacher, and CEO of Bridgeway Academy. In my 20+ years of experience as a homeschool mom and evaluator, I have had the privilege of meeting homeschoolers that take a variety of approaches to their education. It is their many stories and successes that inspire me in my own homeschooling and I love to pass on the knowledge that I have gained from them to other homeschooling families. The one constant that always remains true is that there’s no such thing as a “cookie cutter child.” Each child is fearfully and wonderfully made and as a result, learns and functions differently. It’s our job to ensure that we’re raising each child to fulfill their individual purpose and when we can teach in a way that inspires them, we are on our way to homeschool success. When I’m not writing or teaching my children, I like to ski, write and participate in triathlons. I graduated from Kutztown University with a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Masters in English and I am currently pursuing a degree in Neuroleadership.
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