Much is written about homeschooling kids with autism, using the assumption that it does not matter how old the child is when you start: as a preschooler, or as an older child. However, in my experience it matters a lot how old the child is, and what the environment is at school when the child leaves.
Autistic children who start out homeschooling as preschoolers or transition from younger grades have little public school experience behind them, so their transition is minimal. However, children who leave public school in older higher grades, perhaps third grade and up, are leaving public school because they experienced some kind of difficulties there. These difficulties may include bullying, inadequate resources, or unsympathetic or inflexible teachers or school officials.
Children who leave public school in older grades may have different needs when transitioning to homeschool, and may need different homeschool resources going forward than a child with little public school experience. Here are a few tips on homeschooling (other than “unschooling”) older autistic children who have transitioned out of public school:
1. “Down Time.” If the school situation was very difficult or challenging for the child, the child may need some time to “reset” their thinking from the negative public school thinking to more positive homeschool thinking. Take some time to unschool or quasi-unschool, that is, let the child learn on his or her own, perhaps with some direction from the parent. The goal is to have the child discover the love of learning again, without all the negative input from organized school, so the child is willing to learn again.
2. Start Out Slow. This seems obvious, but most children won’t be able to just jump in and begin a totally new routine, especially if they have difficulty with transitions. Sometimes it’s good to begin with unit studies: all in one units that keep the child engaged and teach all subjects in topic. At this point, the goal is transition (which autistic children often have difficulty with) from public school and unschool, to what will eventually be the child’s homeschool routine. At this point, while using the unit studies, begin to assess your child’s learning needs: Do they learn best in the morning or afternoon? Do they need frequent breaks? Which subjects are they proficient in, and which do they need help in? What level are they working at, relative to their school grade level? All of this will be necessary to picking an appropriate curriculum.
3. Set up the Routine. Routines are important to children with autism. They need to know what to expect, and when. Once you have chosen a curriculum, or even during the unit studies, begin to set out the rules for when and how the child will school. Will they start and end at a particular time? Where will they work? Will they have a schedule, or work at their own pace? Discuss the rules with the child, getting their input (and therefore their buy-in) for the schedule, and then write down the rules and expectations, and review them with the child to make sure they understand.
As an example, our homeschool schedule is as follows: Approximately 9 am to 1 pm, three days each week, is school time. We have breakfast, wake up a little, then gradually move into working. The lessons for the week are scheduled out on a sheet of paper, including the page numbers to be done each day, for my son to check off as he completes them. (A younger child may need a daily schedule and more help; an older child may need less.) Regardless of what we do, there is no access to electronic devices or television until all work is done, and no earlier than 1pm in any event, to keep him from rushing through the work. Thursday is STEM day, when we do a STEM project, and then Friday is “free learning” or field trips. We follow this schedule every single week.
4. Follow the Routine Faithfully. One of the benefits of homeschooling is flexibility, something that autistic children have very little of. It’s more important for autistic children to have rules and expectations and schedules than not. Some parents of autistic school children have the child follow the same schedule through holidays and summer, to keep the routine and prevent meltdowns. (I have found that my 10-year old is too aware of “breaks” that were worked into the public school system to work through breaks and holidays, so we have down time and then transition time each time we have a long holiday or summer break.) Try to schedule other things, like play dates, doctor appointments and activities outside of the school routine.
5. Be Flexible in Choosing Curriculum. Some curriculum will work, and some will not…and just because it works for a friend’s child, does not mean it will work for yours. We tried many different curriculum (online, in print, or developed by me) before discovering that what my child felt most comfortable with was curriculum that mimicked the way he understood learning to be from public school. Surprisingly, using textbooks from McGraw-Hill, Glencoe and other educational publishers as a base for our studies felt comfortable for my son. I add discussion elements, independent studies, music, art, French, STEM, co-op classes and filed trips to his curriculum, but for core subjects we use typical learning resources. And remember, curriculum changes are inevitable, especially when first beginning to homeschool. Just remember to prepare your child well in advance of a change, if possible, to help with the transition.