How to homeschool a child on the autism spectrum

Feb 24, 2022 at 05:59 am by Heather Cadenhead

I never planned to homeschool my children. I earned my Bachelor of Arts in English and Professional Education from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. After graduation, I worked a couple of different teaching jobs (and, of course, one requisite barista job) before finally accepting a position in fiction publicity at a publishing house in Nashville. Two years into marriage, my husband and I began to discuss the idea of starting a family. Unfortunately, I miscarried my first pregnancy. A few months later, I saw those two delightful little lines again — and decided, immediately, to quit my dream job. My reason was twofold: my position was stressful and I didn’t want to miscarry again. I hoped, at the time, to eventually return to publishing.

 That fall, my first son was born. A couple of years later, pregnant with my second son and concerned about my first son’s stalled speech, I bombed an interview with another publishing house. With my due date creeping up, the decision was made for me: for now, I was staying home.

 Soon after, my first son was formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Uncertain of how to best support my son, I chose to return to my roots — I moved back to Murfreesboro, my hometown, and started homeschooling. (I was homeschooled, too — in the late ’90s and early ’00s.) Seven years later, we’re still homeschooling.

I’m often asked how to homeschool a student on the autism spectrum, particularly if that student has high support needs — like my son, who is now ten years old. Below are my top three tips:

1. Read. (Really.)

Read age-appropriate literature to your child everyday. Children with disabilities need more than just a stack of board books. Give your children access to chapter books, audiobooks, and age-appropriate podcasts such as the Curious Kid Podcast.

2. Remember to model.

Whenever possible, attempt to model new skills instead of using hand-over-hand prompting. (For those who are not familiar, hand-over-hand prompting is a practice in which a teacher physically guides a child’s hands to complete tasks.) Your child cannot gain skills without personal effort. Plan ahead to allow your child the time that he or she needs to attempt new skills.

3. Provide consistent daily rhythms.

You don’t need to follow a timed schedule when you homeschool (in fact, I’d advise against that), but it is helpful to have predictable rhythms each day. Maybe you listen to an audiobook during breakfast or play board games after lunch. You can create any routine you want — just do those things in roughly the same order everyday.

I’ll never forget the way my son’s eyes lit up the first time I read to him from a middle-grade novel. He wasn’t matching colors for the umpteenth time; he was learning something new. He was at Hogwarts with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. He was Columbus, negotiating with the Queen of Spain. He was Meriwether Lewis, exploring the Pacific Northwest with Clark and Sacagawea.

I know that no child is beyond the hope of learning — even (perhaps especially) the child who cannot communicate his need for it.

Heather Cadenhead graduated from Union University with a degree in English and Professional Education. After graduation, Heather worked in both education and publishing. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Autism Speaks, The Mighty, Mothers Always Write, and others. Heather currently teaches both of her sons at home. She shares homeschooling ideas on Instagram @heathercadenhead.

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