Homeschooling Essentials for My Autistic Son.

My son has high-functioning autism (formerly known as Aspergers) and is participating in the guided homeschooling program. In Alberta, Canada, it’s called HUB learning. Deciding whether or not to send him to school this year was a tough choice! But, almost half a year in, I don’t have any regrets.

The big deciding factor was the way Hunter stims. A lot of his stimming involves smelling his hands or objects to feel secure- or touching his face. These comforting habits make it hard for him to feel comfortable in a mask. After a couple of hours, Hunter gets panicky. He is also a HUGE rule-follower- which is great because I wouldn’t have to worry about him avoiding washing his hands or using sanitizer. But, also, not so great because if he caught other kids not following the rules EXACTLY, Hunter would freak out….sometimes leading to meltdowns. (Even neuro-typical kids have meltdowns, by the way, which look different from tantrums. If you would like a post on the difference, let me know).

Hunter on a hike with us.

I weighed the pros and cons for quite awhile before deciding to keep him home. Although I would like to have him socialize face-to-face and would love to have going to school be effective “exposure therapy”, I figured the meltdowns and sensory overload he would experience would outweigh the pros. We decided to keep him until February, originally, but I’m going to keep him at home for the rest of the year. Hunter lucked out and has the perfect teacher for the HUB set-up- Mr. Horne seems to understand Hunter’s thought patterns and is willing to work with us and make changes. It works wonderfully, for the most part- nothing’s perfect!

Now that we are a few months in, Hunter is comfortable with his teacher and the program layout on the computer. Together, Hunter and I have found out what works for him as a school schedule: what subjects to cover, when to take breaks and for how long, when to snack, and what type of class material he needs the most help with.

There have been hard times. I created a sensory box (mostly from the higher-quality materials at the Dollarama store) for tough days and to use during alone time when he’s getting too frustrated to learn. (Who wants a post on our sensory box- contents and what works best? Comment below.)

We set up a desk area for him in a quiet space with a few fidget toys, as well, to help him concentrate or bring out his nervousness in physicality. The group meetings can be a sensory nightmare for him, so it helps if he can take that anxiety out in a physical way- squish toys are the best for this.

Here are the essentials that have made guided homeschooling a calmer and easier experience for us:

  1. A VISUAL SCHEDULE: Although Hunter is highly verbal and at a high reading level, he prefers visuals to organize his day. I used SO MANY different forms of it- cards, velcro cards, clip-ons, cards on the fridge….but, ultimately, the best version is the current one. We have a huge whiteboard where I put the magnetic visual cards I printed and laminated. I divide morning, afternoon, and evening with marker lines and clarify times or instructions with words beside the cards. This is what seems to work the best for our son. We clear the cards or put a checkmark as they’re completed. He is a LOT calmer if the schedule has been done for the day. It gives him a sense of security and independence when he checks what’s next. I used Microsoft Word visuals and freebies from the internet to make the cards.
  2. SCHOOL SCHEDULE: This is the same idea. I have a smaller white board beside his desk. I put “Go to School” on his main schedule and when he gets to “school” (aka his desk area in the basement), he knows to check the “School Schedule”. The small whiteboard says what subject to start with, amount of time I will set the visual timer for and when the breaks or meetings are in between his classwork. Seeing that he will have breaks and what to start on calms him down. Knowing what to expect (and when!) is so important to autistic kids. If something is going to change, I talk it through with him and make sure he’s there when I erase and re-write the instructions.
  3. VISUAL TIMER: Speaking of the visual timer…I finally bought one on Amazon. If you search “Pomodoro timers”, tons of them will come up. Make sure you look at the descriptions and see if it ticks loudly or softly, if noise is a sensory thing for your kid(s). It is for Hunter, for sure. We found a large, mostly quiet, timer that has a big blue face that decreases as time goes by. Hunter likes to know how long he’s been working or how much time he has left in an easy to figure out format. This does the trick. I’m also clear on what the timer is going to be for and what’s coming up next: “I’m setting the timer for 20 minutes so that you can work on Math. Do your best to get at least 3 questions done. Next is a 10 minute break”. Keep it as short and as clear as possible.
  4. FIDGET TOOLS: Does your kid like to draw while they’re thinking? Cover the table in paper, masking tape it down so it won’t fly away, and provide lots of markers or pencils. Hunter used to doodle to think. He would doodle for a half hour and then finish the work in 10 minutes, once his mind had time to put it in order. Now, he prefers to move while thinking and use fidget toys. His favourite ways to release this energy are: rocking in the rocking chair we have for him at his school desk, squeezing a dollar store plush fish (to watch the ball of bubbles pop out of its mouth), or jumping on the mini indoor trampoline behind him in the common room. All of these are essential for him to be able to focus and think, and stops him from feeling overwhelmed.
  5. TALKING IT OUT: Hunter is highly verbal but has trouble writing down his thoughts- especially if the work is theoretical opinion! He likes things to be very literal and very straight-forward. Handwriting or typing just adds to his frustration because he has DCD (Developmental Coordination Disorder) and the coordination needed for that takes a ton of focus for him. On days where he has a lot of writing to do or opinion to state, I stay with him and we talk it through. We don’t talk about the sentence, we just talk about the subject in general. I jot notes as he talks and when we go back to the assignment, I remind him of anything he said during the conversation that was relevant to that question. Together, we figure out the shortest way to write it so that the process of putting information to paper isn’t overwhelming. Often, we need to take a lot of trampoline breaks or breaks to visit the toys in the sensory box I made for him. That’s okay! I am willing to work with him and find his strengths. Things that have helped IMMENSELY in this area is finding pencils he finds comfortable to hold and a typing app he actually likes to practice with! The app is called “Animal Typing” and is worth every cent I paid for it!! The pencils were found at our local Walmart and are pictured below.
  6. ONE SUBJECT AT A TIME: Every morning, we do something physical to get Hunter in to the “green zone”. Wii Fit, GoNoodle, Cosmic Kids Yoga, or walks outside are all great for this! Afterward, we look at his weekly schedule (highlighted in different colours to separate subjects) and decide what subject we want to tackle that day. And we stick to it. Transitioning between subjects and doing a little of one at a time was too much for Hunter. It annoyed him, so we don’t do that anymore. It’s more satisfying to draw a line through the whole week of, for example, Math, at one time, anyway!
  7. SLEEP SCHEDULE: CALM app has been a lifesaver for Hunter. Meditating during the day helps him regulate his own moods a lot better, the music helps him focus on the schoolwork tasks and he’s addicted to the Sleep Stories at bedtime. Every night we have a set list of certain things that will happen: Supper, dishes, quiet play, pajamas, tidy, brush teeth and then settle in bed to listen to a CALM story. Hunter is in bed by 8pm every night and listens to “Sienna the Sleepy Sloth” every single time, at a moderately high volume. We’re going on two months with that story!

All of these things have been a game-changer for us. At the beginning of the school year, there was a lot of crying, frustration, getting stuck, meltdowns and shutdowns. I was exhausted, angry or weepy by the end of every school day for the first three weeks. Now, things go a lot more smoothly because we have figured out what keeps Hunter feeling secure, calm, independent and regulated. I hope this helps if you’re also homeschooling a child with autism!

If you have other advice and solutions, please comment below. There are so many great ideas out there and I’m always willing to try new techniques. ๐Ÿ™‚

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