Teaching a Child With Autism
Updated in April 2021.
Did you know that April is Autism Awareness Month? Having a child with autism is filled with special joys and unique challenges. According to a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 1 in 54 children in the U.S. have autism. Usually diagnosed at a young age, children with autism spectrum disorder typically face challenges with certain aspects of development and behavior. These include difficulty with social situations and interaction, issues with speech and language, and obsessive behavior, just to name a few. Within each of these are numerous symptoms and characteristics that vary from child to child and may include:
- Delay in speaking, difficulty communicating
- Repetitive body movements
- Inability to make eye contact
- Aversion to physical contact
- Sensitivity to certain sounds, textures, etc.
Depending on the nature of these symptoms, children may require certain support services to help with specific needs such as speech therapy, physical and/or occupational therapy, counseling, and more. Public schools provide these services as part of a student’s education plan, driving many families to go the traditional school path. But just because a school is going to provide therapies or counseling doesn’t mean it’s the best educational option for students with autism. In fact, many families are finding that homeschooling their special needs child is a better solution for meeting a student’s academic needs.
How to Teach An Autistic Child
Working with autistic children has its challenges, but if you learn how to capitalize on your child’s strengths, the learning process can actually be an enjoyable experience for both of you. Below are some strategies for teaching your child with autism:
Turn talents into skills. What does your child like to do? Many children love playing on the computer (video games, YouTube, programming, etc.). If yours is one of them, try an online curriculum. Combining what your child loves with the education they need is a win/win! Many students with autism are visual learners. A computer-based curriculum suits many children on the spectrum, as they can easily digest material presented in a multimedia style. When researching programs for children with autism, make sure that the delivery fits your own child’s learning style.
Use fixations to your advantage. Autistic children can easily become fixated on one subject. Don’t fight it; go with it. For example, if the child is very interested in cars, create a lesson around cars. Read a book about the mechanics of a car, practice math problems with little toy cars, or — if you’re feeling adventurous — take a drive and calculate the distance between point A and point B.
Role-playing. Role-playing is primarily used to teach social interaction skills. It involves acting out certain scenarios or activities in a structured environment. You can use role-playing to practice or acquire new skills and strategies. Using cars as the example again, give him/her instructions to complete with toy cars. Then, you can introduce a common problem situation. For example, transitioning from one activity to the next. During lunch time, a parent might ask the child to stop playing with the cars so he/she can come to the table to eat. Once they master the skill of transitions, you can start to integrate it in situations that don’t necessarily involve their interests!
Avoid figurative language. Most individuals with autism tend to have difficulty understanding abstract language. Metaphors or sarcasm may be taken literally; that is why it is important for us to be cautious of our own language while working with autistic children. When you give directions make sure that the language is clear, concise, and to the point.
Homeschooling vs. Traditional Schooling for Children on the Spectrum
If you’ve been considering homeschooling your child with autism, first know that homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, and that applies to every single child, whether they have special needs or not. However, some parents grapple with whether they can handle homeschooling (physically and mentally) and whether they should (is my child better off in school?). This is a very personal decision, and one that should be made after considering several factors, and weighing the pros and cons specific to your particular situation.
In general, some of the basic advantages of teaching a child with autism at home can be:
- the ability to customize the teaching style to a child’s learning style
- a lower-stress environment for learning
- fewer distractions and less potential for over-stimulation
- being able to pace the learning to a child’s speed
- being able to level the learning to a child’s needs (many students on the spectrum are strong in certain subjects but weak in others)
You know your child better than anyone. But, every parent and family has unique circumstances to consider when contemplating homeschooling. Questions to ask yourself prior to homeschooling might be:
- How much time am I willing to dedicate to home education?
- Do I have a support system that I can lean on when things get tough?
- What outside resources (or even public school resources) will I be able to take advantage of while schooling at home?
- Do I recognize that homeschool is very different from classroom learning and can be customized any way that best fits my child?
- Am I willing to be flexible with my approach and change my programs and methods when they’ve become stale or aren’t working as well?
- What options are in my community for interacting with other homeschoolers — especially those with special needs?
Read some experiences from other parents who dealt with these same issues concerning autism and homeschooling:
Virginia M.’s 12-year-old son with autism attended public school for 6 years, but she soon realized he needed a change. She says that sometimes the distractions and rigors of the school day were too much for him. “As he got older, he needed a more relaxed environment,” she says. She now homeschools with Time4Learning, and loves the flexibility. “He does better in an environment where I can tailor it to how he is doing that day.”
Here’s how Virginia handled the aspect of keeping her son interacting with other students, too. “He is involved with our local special needs sports league and we visit museums often,” she says. “He also has a friend next door who he plays well with.”
Jean, parent of a middle schooler shares her experience: “I debated homeschooling my child because my son’s early years in public school looked more like daycare than school. We joined the Special Olympics and I was able to network with other parents. I learned which schools had the better programs to support special needs students, and the pros and cons of homeschooling.”
Homeschooling a Child With Special Needs
If you’ve made the decision to homeschool your child, first, be sure to find out what your state’s homeschooling requirements are. When making the transition to homeschooling, it’s important to start slowly. If your child has been attending traditional schools, he or she is now going to be learning in a different environment, one that may be difficult for them to distinguish from their usual home life. Be sure to set boundaries and rules so that it’s clear what is expected.
Depending on your child’s particular needs, you’ll have to choose a program that will match their learning style. It’s also important to find a program that keeps your child engaged, but also challenges them. Many parents find that online curricula do the trick, especially those that offer flexibility when it comes to grade levels, scheduling, and pace. For Virginia, Time4Learning was a perfect fit. “We’ve been using it for about a year-and-a-half now,” she says. “Time4Learning really gave [my son] the opportunity to be in the comfort of his own home while also being able to learn in a fun way.”
Keep in mind that as the months and years pass, your child may outgrow curricula as they develop and gain new skills. It’s also common for a student’s learning style to evolve. Keep an open mind and go with the flow.
Lastly, be patient. You’re in for a rewarding, yet challenging task, but one that you’ll surely treasure. Take it one day at a time, and you’ll be amazed at how much your child will learn and grow over the years.
Learn more about how an online curriculum can benefit children with autism.