Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blog Cruise: Homeschooling + Special Needs

I am an "accidental homeschooler". If you're one of the parents who thinks you can't do this, please know, I was one of them, too.

I could write a book. Maybe I should write a book? I enjoy connecting families with resources and resources with families - this is one big blog post that will do just that, and maybe save you some money with my ideas, too.

For what it's worth, here's part of my journey as I learn my way through homeschooling a child on the autism spectrum with a list of co-occurring conditions that we see slowly growing shorter.

My child regressed into autism after her first birthday (and, coincidentally, after a chicken pox vaccine). By the time she was 20 months old, the school system had labeled her with a "sensory motor problem" and I'd become an expert in sensory integration issues. Every mention of SI issues also included a mention of autism, which took me (a former psych major at graduate school level) to the DSM-IV. When I realized that she fit the diagnostic criteria for autism, I moved in that direction. (Yes, she has an official diagnosis.)

I am one of the moms who tries to keep up with the latest and greatest in autism research. There are many of us out there. The problem is, we quickly pass our child's teachers, speech therapists, OTs, etc, in terms of knowledge and research. At this point, I am probably 10 years ahead in terms of knowledge and application from a developmental perspective, ahead of colleges and universities who are teaching new staff, ahead of current staff working in schools and clinics today.

I gave up on the public special education system when my daughter was eight years old. She'd been in the system since she was 19 months old.

If you are trying to make the decision to withdraw a child with special needs (mild to severe, I don't care), I can tell you that I wish I'd given up on public school sooner. My girl has made more progress at home than she did at school. Is it easy? No. Some days are wonderful. Some are hell on earth. Most are somewhere in between. Is it worth it? YES!

Here's my essay about what sent me over the edge to finally make the decision to withdraw my girl from public school in the middle of a school year:

Why I Decided To Homeschool

I decided six years ago to abandon the behavioral approach that held so many empty promises for us; decided six years ago that a developmental, relationship based approach to the whole (gestalt) combination of parenting/teaching/discliplining/autism-interventioning is a priority. I found the intervention to help me do just that (it is called Relationship Development Intervention), and a consultant whom I trusted to guide me. The developmental, relationship based approach has been a wonderful journey filled with discoveries and milestones and progress!

We've been homeschooling for three years. I've learned as much about myself as I have about my girl.

I knew that she does not learn like I learn or like I would teach. I had to figure out how she learns.

Autism is not a deficit of discreet skills; that's one of the reasons I abandoned the behavioral approach.

I learned that there's not one correct way to homeschool. There are hundreds, maybe thousands. Obviously, you must follow the legal standards for where you live.

I wanted to keep relationship goals and objectives in the forefront with academics a background piece, because young adults with autism don't struggle in the real world workforce because of a lack of academics; they struggle due to the relationship piece. Employers value collaboration, teamwork, flexibility, creative problem solving - employers don't care too much about your good test scores, because good test scores don't translate into employability.

Could we work on relationship skills and functions without abandoning academics? I had some questions and concerns. Three years into homeschooling, my experience has been that you can force academics and completely miss the relationship pieces (the parts employers value) OR you can put relationship pieces in the forefront and get both the relationship pieces AND academics. However, getting both means that we don't sit around doing a lot of worksheets and memorization. Unit studies, games, cooking, laundry, other chores, field trips, anything hands-on, anything that chases an interest is a good background academic for a relationship goal or objective.


Dietary changes can make huge differences in the behavior, functioning, and self-regulation of children with developmental delays. If you've never experimented with diet, homeschooling gives you a wonderful opportunity to do so.


Some children don't absorb nutrients from their food, which, in turn affects development. This idea and the idea that diet can affect the brain were two of the crazier things I'd ever heard, until we tried them, expecting to see nothing, and instead saw huge changes. Finding a doctor who will order certain labwork to look at deficiencies can be an important piece in calming a child so he/she can learn. DAN! offers online conference presentations if you would like to learn more about a particular topic. A DAN! doctor or functional medicine specialist may be an asset on your team.

Vision and Hearing

Rule out vision and hearing issues that could affect learning and interaction. Find a developmental optometrist, perhaps an Irlen specialist, and an audiologist who is known for testing the difficult-to-test population. And yes, a *developmental* optometrist makes a difference.


Movement is important to neurological development and learning. Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford, PhD is a wonderful resource. So are HANDLE, Brain Gym, and Dianne Craft's resources. "30 Minute Motor" from Bob Sornson is a solid resource that I like, too.

Educating ME

Several people and books have been helpful in my journey:

Ruth Beechick's The Three R's and You CAN Teach Your Child Successfully. Beechick gave me one of the most important pieces of knowledge that I want to make sure you understand, too. Every concept and skill must begin in manipulative mode. I wrote about it here. Most kids arrive at school-age with a lot of manipulative mode experience under their little belts and are able to work at higher levels. Kids with autism and other developmental delays often do not have this experience, which means we have to try to convert everything to "visual" mode. While "visual" mode is a good compensation, it doesn't remediate the delay. Understanding manipulative mode and the progression toward abstract is important for all teachers working w/ kids w/ developmental delays.

Another must-read is Education Nation. Author Milton Chen puts into perspective what is important for learning and teaching.

Here are more:

Melinda Boring, Heads Up, and her book - find them all here

Be sure to go to Rhino Technologies web site and search for Carol Barnier, Melinda Boring, Tammy Glaser, Heather Laurie and others for special needs topics based on your situation, because Rhino Technologies may have an audio presentation for you for under $10 - much cheaper than traveling to a convention.

The RDI Book by Steve Gutstein

Learning As We Grow by Nicole Beurkens, Erin Roon, Courtney Kowalczyk

Paula Kluth - Kluth's books are aimed at school-building school classrooms and I think homeschoolers overlook her wisdom because of that. Kluth's experience is great for homeschoolers, too. Don't miss this one or this one.

Ross Greene, PhD - is another author whose "Lost at School" may be missed by homeschoolers; please don't miss this one because of the title.

Learning about learning styles is helpful; I have been privileged to review two books that I refer to often, again aimed more at school-building schoolers, but very valuable for homeshoolers. One is here, the other is here.

For all things sensory, I highly recommend, The Fabric of Autism, by Judith Bluestone. Ignore the "a" word in the title.


Therapies are easier for me to fit into the week with homeschooling. No more chaotic nights running to occupational therapy. A bonus of homeschooling is that I'm finding more appropriate activities for child that accomplish a lot of the same things that therapies do. I've begun to think outside the box. Figure skating lessons. We found a private coach to do one-on-one for starters, and we learned that younger coaches charge less than older, more experienced coaches. If you found my blog because of the Crew, check out the labels section in my left-hand side bar. I have posted a lot about figure skating. Homeschool co-ops gave us new opportunities. Competitive jump rope. Martial arts. When we make our big move in a few weeks, we're going to try volunteering at a non-profit for some social and life skills, too. I'm considering a children's theater camp as well. And I'm already connecting with homeschool groups and co-ops in our new town.

Curricula, Products, Resources

Let go of the need to do hours and hours of worksheets in order to accomplish "academics" if your learner does not learn that way. There are so many other options available to you. I am still amazed at the products that are marketed to homeschoolers that have built-in visual, tactile, and kinesthetic components, as if they are tailor made for students with unique learning needs and challenges.

My favorite resource is any web site of a homeschool convention. Find a homeschool convention web site and spend some time on the exibitor page, clicking through to vendor web sites, looking at products. Then spend some time on the speaker/presenter info pages, clicking through to their web sites, and also looking for google or youtube video of these speakers.

Another favorite resource - parent reviews. Even when I don't get a product to review, I can find someone who did, and I can read about their experience with that product for a better idea about it.

We don't use a set curriculum; we pull from an eclectic mix of resources to piece together what we need at the time. We are flexible and we sometimes change often what we're doing.

Check out the side bars of my blog, left-hand and right-hand. Look at the products I've gotten to review the past almost-three-years. Let me spotlight a few for you. All About Spelling is based on Orton-Gillingham - it's amazing. Who knew that Trigger Memory Systems makes visual charts for laundry, zone cleaning, bedroom cleaning? Until I got to review them, I had no idea. The charts remind me of PECS. Write Shop's Story Builders are super for a child who struggles to put words together into phrases and sentences, who struggles with imagination, who struggles to put pen to paper. Tapestry of Grace works for a student whose skills are scattered across several grade levels (we weren't ready for it two years ago, but I think we are ready for ToG now). Timberdoodle offers a products for a variety of needs; Sue Patrick's workbox system was developed for kids with autism in mind. Bonnie Terry has great resources. I use a lot of bits and pieces from unit studies from The Old Schoolhouse Store and Amanda Bennett. I could put a blurb here about many of the items I have reviewed; that would be impractical in this already long blog post. Check out my side bars, please. *smile*

Be sure to try any and all free samples that you can get your hands on before you buy. See what works with your child. Get a feel for how he/she learns, for what he/she enjoys. TOS's freebie directory is here, for starters.

Online conventions are becoming more popular, and the price is right. The Schoolhouse Expo is one example, and if you are unable to attend the live conference, you can buy "to go" versions of past conferences to hear on your timetable.

Ask families in your co-op if you may look at their resources and even borrow some for a "test drive". Look for used curriculum sales. Trying new-to-you resources is a risk and you could spend a lot of money trying to find the right fit.

Bottom line: There's no one correct way to homeschool, and that 'rule' applies double and triple when homeschooling a student with special learning needs. Relax, experiment with different tools, resources, approaches; figure out how your student learns best. Most of all, ENJOY. Enjoy your time together, enjoy learning.

More special needs blog posts on the cruise are here.

PS: I don't benefit if you purchase any item that I mentioned. I wasn't asked to include any of these items - these are resources that use a lot.

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I am just a mom. I use professionals to guide me; I recommend you do the same.


Unknown said...

Lots to think about and explore with this post. Thanks, Penny!

Mommy Provost said...

Thank-you for this post! I am a mother of a 3 year old boy who was diagnosed with Autism a little over a year ago. Reading this gives me confidence that my gut is right. We had planned to homeschool before our children were born (I also have a 2 year old with SPD) but have used the school for some therapy. It doesn't feel right to have my little man in the school system and our neurologist made me feel like if we didn't we were doing the wrong thing. His teacher and his para are awesome but we won't go further than kindergarden and I still school at home. Reading this made me feel that I am right and I can do this. My son is thriving with what we do at home and the biomedical treatments we have used. Great job on the blog. I appreciate what you write!

Karen said...

Actually, Penny, you ARE an expert. Just because you don't have the "letters" after your name, does NOT mean you are not an expert. I love reading and learning from you.

Catherine said...

Fabulous information, as always. Thanks!

Jodi said...

Excellent! Excellent! Thank you so much Penny for writing a post on this topic. I know that it will greatly encourage many special needs parents.

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