Can You Homeschool An Autistic Child?

As someone who came through traditional brick-and-mortar schooling, I had been conditioned to view education through a particular lens. Degreed and licensed teachers are necessary for learning to occur. Only specially trained instructors can “break through” to disabled kids. Children at each grade level should be fairly close to each other in ability and, if they aren’t, they should be removed to a separate class or school so they can learn at their own pace. That’s where I started.

Now I understand that traditional school is its own bubble. Are degreed and licensed teachers necessary? Yes, absolutely, because they are experts at navigating the system on behalf of students and their caregivers. They serve a dual role of teacher and liaison. They understand classroom management. They have other teachers nearby to help them work through challenges. They have the resources of the school system at their disposal. Yet, there was a time when teachers in the U.S. were much more similar to homeschooling parents than schoolroom teachers. So, we know there’s a distinction to be made.

To answer the title question in no uncertain terms, yes, absolutely, you can homeschool an Autistic child, even in spite of ABA practitioners and “experts” who are sure they know our children better than we do. When I first started homeschooling, I had no idea what I was doing. I have taught all the way up through college and tutored in the past, but the idea of being solely responsible for my own children’s education was daunting. I figured Special Education teachers had some magic I didn’t have. They knew something… were something… that I couldn’t access. After all, I have no formal education in the field.

I scoured the internet for information on how to teach Autistic children and found lots of specialized resources that dealt mostly with learning theory and behaviorism. That couldn’t be right, I thought. But then, how do you teach an Autistic child? I found some Facebook groups and read a bunch of posts on the topic. As I read, I realized that these actual homeschoolers were saying something unfathomable to me at the time. Teach Autistic students the same way you teach any other student. If you want to get a curriculum, do it. If you want to let your child lead the way, go for it. Embrace your child’s interests and utilize them as pathways to learning. Wow, I thought. That sounds almost too easy. (That, of course, was rationality peaking through ableism.) As my understanding has evolved, I have come to realize that teaching is secondary. Learning is an experience that the child has. It’s not something that a teacher can demand or enforce. We can only facilitate it. I have also learned that it’s completely ok to go at my child’s pace. If a child is strong in math and needs support in reading, well, that child is strong in math and needs support in reading then. We don’t have to try to force a child to advance in a predictable way based on age or ability. We really, truly can teach to the level of our kids no matter what that level might be. We homeschoolers can genuinely tailor education to our children in a way that leads to unfrustrated success.

As a homeschooler, I am strongly oriented toward both Charlotte Mason and child-led learning/unschooling, so I found a Charlotte Mason-inspired curriculum and got started on the year. Turns out, those homeschoolers were right. The incomparable benefit of homeschooling is that, at home, we can teach our child rather than teaching to the test. We determine the pace and the material. We know how much to challenge without leading to burnout. And, we have extraordinary flexibility to give our kids the breaks and attention they need to excel. I have vowed not to talk about my children specifically anymore in this blog and I will honor that vow. Suffice it to say, homeschooling has led to gains at a rate unmatched by public school. That is not a dig at public school teachers who are truly a national treasure. Honestly, it’s a dig at our entire educational system in the U.S. It is outdated, clumsy, racist, ableist, and expensive for no reason. Children have a right to a suitable education that doesn’t steamroll them to oblivion.

If you are approaching a point where you feel strongly that your Autistic child needs the freedom and support of a homeschool education, I am here to tell you that you can do it and you can succeed. It takes effort of course and lots of self-education. Ready to go? Check out these links to get started. (Beware of ableism in the Facebook groups. It’s hard to get away from.)

Switching from Public School to Homeschool (Peace I Give post)

Can You Homeschool Your Autistic Child? (Blog post)

Learning Challenges: For SEA Homeschoolers Members (Facebook group)

Unschooling Every Family: Embracing Neurodivergent and Disabled Learners (Facebook group)

Atypical Unschooling: defining our own norm (Facebook group)

Special Needs Homeschooling the Charlotte Mason Way (Facebook group)

Homeschooling Special (Needs) Kids (Facebook group)

Where Black Students Excel

One of the things whiteness affords me is access to conversations I don’t want to be having. The tiring ones that I know I’m responsible to engage in by virtue of my privilege, my understanding of the stakes, and a moral imperative to betray white supremacy. So, when I see (and hear) white people denying the existence of systemic racism and chalking up the documented differences in opportunity and outcome between white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color to personal failings, I’m compelled to seek out airtight responses that will destabilize their worldview. I need them upset and unsure, because that’s where growth starts.

To this end, I’ve been following a piece of evidence that popped up on my radar not too long ago. Something that has actually been known for years, but isn’t widely known among white people. First, Black families are among the fastest-growing populations withdrawing their children to homeschool.

And, second? Many Black homeschooled children are earning test scores higher than their white counterparts at public schools. Let me put that plainly: Homeschooling virtually eliminates the so-called “achievement gap” between Black students and white students. The reasons for the success of these children are myriad and understandable.

  1. Targeted, customized education benefits ALL children.
  2. Black kids are intelligent, despite what white supremacist institutions would have us believe.
  3. When Black kids are not subject to constant racism, they excel.
  4. Decentering whiteness and white history gives Black children a connection to the past and a vision for the future.

And, we know this is the case because, when Black homeschooled children were measured against Black public schooled children, the homeschooled cohort were found to have achieved reading scores FORTY-TWO percentage points higher than their peers, even when controlling for gender and socioeconomic status. Black parents are decisive in their reasoning for homeschooling. A 2015 study in the Journal of School Choice found that the top five reasons Black parents give for choosing homeschooling are:

  1. Providing religious or moral instruction.
  2. Transmitting their worldview to their children.
  3. Developing strong family relationships.
  4. Individualizing education.
  5. Accomplishing more academically than in conventional schools.

Please take note that the first three reasons given are not academic in nature. These parents brought their babies home to build them up, guard their hearts, and give them space to breathe and just be. Most of the parents who are homeschooling do not have education credentials, as is the case for most homeschool teachers. Degreed and certified teachers have an important role in our educational system, but they do not hold the keys to education.

I think about reparations a lot as a white person from a very long line of white people in the United States who have benefitted tremendously from exploitation. And, I wonder what impact we’d have on the future if Black families suddenly became entitled to a guaranteed living stipend to stay home and educate their kids. And, that is exactly the query I want to pose to people who claim systemic racism doesn’t exist. (But the answer is not what a lot of white people want to think about.)

Switching from Public School to Homeschool

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of homeschooling. My parents are both educators who have embraced homeschooling, though they never chose this path for themselves. In the past few weeks, when our local school system gave parents the option of in-person or virtual learning, like many of you, I went through a major ordeal trying to weigh my options. At first, I considered an in-person return. Then, I got their COVID readiness plan, and the safety precautions were awfully light. That worried me.

Nearly a year ago, our family had a health scare and, even though I logically understand that the evidence supports a perspective that children’s risks with COVID are minimal, it simply wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. So, I filled out an application for virtual learning. As the difficult days wore on, I came to realize that the virtual option would be pointless when my children thrive on hands-on, customized learning. I was edging ever closer to jumping into homeschooling, but uncertainty held me back. I had so many questions. How could I be as effective as a certified teacher? What if there’s something I don’t know enough to teach? What if… I fail my kids?

I had to take it back to my Peaceful Parenting philosophy. I believe that children are curious, intelligent people who will learn even if they aren’t being actively taught. So, I started reading in earnest about homeschooling and how it’s done. I got a lot of advice about what worked for other people, but advice about how to make a decision for myself was sparse. So, I’m going to share with you a little of what I discovered.

First, a reminder.

"The decision that you make about school... is the right decision."

Dr. Hope Seidel
Cary Pediatric Center

In-person, virtual, or homeschooling, the decision a family makes about their children’s education during this pandemic is the right decision. Period. All the options have pros and cons, and only we can possibly reason through the impacts of the different options as they apply to our own families. If homeschooling is something that interests you, whether you plan to homeschool or not, I hope this information I’m about to lay out will be intriguing to you!

Our Process

COVID was really just the catalyst for something that was a long time coming. There had been situations along the way in our son’s public school education that had prompted lengthy discussions between Peaceful Dad and me. One of our more recent concerns was the school’s decision to host a Dr. Seuss Week during the NEA’s Read Across America initiative, even though the NEA has moved away from Dr. Seuss in favor of diversity in the past several years. We weren’t at all comfortable with our son involved in the celebration of someone as problematic as Theodor Seuss Geisel. That one issue didn’t push us away. We aren’t strangers to declining to participate in school activities that do not represent our values (e.g. not allowing our children to wear headdresses purportedly “honoring” indigenous people around Thanksgiving), even when it’s awkward. But, the convergence of so many valid reasons to withdraw made the chance to homeschool that much harder to resist.

Once Peaceful Dad and I made our decision, a switch flipped in my mind. I had to know all the things. I joined a bunch of groups and started absorbing information. I credit one group, in particular, for giving me a base from which to work: Secular, Eclectic, Academic (SEA) Homeschoolers. Wait, pause. Are you wondering why a clergy wife joined a secular group?? Well, because I’m super pro-science, pro-liberation for marginalized people, and so on. These are things one would expect to find in a secular, eclectic, and academic group and, trust, they didn’t disappoint.

In the SEA group, I found this amazing Homeschooling 101 document that served as my very first guide into the world of homeschooling. In short, the document goes over how to formulate a mission statement, information about state requirements for homeschoolers, an explanation of methodologies, scheduling year-round versus school calendar-based, and naming your homeschool. I highly recommend this group and, especially, that document.

Mission Statement

Since I will be the primary educator for our homeschool, I went ahead and put together an overall proposal for homeschooling to discuss with Peaceful Dad. I thought about what I wanted my mission to be. Since we’d decided to homeschool indefinitely, and not just during the pandemic, I knew I was setting the tone for the foreseeable future, so I wrote a statement that would point to the Peaceful Parents we are and that would serve us for many years to come: To invigorate our children’s curiosity and open doors to knowledge. Our mission statement doesn’t box us in, but it does remind us what it is we’re doing.

State Requirements

Our state is low regulation, but regulations still do exist. For instance, my kids have to take standardized tests starting in third grade. But, for the most part, the state doesn’t ask for the results. They don’t ask for much but a declaration of intent to homeschool. I get the sense that the requirements are a way to check in if necessary, but also a way to make the transition to a traditional school easier should the need or want arise.

If you’re curious about your own state, check out this information from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

Methodology

When you call to mind a vision of homeschooling, do you imagine children doing worksheets out of Christian workbooks at their kitchen table while their mother reads from the Bible? I completely admit that was basically where my mind went when I first started my journey. It’s true that Christians rather led the homeschool movement in the U.S. early on. And, it’s true that envisioning a traditional experience makes a lot of sense, because homeschooling supports were limited and the market really wasn’t replete with resources for a long time. However, these days, the homeschooling world has exploded. There are so many options from literature-based to classical to experiential to traditional to completely out of the box. Check out this video that explores the most common approaches in relatable terms.

And, then, if you’re curious, why not try a quiz to dig into what approach you’d enjoy using the most?

Homeschool.com Quiz

Eclectic-Homeschool.com Quiz

HomeschoolOn.com Quiz

Our Approach

This piece was easy for me. When I started looking into the different methodologies, I thought about the way we live out our lives and values, and the way I like to teach. My choice was Charlotte Mason (CM). The CM method is strongly literature-based, using what Miss Mason called “living books.” These are books that use narrative to describe the subject rather than the distanced, technical writing you find in textbooks. Her method is based in real life. She expected children to learn by doing everyday things, by going out into nature, and by discussing ideas with those around them. And, best of all for me, Miss Mason was utterly countercultural. She believed children were born into their personhood and deserved respect from the very start. She believed children were capable of great things and that inspiring children was far more effective than forcing or coercing them into action. She put her efforts into guiding children toward a love of God and a love of learning by gently fostering their self-motivation and moral compass. I especially love how well the CM method promises to support my Autistic child in exactly the way he learns best.

I am calling my preferred approach “eclectic Charlotte Mason” because there are such strengths in the other approaches. I like to keep an open mind, so I can act quickly to help my children if they are struggling to understand something they’re learning.

Schedule

In all areas of primary and secondary schooling, the debate rages over the right way to schedule the school year. It’s happening in the homeschooling community too. If you’re curious what the big deal is, check out this piece by ASL Rochelle. While I lean toward a year-round schedule, we’ve decided to follow our local public school system’s schedule for this first year. We didn’t want to introduce too many variables when we were just starting out and we wanted to be on the same schedule of breaks as our son’s peers.

School Name

Since I’ve already shared my school’s name in homeschooling groups, and because this blog is intended to be anonymous for the time being, I won’t be sharing the name here. But, I will say that I ultimately decided to select a name and create a logo for any future need that might arise, such as the use of letterhead. I also like the way it gives me closure to have a name and a logo. This is the new way and we’re leaving the old way behind. Please note that most states (including my own) do not appear to require a school to be named.

Curriculum

Even though I’m very new, I’m noticing that many folks brand new to homeschooling seem to jump immediately to “which curriculum should I use?” There’s a lot more decision-making to do before then! I’ve placed this Curriculum section last for that reason. We chose a CM-inspired curriculum called Blossom and Root. Peaceful Dad and I have decided to supplement with Kate Snow’s classical-inspired math series until our son has a good grasp of number sense before moving onto anything more rigorous. We need to understand how he learns math the best. In addition to our base curriculum and the math, we will also be adding a reading support supplement called Discover Reading, music and movement at home, and Spanish through the PBS show, Salsa.

It may not seem like we’re doing a lot, but you’d be surprised. The entire curriculum is gentle and largely play-based, but it’s broad and challenging at the same time. More than that, I realized something. My vision of what a homeschool day looks like was way off. Homeschool does not mean replicating traditional school at home. In traditional school, there are lots of disruptions, lots of moving from place to place, lots of waiting, etc. But, in homeschool, it’s easier to focus on work and get it finished. Check out this surprising outline explaining how long children should be focused on lessons.

How long is your homeschool day?

Preschool - 15 to 30 min
Kindergarten - 30 min to 1 hour
1st to 2nd grade - 45 mins to 1.5 hours
3rd to 4th grade - 1.5 to 3 hours
5th to 6th grade - 2.5 to 3.5 hours
7th to 8th grade - 3 to 4.5 hours
High School - 3.5 to 6 hours

Wild, right? Our decision to choose a CM-inspired approach works especially well as lessons are very brief but highly focused.

Our plan is to spend no more than 40 minutes per weekday morning on school and to finish up by 11 AM. My kids will be getting a lot more outside time and free play than he did while he was in public school. We’ll also have leisurely lunches, more variety in terms of locations for the lessons, and a truly customized educational experience.

Once I got over my initial fears, everything started to fall into place. And, now, I’m really looking forward to starting school in a few short days! It really doesn’t matter what methodology you choose as long as it’s one that works for both you and your children. There is no perfect methodology. Homeschool graduates from every approach across the board end up in college and in successful careers. Homeschool provides an opportunity to shift gears to a different curriculum or an altogether different approach if a child needs something new to learn their best.

Whether you’re just curious or you’re trying to decide on COVID homeschooling or, like me, you’re transitioning to homeschooling for the duration, know this. Your child will thrive in homeschool, because your child has YOU.