Kids with autism often struggle in school, and many parents are seeking out-of-the-box solutions to help their kids get the best educations possible. Some parents work for change within the school system; others build their own schools; and still other parents choose to go the homeschooling route. This year, I'm trying to homeschool my son Liam, a non-speaking 7-year-old on the spectrum, though it's challenging most days. Our routines tend to fall apart quickly, the lessons I plan often cause frustration, and usually we just end up calling it a day and heading to the park. In my search for advice on homeschooling a child with special needs, I turned to my Facebook community. Emma Eppard, a former early childhood educator and mom to Filbert, a 7-year-old with autism (and two other little ones), had a lot of helpful advice on how she successfully homeschools her son.
Why did you choose to homeschool?
EE: I believe in Filbert and know he is capable of learning. He has perfect articulation, can repeat anything, and speaks in sentences, but he is not conversational. There is a HUGE discrepancy between what he can say and what he thinks. And my challenge was to figure out how best to teach him. The Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), which Filbert started a year ago, has really been effective for us. I also love spending time with my children. Each one is unique and amazing. My son has more obvious challenges than some of us, but we are all working on things. He is smart, thoughtful, kind, and inquisitive. I love that I can capitalize on these in the home setting.
I really struggle to structure our days—what are your homeschooling days like?
EE: We start at 8am with our copy work and geography, followed by history and math. Then at 8:30am we have a 20-minute RPM lesson on history followed by a strength and coordination gross motor work out, and then we finish off the hour with 20 minutes for fine motor work. Filbert is then free to draw or build while he listens to a book being read aloud for an hour and eats a snack. Then we have a second RPM lesson on English followed by a second strength and coordination gross motor work out. After a nice break for lunch, we do a third RPM lesson on science. The afternoon is then free for outside play, art projects, and playing with siblings with a final RPM lesson on math at 3:30pm. In the evenings we enjoy walks outside, swimming, and jumping on the trampoline.
That sounds amazing—what a wonderful day for the whole family! But do you ever have challenges? How do you make homeschooling so successful?
EE: Our successes come from consistency. My son, like all kiddos, really thrives on routine, and even 5 minutes of math is better than none if it is a tough day. Starting small and building really helps, and over time you are getting lots of learning in
Also, planning is essential. During the evenings, I watch videos of myself and others doing RPM to see where we can improve, I plan lessons for the next day or week, and I order books from the library that will continue to integrate our learning. Teaching my children is really my full-time job.
Challenges for me lie in the tough days when we all have had little sleep for a few nights. On these days it's okay to do less and focus on being patient and caring with one another. Some of my other challenges include having Filbert's two siblings vying for my attention while I'm trying to teach him. Bringing in other volunteers in the community has really blessed us and helped the siblings get more time with me or others.
What advice would you offer for other parents who want to homeschool kids with autism?
EE: Keep at it! The learning curve is tough, but in time you will find what is the fit for you. Invite others into your home to be involved in what you are doing, and you'll be surprised how many wonderful people want to help and participate in your life. We have a wonderful college locally where many volunteers come from to support us by doing RPM sessions, gross and fine motor workouts, reading aloud, playing with the little kiddos, and just being a part of our family. We love our Team Filbert family and together we are learning to love ourselves and others more completely.
Any final thoughts to offer parents about homeschooling or raising a child with autism?
EE: Autistic children are constantly listening, learning, and craving new information. Don't limit what your child is capable of by what you observe them doing. Look into the Rapid Prompting Method, and you will find that your child's brain is alive and well—it's just not good friends with the rest of his or her body. Homeschooling, like school, is not going to be a win everyday. There will be beautiful days when everything comes together and there will be tricky days. Overall, though, rest assured that your kiddo is learning even if they cannot regurgitate all the material you have shared with them. Also remember, you are human and so is your child—so there will always be an element of messy, no matter how much planning you do or how many good intentions you have.
I think this is fantastic advice, and I've drawn new inspiration from Emma and Filbert! If you'd like to connect with other families who homeschool children with autism, check out this great RPM Homeschooling Facebook group for more tips, advice, and support.