This is a story, an explanation, a little bit of how-to on shaping homeschool to fit a unique learner. But really all children are unique. So this isn’t my story, so much as it’s Johnny’s.
At 21 months, Johnny’s parents were desperately packing to sell their house and move. So they plopped him in front of the TV (an unexplored realm!) and turned on “Signing Time.” One episode in particular made him do uppy-arms and squeal at the screen. So they played that one on repeat for him. And suddenly, their non-speaking one year old was signing. And not just signing, spelling. Whole sentences fell from his fingertips, one letter at a time.
And these naive little first-time parents delighted in their clever boy.
After his second birthday, came speech therapy. Then the neuro evaluation. Then the autism diagnosis (level 2-2, if that means anything to you). The OT. The PT. The verbal behavior therapy.
And these more experienced first-time parents continued to delight in their clever boy!
So here’s my first piece of advice:
He is the same child today as yesterday
To butcher a famous special-needs parenting analogy. Parenting any child is like being dropped in a new country. Receiving a diagnosis changes nothing about your child. Not a single thing. It just hands you a roadmap, so you finally know which country you’re in.
The diagnosis gives you the lay of the land, the major roadways, and points of interest. But it’s not a substitute for traveling the country on foot. It’s the beginning of your long, slow, and intimate journey together.
Evaluations are your itinerary
Continuing our travel metaphor (why not?). A diagnosis is as large as an entire country. You won’t explore it all overnight. Evaluations and assessments are the great big blinking red “You Are Here” pushpin on your map. It’s the most important tool in our homeschool.
You wouldn’t dream of planning a trip without knowing whether you’re in Athens, Greece or Athens, Alabama. Just the same, the assessments breakdown skills and tendencies so you know exactly where your child is.
Johnny’s ABLLS-R has been the single most important evaluation for guiding our instruction. It tests language and critical thinking skills up to the first-grade level in children with autism and other developmental delays. This test is an absolute gem, breaking down skills into 544 separate, sequential subskills.
A reading evaluation from a curriculum provider spits back 3-4 skills: decoding, vocabulary, fluency, and a vague “comprehension”. ABLLS-R isolates 15 individual skills that comprise reading.
If there’s a missing skill at the bottom of the column, your child cannot reach the top of the column. It’s that simple.
Targeting incremental skills produces huge gains
An example: I’m consulting my teaching notes from 18 months ago for this. At the time, Johnny was 5.5 years old.
Me: Johnny, can you read a house?”
“Can you pull water?”
“Are these (blue) shorts red?”
“What is a food you eat for breakfast?”
Johnny: “Yes. Yes. Yes. Plate.”
Memorizing the labels of things is comparatively easy. Being able to understand a question so you can then give a correct answer is quite hard. But without seeing the different skills, you might not understand how a child can speak in small sentences (labeling) without being able to answer small questions (intraverbals).
Labeling and intraverbals aren’t even in the same column on the ABLLS. They are different categories entirely.
So we started at the bottom of the intraverbal column with explicitly teaching function, feature, and class.
Checking in with the example above. You can see that Johnny had not developed these skills. Function: books have the function of being read, houses do not. Feature: the shorts are red, and therefore cannot also be blue. Class: plates are used with food, but are not food.
Let’s compare this to the last thing Johnny said as he ran through the room where I’m typing. He recently turned 7 years old.
Johnny: “Hey Mommy, can I take my helicopter toy outside? Because the wind will blow and carry it even higher. Maybe it will go over the tree! That would be so cool.”
Me: “Yeah, just as long as it doesn’t get stuck in the tree.”
Johnny: “Yeah, but if it gets stuck, then Daddy can throw a football and knock it down. Like when your shoe got stuck last year.”
(Don’t ask, I can’t tell you what my shoe was doing up there)
Therapy materials beat whole curriculum every time
Autism is a developmental disorder. That means his development is out of the typical order. E.g. spelling before speaking. I’ve yet to find a curriculum that can be done start-to-finish for kids with autism, since they’re all developing in their own unique order.
Only last year did we add a mainstream language arts and math program to fill in odd gaps (What’s a comma? What’s metric?), but at least 50% of the time he blazes through the lesson since it’s something he already knows.
Most of our time working together is spent using therapy materials to directly address those ABLLS skills mentioned above. (We also do OT/PT/Sensory skills, but those are harder to describe in print).
Curriculum also places huge demands on children’s expressive language right from the start. Look at the sample pages of any kindergarten curriculum. Every sentence begins with “Ask the child.. Discuss… Tell a story together…”
Impaired communication is a core deficit of autism. It’s cruel and pointless to force children to do something completely beyond their current skill set. At best, you’re teaching them to sit quietly. At worst, you’re souring them on schoolwork and destroying your relationship to boot.
Expectations are the enemy
Expectations are a contract the other person never agreed to enter.
You say “Since you can do X, you HAVE to do Y.” But that’s not how life works. Now it’s the neurotypical parent living in a fantasy world. And coming back to earth hurts.
Many times, the expectation comes from ignorance. Not knowing how much higher one skill is than the child’s current functioning level. Making unreasonable contracts and expecting your child to fulfill them.
I am his mother first
His safe place. His nurturer and encourager. I am his biggest fan. He is my favorite person. And anything that interrupts that role has no place in my home.
Stretching is always a little uncomfortable. It’s part of the growth mindset we’re helping Johnny develop. But help should never hurt. If I’m pushing either of us too fast, it’s vital to pull back to center.
Incremental gains come from incremental work. Consistency is better than cramming. Mastering myself has often produced better results than trying to cram more into his brain anyway.
For more practical, step-by-step advice on starting your own therapeutic homeschool, follow along for the next blog post in this series.