The Covid carousel- Top tips for Home-schooling a child with Autism without getting dizzy!

Mother using laptop and tablet teaching with her son online at home in his room

All parents are tired. But parents of children with additional needs are REALLY tired. Teaching kids all day is really tough (who would have known!?) plus throw in trying to work from home, feed everybody and still have clean clothes occasionally into the mix and it’s sensory overload for everyone. But you all know this already.

So, I was thinking about what might be helpful to write about during this lockdown. In Ireland at the moment all schools are closed, and although for some children with additional needs this may be a relief I don’t think the same can be said for their parents. So, in a small attempt to support those parents through this next (hopefully last!) lockdown I asked my friend and colleague Helen O’Connor (Special Education Teacher with over 30 years experience and currently teaching in an ASD class in Scoil Bhride in Kill, Co Kildare) for her top tips for home-schooling a child with Autism. Here’s what she said…

I find the children in my class can loosely fall into 2 categories:

The first is a group that enjoys being home, living in their comfy clothes, eating food they like and doing activities they like.  They are very much in their comfort zone and are happy so long as they are left here.  Unfortunately, they won’t learn anything in this mode so the challenge is to nudge them gently towards other experiences.  This can be tricky as if you are stuck at home as a family, there is a certain wisdom in ‘letting sleeping dogs lie’ as it were.  One parent in my class, who’s child fell into this category (with a large amount of anxiety also), would leave books around that might interest him.  Then when he showed any interest, she would casually suggest he might like to research more facts.  If she showed too much interest he would go in the opposite direction. However, a slightly disinterested passing comment could propel him towards lots of research leading to him sharing the information with his mother.  Unbeknownst to him, lots of learning happened here, so this is a great result.  This clever parent would do planned research with her other child (who also was a child with Autism).  She then would make suggestions (which he would accept) taking in areas of maths, science, language etc in the one project.  Now I realise this takes an incredible amount of time and patience and if you are trying to work from home or have other children, this may not be possible.  Also, in the case of these boys, they had the ability to research their chosen subject on the computer.

The second category of child is a child who really misses school, the routine, their friends etc. In this case a visual timetable may be a help. The timetable can be pictures (photos/pecs), objects or a written timetable.  I’m a great believer in having a few small whiteboards and Post its handy at all times. That way if you haven’t gotten a schedule from your child’s teacher, you can make a FIRST/THEN schedule on a whiteboard.  I had a student who had a moderate learning disability but he could read words, so this worked really well for him at home.  His schedule covered such things as story time, YouTube songs, colouring, jigsaws and playdough.  I used to send home any books (visuals) of circletime songs and he would sing these at home too.  The funny thing was he would never sing in school but at home on his own he knew every word and all the actions too!

When I have used a whiteboard in school, I have drawn pictures and stick figures for non- reading children.  I also use whiteboards (and stick drawings) for a quick social story as it is needed.

As a parent, you will know what works best for your child.  Some children will need a later start if they are not sleeping, some children will enjoy videos from their teacher, while some children will enjoy Zoom.  With my students there is a wide variety.  Some sort of a structure on the day will help your child and yourself.  Maybe the schedule will reflect the whole day or it may just be needed for the actual school work.

Some children with Autism really need to know how long an activity will take, so maybe layout the schoolwork and ask the child what order they would like to do them in.  Again here- what works for your child?  It could be a sensory activity; reading; movement break; 5 maths sums; breathing exercise and then spelling; finished. Don’t forget it does not have to be an academic activity to learn.  I have a student who reads Hello magazine to find out about one of her favourite subjects, The Royal Family. So, you can intersperse the academic work with some of the child’s favourite activities, this can act as an incentive.  One of my students loves jigsaws so I put a cut out number on each activity.  After 3 activities he gets to do a jigsaw.

Within each activity, it’s a good idea to highlight exactly how much the student is required to do.  I draw a Stop sign for my students if they are only required to do a few exercises on the page. I draw it at the bottom of the page, if they are required to do the entire page.  One of my students became very adept at filling in Stop signs himself, so shortening his workload!

Don’t feel stressed about having to get all of the work done. Whatever you do is a plus for your child.  Your child’s learning could be life skills; one of our students is learning to eat with a spoon, so each day we practice this skill with a small tub of yogurt.  Another student is learning to roll up his yoga mat, we have students learning to make and butter toast, tie their shoe laces, put a wash on in the washing machine (washing machines are his favourite subject).

Lastly involving siblings in board games, card games, house and garden scavenger hunts is a great way to promote social skills during this period.  These teach and reinforce waiting, turn taking, how to win and how to lose.

Homeschooling your child will take many forms.  You know your child best and I can’t stress enough, whatever you are doing is a plus for your child.”

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