24 Tips for Homeschooling an Autistic Student, From an Autistic Teacher
You watch your kid trying to do homeschool online, but they can’t focus, stay on a call with the teacher, or get work done. You’re frustrated and want to help, but you’ve tried what the experts suggested, and it’s not doing much.
The following tips have been amassed from the repeated comments of many autistic people I’ve encountered, as well as my own experiences as an autistic woman and high school teacher. We’ve struggled with the same things your kid is going through, and have learned what works for us. That said, everyone on the spectrum has different strengths and challenges, so not all of these will help; try some and see what works for your student.
Calm the nervous system
Learning takes quite a bit of cognitive energy, and that doesn’t go well with being wound up, shut off, anxious, or upset. When you’re on edge, you don’t get your best work done, either. Quite a bit of bouncy, frenzied, or unresponsive behavior comes from a disorganized nervous system. Reorganizing it involves making sure each of the senses have enough input without getting overloaded.
1. Identify which senses need extra stimulation (if your student is wiggly, they might need more proprioception — the body’s awareness of where it is in space), and which senses need less (do sounds hurt?). Then look for different ways to stimulate or reduce the senses that need it. For example:
2. Let your student stim, jump around, climb, swing, spin, roll, rock, brush their skin with something scratchy or soft, flap their hands, or whatever else helps their body feel good. These things may look odd, but can be incredibly calming and organizing to an overloaded nervous system.
3. Try a weighted lap blanket, weighted vest, or simply holding anything heavy, like a pile of textbooks. The added muscle resistance can be relaxing.
4. Add aromatherapy essential oils to the study room. Different scents can calm, invigorate, or help focus. Let your student help choose ones that work for him. If he doesn’t like the scent, it doesn’t matter what it is “supposed to” do, it won’t help.
5. Background music can be helpful for some, but if your student is trying to study, read, or do anything that involves language, make sure the music does not have words — no singing. The brain has to work overtime to sort out two sources of language input at once, which can interfere with learning and drain energy and endurance faster. Try classical music, nature sounds, or ambient (think spa music).
6. Is your student a wiggler? Try sitting her on a wobble cushion or replace her chair with a yoga ball that she can bounce on while working. Either will activate core muscles and achieve the proprioceptive input the wiggling is trying to get.
7. Some people report headaches or irritability from fluorescent lights, so try replacing CFL bulbs with something else and see if that helps. Take advantage of any natural lighting you have, which is gentler on the nervous system than artificial lights.
Set up your environment for success
When too much is going on around you, it can be difficult to concentrate. However, how much is “too much” varies from person to person. For many autistic people, how much we can tolerate without side effects is much less than for neurotypicals. In fact, things that others consider white noise or minor distractions may be literally impossible to ignore.
Try to make the study area as calming and distraction-free as possible.
1. Let your student work in a room alone with the door closed.
2. Turn off the television or stereo in the next room if it can be overheard, or try wearing ear protectors to reduce sounds.
3. Dim or brighten lights to suit your student’s personal comfort level. This might be much dimmer than you are comfortable with, so resist turning on more lights.
4. The glare on glossy textbooks and screens make reading difficult and even cause headaches. Try putting a matte screen protector or colored film (translucent report covers or notebook dividers work well) over them to reduce eye strain and increase endurance.
Make taking breaks OK
After only about 20 minutes of sitting, blood starts to drain from the brain and pool in the butt. Getting up and moving frequently, even for a few minutes, keeps us all thinking more clearly and feeling good.
1. If your student feels the need to get up and move, walk away from the computer, jump around, or get a snack, please let them. It may appear like they’re not focusing, but short breaks can help them stick with it long enough to finish.
2. Optometrists recommend looking up from the computer or book for 20 seconds to a minute, several times an hour, and focusing on something more than 20 feet away (which is usually outside) to reduce eye strain and associated headaches.
3. Brain Gym exercises are easy and quick ways to stimulate different parts of the brain to work better together. Doing these at break times can help refocus.
4. Connect with nature. Even something as small as looking through a window to watch tree leaves rustle in the wind can have a calming effect on the nervous system. Repeated exposure increases the benefits.
5. All this moving may look as if your student is not concentrating, but classrooms of still, silent children do more for teachers’ sanity than children’s learning. While at home, take advantage of the ability to experiment with what best facilitates your student’s success.
6. On that note, teachers often insist kids look at them when they talk, but unless she needs to interpret visual information, use sign language, or read lips, there is no actual correlation between attention and the direction someone is looking. You can drive and follow your kid’s argument in the backseat just fine. If your student is not looking at the screen, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not paying attention. Ask her a question about the material if you want to check for comprehension.
7. Also, make not taking breaks OK. If your student gets engrossed in his work and doesn’t want to quit, try not to force him out of it unless it is really necessary. He’ll get a lot more done, more willingly, even if it means adjusting a routine or plan.
Let them rest afterward
Autistic brains are great at some things, but often tire more quickly from social activities (yes, video school counts), and we need more downtime to recuperate. If you ask us to go straight from school to activities or therapy to family time in short order, it is more likely to produce unwanted behaviors than to teach us how to be social.
1. When school is over for the day, let your student have some downtime to use as they choose. Don’t make this a reward that needs to be earned; it is just part of the plan.
2. Especially when things did not go well, that is likely a sign she needs the downtime more than ever. Taking away her chance to recuperate when that is exactly what she needs most will make both of your lives more difficult for the rest of the day (or longer).
3. Remember that you’re not on your best behavior when you’re tired and stressed, either. We get to that point faster than you do, and social time gets us there much faster.
Involve your student in these decisions
No one likes to be micromanaged, and we all work better when we feel we have some control over when and how we work. That is no less true for an autistic kid or teen.
1. At the beginning of each school day, agree on what you both think is a reasonable amount of work to get done. When it is done, even if it is faster than expected, don’t push for more. Let your student rest or play.
2. Agree in advance on acceptable rest and play options. Make sure some of them are off-screen, but they don’t all have to be. Unstructured free play is essential to healthy brain development.
3. Ask your student’s input on any changes you propose, and ask him later how they feel. You might be surprised about what helps.
Not all of these suggestions will work for both your student and you, and even the ones that do work won’t work all the time. I hope I have offered some ideas for removing impediments that might be preventing your student from working, and added to the toolbox of resources your family can draw upon.
Getty image by ake1150sb.