The 5 Differences of Autism Homeschools

autism homeschool tips (1)
Learn the 5 differences between regular homeschools and autism homeschools.

Starting any homeschool is a matter of looking up your state’s requirements and setting up your school. But once you have a homeschool registered, how do you teach your autistic child at home?

School has different goals for kids with autism than for neurotypical kids. A regular school will seek to inform children with academic skills, with some coping skills added as supplement. An autism school will be first and foremost therapeutic, with academics supplementing an autism-specific curriculum.

Neurotypical kids will focus on acquiring a set of academic knowledge. Autistic kids will focus on healing their brains and connecting to the world around them. They will also pick up the academic knowledge they need, but taking care of that special brain and body comes first.

Why the reverse order? Won’t your child fall behind academically? No. Because the autistic child has an immensely plastic brain. Autistic people can learn more easily than others — when they have their needs met and when information is presented in a way that acknowledges their strengths.

What are those strengths? How can you give your child what they need at home (with the help of a competent speech therapist and other therapists as needed)? Here are my top 5 tips for building an autism homeschool, based on my experience homeschooling my 5 autistic children (ages 3-10).

5 Tips for an Autism Homeschool


    • The primary goal in engaging with and teaching kids with autism is to develop joint attention. Joint attention is what it sounds like. Paying attention to the same things at the same time. (Ask your speech therapist about this. It will be very helpful.)
    • You have to find ways to engage your child so that you gain their attention to yourself, transferring it from objects/activities of interest to you so that you can teach.
    • You have to find ways to engage your child’s attention in thinking about the same things as you so the child can learn how to learn from others.
    • You have to build on joint attention to learn social thinking. (Go look at the amazing resources at the {Social Thinking website}, and ask your speech therapist about this.)
    • Depending on the child’s autism severity, you might be able to jump in at different points in the attention game. But attention is far more important than conformity. It is the absolute basis of healing the handicaps of autism and learning to thrive with this disability.
    • Understand that autistic kids will have profoundly uneven skill distribution as compared to neurotypical kids. It’s possible to be a high IQ teenager who does well academically but who also lacks the joint attention skills of a typical toddler. But no worries. That amazing autistic brain can pick up the new skills as soon as they’re taught. (It might just take a different approach and more hard work later.) See the BONUS! tip below for more on uneven development.
  • 2) Piggybacking: Building Cross-Brain Synapses

    • When your brain is weird, there’s no quick fix. But there is good news! While autistic brains present challenges like overstimulation and an overabundance of random thoughts/feelings/sensory data, they are also very, very awesome at learning. Your goal is to form connections between different parts of the brain so that other connections can follow suit. In other words, you will have to focus on healing the things you can change so that the brain can heal itself on the things you can’t change.
    • What??? One of the easiest ways to build brain connections is with movement across the midline of the halves of the body. If your child lacks physical ability to do this on their own, have their physical therapist or occupational therapist show you how to incorporate these movements into your routine.
    • Swinging, building Legos, drawing, scooting on scooter boards, rocking in rocking chairs, bending, dancing, balance boarding, teeter-tottering, painting, finger plays (Itsy Bitsy Spider, Twinkle Little Star with moving stars, Little Bunny Fu-Fu, the Hokey Pokey), dress up, and other activities that use both hands/both halves of the body and cross the front/back, side to side and up to down body hemispheres have to be a part of your homeschool curriculum.
    • Yes, Legos and swinging are school. So is dancing. These things are not optional, but necessary for your autistic child to form the connections they need to learn other things.
    • A bit about why [nerd alert!]: Autistic brains have fewer of the cells that help form long chain synapses that stretch from the back to the front of the brain. Basically, your autistic child has impeccable local roads but needs help building interstate highways. Once a highway is in place, it’s easier to connect other highways to it, and soon (ok, it takes years, but this is a long game) your child’s brain can get the ideas it wants sorted where it wants.
  • 3) Videos are good.

    • There’s tons of research out there about how neurotypical kids shouldn’t engage in very much screen time, which I’ll leave every parenting magazine ever to fill you in on. But few people know that for autistic kids, certain types of videos actually help their development! The evidence-based practice is called video modeling. (Learn all about it here, but you will have to create a free log in account.)
    • Basically, it’s easier for kids with autism to learn when something is exactly the same each time. That’s why video modeling, and more broadly for homeschooling, documentaries and educational videos, are so effective for teaching kids with autism. It’s easier to factor out all the “noise” that you get from a hyper-sensitive brain & body, when the subject matter you want to focus on is exactly the same each of the dozen or more times you watch it.
    • Repetition is your friend in autism teaching. Get used to the idea that you can go deeper if you cross the same ground many, many times.
    • This doesn’t mean you can leave your kid in front of a screen all day, but it does mean that they will probably learn some things more easily via videos you’ve carefully selected and educational apps where the rules are predictable.
    • After trying to teach our older, higher functioning autistic children math on a whiteboard, we found that they exceled at math apps like Prodigy, Dozens, and the DragonBox series. We still use the white board and paper to talk them through logic, but they love to practice using these interactive apps.
    • Many autistic children also suffer from dyslexia and dysgraphia. Though our family has not found a great app for dyslexia, we love using an electronic pencil and tablet to let our dysgraphic son free draw on photos of characters he likes. This plus swinging a lot have helped his writing become legible over the past six months.
    • Apps and videos are not for every subject or all the time, but they really do help. (Good old Sesame Street is actually really amazing at video modeling for kids, if you want a place to start outside something targeted just to kids with autism.)
  • 4) Social Thinking is a School Subject.

    • For my most severely autistic child, social reasoning is basic. We are trying to teach him to ask for help by tapping our arms and/or saying, “help, please.” We are trying to teach him to show us things that interest him.
    • For our higher functioning kids, social thinking helps with issues of interoception (hunger/thirst/potty/tired/comfort), emotional regulation, communicating with others effectively, and being part of groups.
    • Sometimes you can spot a group of autistic kids facing different directions, talking to different walls, and wondering why no one is listening. That’s a sad/funny because we’ve been there situation that shows the need for teaching social thinking.
    • I highly recommend that you work with a speech therapist who can teach social thinking. Many occupational therapists trained in working with autistic children will also be able to help with the Zones of Regulation part of social thinking.
    • When people ask about our formal curricula, the only things that are a steady presence in our household are the social thinking books and aids and our Explode the Code reading set. That’s because social thinking is not intuitive for autistic kids. But the skills can be taught!
    • No matter the age of the child, these skills can be taught and practiced and integrated into daily life so that the child can flourish and build up friendships in community.
  • 5) Love and Safety are Priorities.

    • Of course you will find that public and private school teachers and classmates also love your autistic child, but this point pertains to the feelings of love and safety your child experiences when their school (your home) prioritizes their sensory needs.
    • A strong, thorough, and adaptable sensory diet is vital to your child’s ability to pay attention and learn well. (I talked about sensory diets in this post.)
    • One of the advantages of homeschool for autistic children is that we don’t have to go through an IEP/504 meeting every time we learn something new that helps. We just change our daily pattern to accommodate the new best practices.
    •  If you decide to homeschool your child with autism, you will probably want to find a way to incorporate swings into your home or daily routine. The back and forth motion of swinging is very soothing and regulating. On the deep pressure end of the sensory diet, you will probably want to find a crash pad/floor mattress/bean bag where your child can jump safely. Coming soon, I’m releasing a free ebook on this site that will tell you my tips on an autism-accessible home. Lots of those tips apply to autism homeschool, too.
  • BONUS! Growth Spurts are Weird.

    • Because of the uneven development in autistic children/teens/adults, you will sometimes meet a milestone MUCH later than typical. That means that your child/teen could suddenly act out the same way a neurotypical child acted when they reached the same milestone. This is vitally important to understand so that you don’t think your child had a psychotic break when they actually met a milestone.
    • When sensory needs have been met, meltdowns or shut downs are a sign of progress.
    • Basically, your autistic kid might suddenly get exam brain like you had at the end of finals week, and they will be just done with talking/attention/interacting. Treat them kindly, just as you wanted to be treated back in the day. Give them easy, preferred food and drink, a dark and quiet room, a favorite book or video, and plenty of time to rest and relax for a day or two. That’s what brains need when they ran a marathon! (brain-a-thon?)
    • Your autistic kid might be making excellent progress in joint attention and social thinking, then suddenly lose his schtuff, yelling, seeming out of control of his body, freaking out, and sensory seeking in ways that may not be entirely safe. If that happens, remember the Terrible Twos that neurotypicals go through. Those meltdowns come at that time for NT kids because they’re going through major brain developments and changes.
    • Congratulations! Your big kid just met a milestone! Try to keep them and yourself safe, and engage sensory soothing techniques. If you can get them to swing, do so. If you can get them to swing in a dim and quiet room, do so. If you have AAC (augmented and assisted communication) techniques in place, use them to engage the older part of the brain. Your goals are safety and soothing. That’s it until they calm down. Don’t get ticked off at them or yell back. They can’t help it, and you can be inwardly happy knowing that they just leaped forward in development.
    • About that brain & body: Remember that we feel first, see second, and think third. When your children are making progress, or if you want them to do so (you do), make sure to follow the lead of how they’re made. Take care of their sensory needs, give them appropriate visual input with visual supports, AAC, and video modeling, and take the thinking calmly, slowly, and socially.

I’m putting together a more in-depth look at our homeschool this year that I hope to share in the not-too-distant future, but I hope that these tips help you as you approach your decision about homeschooling your child or children with autism. Make sure to talk with your therapists and local support services as you make your decisions, and run my ideas by them if you have questions. Feel free to comment here to ask for examples or share your experiences!

Did you know that I’m writing a book on welcoming families with disabilities into the church? With my co-author Charlotte Riggle, I’m writing Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability for Ancient Faith Publishing. Make sure to follow this blog and my Facebook page to receive free, related tips and printables. 

7 thoughts on “The 5 Differences of Autism Homeschools”

  1. I have homeschool my son (almost 11) from the beginning, we tried preschool and that is when I finally got him diagnosed. He has been in OT for years and is getting close to graduating out of it. Most of his education has come from unschooling and the early years it was OT at home and I feel like I did the right thing by focusing on his social abilities more than just academic studies.
    We are at a crossroads now and I’m feeling myself not being so confident. We are struggling with Math. Do you have any recommendations for curriculum? It’s the only subject we really struggle with.
    Thank you so much

    1. We have had the most success on practice/drills with using the math apps from DragonBox, Dozens/Dozenopolis, and Prodigy. We teach the concepts on white boards in the kitchen and with hands-on lessons. For instance, we have magnetic money to talk about money and let the kids earn quarters for chores so they get fractions with their spending money. We also show fractions in cooking. We do volume with graduated cylinders and use a little scale for weights. We say __ sets of __ instead of __ times __ to get the concrete thinking in every example. So, we basically are finding things that work a little at a time, always with an eye to the lesson being touchable/applicable. The Prodigy app is great for kids with dysgraphia because it lines up the columns and has kids show their work. I’m more project based/unschoolish, so I hope this is useful. We didn’t find the Life of Fred or Singapore math helpful early on, so we set out in a different direction. I’m planning to use Khan math (free!) to teach some of the higher math later. )My 4th grader is doing long division right now but has placed up a couple of grades in his assessments. His math reasoning is mostly strong.)

    2. The trouble we have is less with curriculum than with the working memory of relationships between sets of things, which shows up in math and spelling especially. For that, I am starting my guy on speech therapy with social thinking, and we’re playing working memory games on our own. Social thinking skills build up a lot of other skills. I would recommend finding someone to work with and/or using their curricula.

  2. Two apps/websites to look into: Lure of the Labrynth gives practice in logic and mathematical reasoning at a roughly 4th/5th grade level. Free to use. Learning Ally… you need a somewhat official diagnosis of dyslexia, but basically, it’s a federally funded program in which authors have agreed to waive some copyright issues for the good of those who have a diagnosed need for additional access to audio books. It is, once you have the ability to access it, the most complete library of “free” audio books you will ever find. You don’t pay per title… any public school student with dyslexia, general reading learning disability, visual impairment, etc. can have an account. They aren’t professionally read… you can tell that it’s an army of retirees who are reading these books as a volunteer gig, but it is a world changer for those who struggle to read. Includes all the new releases, etc. Harry Potter, Series of Unfortuante Events… anything I have ever wanted my 3rd graders to have access to, I have found on Learning Ally. If you have ARD meetings for your kiddos in Speech, your ARD facilitator should know about it, or know someone who does.

    1. Also, a tip from our dyslexia specialist in case you haven’t heard this one before: students with dyslexia do best skipping print in favor of cursive… all cursive letters are distinctive… b and d are completely different, for example. There is also something about connecting the letters that helps.

      1. Thank you. Yes, our reading tutor told us about this a few years ago. Unfortunately the dysgraphia is too extreme to focus on writing rather than typing, but I’m incorporating more of my handwritten cursive in teaching.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.