The early learning years of preschool and kindergarten are a wondrous time of new discoveries and acquiring new skills by leaps and bounds. Children tend to be eager to learn at this age, soaking up knowledge like a sponge. Although autism presents its own unique challenges, these early years are still precious and full of opportunities to learn.
My middle daughter on the autism spectrum is a kindergartner this year. I’ve come to see that what worked with my neurotypical older daughter at this age doesn’t necessarily work with her. I’m very relaxed about schooling in these early years anyway, so we’ve learned to go with the flow. I would like to share a few tips that I’ve discovered that might help other moms who are homeschooling little ones with autism:
Incorporate multisensory learning as much as possible.
Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities or sensory processing issues. I’ve found that using many different types of sensory input has helped my daughter tremendously in gaining new skills. For instance, using textured manipulatives for math, touchy-feely board books for reading, textured alphabet and sight word flashcards, and alphabet/number DVDs and CDs, help engage the different senses in the learning process. Books and workbooks alone aren’t enough for my daughter to associate meaning to intangibles like reading and counting/addition. I have to show her through the five senses that letters and numbers have meaning. Many Montessori activities work wonderfully for autism multi-sensory learning. A Pinterest search will yield a lot of ideas to try, too.
Having “fidgets” on hand that your child can hold and manipulate while listening to a read-aloud can often help with concentration, too. I like to make homemade playdough that she can squish while I’m reading to her from our Bible or history lessons. This helps her to focus and sit still for a little longer than she usually would without that tactile activity. Coloring or placing stickers on a page are also great choices.
Sometimes lessons need to be repeated and reviewed more often than with neurotypical kids at this age. I take the opportunity to sing the alphabet song several times a day with my daughter so she doesn’t “lose” the information between lessons. We also review phonics sounds throughout the day just by naming objects and saying their first letter and first letter sound three times together. I find that having music CDs with songs about numbers and letters helps, too. Some of our favorites are Kindergarten Learning Songs (available as mp3 download on Amazon) or many of the educational song videos on YouTube. All of this adds fun and interest to the repetition and presents it in a multi-sensory way.
Focus on strengths rather than limitations.
If your child is good at art, try to incorporate more art into your lessons. If he or she is musical, add music. If they prefer to build or take things apart, prepare lessons that showcase those skills. I consider this the “unit study” of autism. Find an interest, a strength, and use that as positive reinforcement in your lesson planning. Remember that you’re building self-confidence and a love for learning, not just focusing on academic gains. If your child becomes too discouraged or frustrated, they’ll lose that spark that makes learning meaningful and enriching. With just a little encouragement from you, playtime can be learning time in disguise!
Grace and patience are the bywords.
Special needs require a little extra patience at times. We often take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. These things are to be expected so we need to allow our children some grace to be who they are, regardless of whether or not they’re meeting a standard on some arbitrary educational chart. We must also extend grace to ourselves because special needs moms are often their own harshest critics. Remember that each day begins with a fresh start and the Lord gives us new mercy day by day. Take a deep breath, step away from those phonics lessons or addition problems if necessary, and just enjoy the time with your kids. It will be okay, really. Does it really matter in the long run whether your child is 5 or 10 when they learn to read? Autism is truly a spectrum disorder so results will vary. Cultivating grace and patience serves everyone well.
A sensory-rich environment that encourages learning activities is the best start in the early formative years. Truthfully, most of these ideas can be applied to “typical”
homeschooling, even if your children don’t happen to be autistic. All children need a positive parent on their side to help them reach their full potential.
You can find Sara blogging about autism, homeschooling, faith, motherhood, books, and more at Embracing Destiny. She is also on Facebook and Twitter. Sara has been Dave’s wife for almost 18 years and their daughters are 11, 5, and 3.