PART ONE: The Back Story
In December 2020, Global Student Network (GSN) sat down with children’s book author and special needs home school mom, Steph LaClair, to talk with her about her book and her “best practice” tips for parents who are home schooling a special needs child.
Steph’s son was born with a cleft lip and palate. When he was two-and-a-half months old, he experienced the first surgery of his life. Since that time, he has experienced several more surgeries to correct the condition. He learned to read even before he attended kindergarten but despite his high-level learning skills, over the first several years of his school life, he experienced various learning and socialization issues. Not long after entering public school, it became clear he was experiencing autism-related symptoms including poor eye contact when speaking to others, frequent repetitive gestures and heightened sensitivity to various external stimuli. An early teacher reported that she “didn’t know what to do with him” because he was “too easily distracted and needed a lot of specifically-detailed instructions.”
Initially, the public school system tested him for the gifted child program and put him through the standardized testing protocols for gifted children. He was subsequently separated out from the other children in his group and the other students started asking why he was “different,” until it became obvious the new approach to his education was not going to work. Steph was, at the time, volunteering at the public school and after witnessing the situation as it unfolded, made the decision to move her son to home schooling.
By the time he was eight years old, Steph’s son was diagnosed with autism. Beyond this point, she enrolled him in a special needs school. After three months at the school, she observed that the system did not provide adequate services to suitably address much other than a “one size fits all for special needs kids” approach to education. Since that point, Steph has been home schooling her son full time. He’s now 12 years old and has been home schooled for six years.
PART TWO: 10 Lessons from Experience
Steph’s “top tip” for parents who want to homeschool a special needs child is to “find out what they’re interested in and relate other things back to that. Science has turned out to be our ‘hub.’ Make learning fun and the rest will come naturally. It won’t matter – if they’re having fun, they’ll get hooked on the topic.”
For additional help in homeschooling your special needs child, here are 10 more helpful tips from Steph:
- When you begin homeschooling, do lots of outings. Go to the zoo. Take field trips. Bring educational topics together in interesting and fun ways. Relate learning to real world experiences.
- Help your child learn how to learn – help them gain confidence by giving them independent work they’re capable of doing.
- Tie learning topics to other things your child is interested in – use ‘cross purpose’ learning.
- Don’t teach directly. If you want your special needs child to learn how to take notes, model note taking on a white board or chalkboard. Your child will learn by watching.
- Especially with autistic children, be careful of the “gamification” learning model – Your child’s anxiety and stress levels may be increased by creating a win/lose or timed learning situation.
- Pay attention to your child’s Occupational Therapy (OT) professional – notice situations where your child could use additional help and ask the OT expert to help.
- Feel free to provide helpful criticism of your child’s work – but only if there’s some kind of learning attached to the criticism. Always point out areas where they did a really good job and then offer something like: “here’s what we can work on for the next time,” or “Oh, good, you remembered to do…”
- Give your special needs child a say in their own education – allow them to prioritize the order in which they would like to learn things. Give them as much choice as possible.
- Don’t talk about their special need as a ‘disability.’ Just treat it as a different character trait – “some people do some things better than others,” etc. Ask your child to tell you how you can help them.
- When “going over” your child’s work, don’t use a red pencil. Never ‘X’ anything out. Mark the paper “let’s take another look at this” whenever possible. Allow the child to correct their own work. Your role is to give assistance and point them in the right direction.
PART THREE: Socialization
Because the issue of “socialization” is a common item of discussion when it comes to pros and cons of home schooling, Steph offers the following advice: “My experience with my autistic child is that being around other adults is more useful than being around other kids. Get them out doing something that will build character. Provide real world experience they’re going to need to survive in the future. They don’t need ‘play dates.’ They need to be out in the world, not playing dolls or trucks in someone’s yard.
Go visit people at nursing homes. Go to police and fire departments and help your child learn to be comfortable with people in uniform. Sign them up for community classes at the park department or library. In a special school, they’re only with special kids. If you sign them up for specific classes where all the kids in the room have the same interest and they’re respectful of each other and are all focused on learning something they’re interested in, your child will fit in and thrive in the situation.”
PART FOUR: A Book is Born
In addition to becoming a self-educated expert on homeschooling an autistic child, Ms. LaClair has written and illustrated a children’s book focused on her experiences with parenting a child born with a cleft. The book was officially “named” by her son, who thought the title should say exactly what he wanted to say to other children – “I Have a Cleft, How About You?” There could be no better description of how Steph’s book came to life than the Opening Note to Parents published in the front of the book itself.
“One day I wrote a little story and drew a few pictures. It started out as a cute little keepsake that my sweet boy could read about himself someday. In retrospect, it may also have been a therapeutic way for me to work through the early surgeries. As time went on, the book was put aside and forgotten.
When it came time for the bone graft surgery, my son had many overwhelming emotions and heartbreaking questions that I had not faced during his surgeries as an infant. “Why? Why me?” He wanted answers. I remembered the book.
We read his story together and he began to understand his condition, why he needed surgeries, that there is an annoying recovery period, but that on the other side there as the prospect of a better life. It also opened the door to talk about how special his cleft made him. Our family forged a tighter bond with every challenge we overcame together. Being born with the cleft can provide the opportunity to find strength, build resilience, and practice acceptance and making peace at an early age. Plus, it is a pretty amazing story to tell.
With the help of some great people at the Barrow Cleft and Craniofacial Center, I put finishing touches on my book and edited the text to invite other families to engage with the book. I hope families enjoy sharing their stories with their amazing children.”
If this interview summary was helpful to you as the home school parent of a special-needs child and you’d like to read more interview-style help articles, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HomeschoolFacts.com has a complete list of support groups to help support you in your homeschooling endeavors and connect with homeschoolers near you. You can search the list of support groups here: https://www.homeschoolfacts.com/homeschool-support-groups.html