People ask me all the time about our experiences with homeschooling our neurodiverse children. They often ask me to give specific examples that may have helped us and while I can do that and will try to give some practical advice from our lived experience here, I want to preface it with this: homeschooling our neurodivergent children has had the same basis as homeschooling our neurotypical child: we have sought in our journey to meet and honour EACH CHILD'S needs in their learning and living. And that is really the larger picture in a nutshell.
Our family's neurodivergence includes multiple autistic people, some with a PDA profile, ADHD, O.D.D, SPD, dyslexia, anxiety. Sometimes this means we have days in which our children may feel overwhelmed, might need extra time to process information or may need additional aids to support them. We also manage people having chronic illnesses. Sometimes the symptoms from our chronic illnesses include things like severe fatigue, unpredictable toileting needs, medications and many unstable days.
Currently, between all the members in our family, we have regular interactions with our amazing Dr. and incredible pharmacist (and our amazing Dr's receptionist without whom we'd be lost!), psychologists, psychiatrist telehealth team, rheumatologist, paediatric gastroenterologist, adult gastroenterologist, paediatrician, dietician, cardiologist, an ophthalmologist, our amazing physiotherapists and others. Just managing the paperwork, medications, referrals and appointments is quite a task.
I meet many people who have neurodivergent families and homeschool. Learning to manage and help our family to function as well as we can is something I try to do daily. Just like in a neurotypical family, I may not always get it right. It has been a process for me - one that continues to evolve! At the heart of it all, is the desire to love my family well in an intentional way. If you've been reading my blogs for a while or my social media posts, you'll know that I've mentioned before that organising has never come naturally to me. It has been a set of skills that I've intentionally tried to practice a little at a time. In a similar way, knowing my kiddos well has taken time and intention too. I've made many mistakes along the way, shed many years with the kids and have apologised when I've messed up.
I've loved these verses below for over 2 decades now and I love that they speak of being created with purpose and intention and being known. I felt this was so important for our children. I have always wanted them to feel nurtured, loved and important to us.
"You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth." - Psalm 139:13-15
A mix of practical and heart-stuff has been helpful in my journey. Again, this was a process (and still is!) Here are some things that have helped me. Again, your child/ren and you will have different needs and therefore different tools may be necessary for them but I'm sharing things that have helped us as an example of how with time and intention, you can continue to live in an attitude of love and nurture.
Sensory tools and fidget toys.
We have a house full of sensory tools and fidget toys! Over the years we've used bean bags, water troughs, climbing frames, indoor and outdoor trampolines, TheraBands on the bottoms of chairs, body socks made of lycra for deep pressure, weighted blankets, noise cancelling headphones (even the basic kind of Bunnings) SO many other things! Currently, one of my kiddos loves screamo music and another craves classical music (I'm not a huge fan of either tbh but that doesn't matter - they love it!) and so listen to that on CD's or digitally. Having ipods for music continues to be something that has been a valuable tool around here.
Having quiet spaces that people can retreat to can be super helpful. In our small home, it was nearly impossible but we tried our best. One of the girls had their 'wardrobe' turned into a quiet space with a curtain, cushions and soft lighting. In lieu of quiet spaces here, we tried our best to find quiet spaces in the world: we visited the library often and went of walks which helped us all.
Chewy foods. Snack foods.
Making available chewing gum helped some of my kids to focus. Their mouths were moving while they sat and read or wrote. Making gum available helped. We tried chewy necklaces and chewy tubes and all the chewy things but gum was always the winner around here. It still is! We had snack foods that the kids could always access and the 'snack station' lived on the bench. They were jars with different things in them: nuts in one or two, seeds in another, sultanas at one stage too and fruit and veg snacks were available too.
Right now as I type this, my right leg is moving non-stop, bopping up and down. It soothes me and helps me focus while I'm writing this. In the same way, I recognise that my kiddos have different things that soothe them at different times. Sometimes some need to move. Sometimes they need to lie and rest. It just depends on the child and the day to be honest. They might need a weighted blanket while we watch a movie or they may need something salty as they write up a story on the computer. Sometimes they needed deep pressure hugs or to feel the sensation of the rocking of a swing.
As adults, we self-regulate and self-soothe all the time! We know that before we have to sit and read through some paperwork, we might need to make ourselves a coffee and so we do. Allowing our kids the access to what they need to help them is giving them an insight into their own needs and in turn helps them learn to self-regulate.
Portable Learning. We had/have activities that we can take with us on the go if we have lots of appointments to attend. Clipboards with paper, audiobooks, pencils, zip lock bags (for nature finds!) have all lived in our car over the years. Geocaching can be done in most towns (when we visit other places to see Drs etc) or learning about the landmarks and statues.
For my children who struggled with anxiety and predictability, having visual charts has really helped over the years. Before they could read, I made a STACK of visuals with photos on them. These were mostly laminated sheets with photos that had also been laminated and so could be moved around using velcro dots. Here's an example of one from about 10 years ago. We used these until they were no longer really helpful and then we did other things. Predictability can be very calming and yet these offered flexibility (movability thanks to the velcro!) which has been pretty essential in a big family too!
Don't try and change them.
Don't try and change your neurodiverse children. They're not broken. There is nothing wrong with your child. They are who they are. And you are who you are. Just like all children, they will have areas of challenges and they will also display strengths. And when I say, 'don't try and change them' I don't mean....let your kids do whatever they want whenever they want! Not at all. We support our children. That might look like having conversations over them speaking rudely to you or a sibling. Or it might look like encouraging an older teen to speak to a professional. It might look like making social meetups occur for the child who needs it or it might look like the exact opposite! For a child who is easily overwhelmed by social anxiety, it might look like providing them with an opportunity to play Minecraft alongside another person rather than forcing them to have a face to face interaction. Supporting our children is not easy but does help them to know that you are their safe person.
Know why you are homeschooling.
This helped us to stick to the path (even though at times I thought I was failing them massively!) A dear friend reminded me once that what God had called us to, He would help us through. Faith aside, if you feel this is what you are meant to do, then I'm sure you'll find a way to stick it out. Knowing your WHY can really help anchor you.
Time. And downtime days.
Time is a gift we can give our children (and ourselves!) in this homeschooling journey. Give yourselves time to find out what you like and dislike about life in general! Dabble in hobbies, spend time reading, thinking, being bored...and allowing them time to find ways to fill it. Allowing for time on either side of a busy or full day has helped our kiddos to feel less overwhelmed and helped them to avoid more times of autistic burn-out.
There's so much more that I could add here and might in time but right now, I will share this much with you and think about adding to it later.
Recommendations from me: My beautiful friend Michelle Swan (who has taught me so much over the years about autism and acceptance). Kristy Forbes (who has taught me though her blogs, lives and articles about PDA which has helped me learn more about more people in our family). Different by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (a book which shares the experience of both perspective - child and parent - about growing up in a homeschooling family with unwavering acceptance, nurture and love from a Christian perspective). I'll leave you with thoughts from two of my children:
Being homeschooled has helped me because I'm autistic. It has helped me cope with the amount of school work and the difficulty of it. If I have trouble with a maths problem, Dad will explain it differently and I can come up with the answer.
As someone who has ADHD, focussing on my school work can be a challenge especially on work I don't like. Mum and Dad have been so supportive and helpful in encouraging me to do my best and complete my tasks.
More another time, Lusi x