A mom homeschooling child with autism.

Julia Hood, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, NCSP
With the recent and rapid spread of COVID-19, many schools and businesses have been forced to close their doors. Recently, the state of Utah announced that schools will remain
closed for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus. With the current closure of Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, some parents are at home with their children, struggling to know how to keep structure and learning a part of their child’s day. This guide gives you a starting point for how to proceed in the next weeks (and perhaps months). 

The most important things are that you establish a routine for your child’s day, have a variety of enjoyable activities up your sleeve, and keep yourself sane through this unprecedented time. Homeschooling a child with autism is a difficult and unique challenge, but with a little preparation, it can be done successfully.

Establishing a Routine

All children do well with a routine in place, but for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), structure and routine become much more vital. Total Spectrum Care reminds us that “Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder live in a world of chaos. These children have difficulty making sense of everyday movements, sounds, and actions… Routine creates order in their lives… Routine creates a safe and secure environment in which life is predictable.” Repetition can have a naturally calming effect for many children on the spectrum, relieving stress and enhancing the ability to learn. A routine can also strengthen the bond between you and your child—it gives them something to rely on and help develop more trust and security in you. 

While you likely have some essence of structure for your child at certain points of the day, you now have a new block of time that they’re home instead of their typical time at school. To help your child get in the groove of things, follow these ideas for creating a new daily pattern:

  • Create a list of steps and pair each step with a picture for the task that must be done
    • Getting ready for the day: 1) make bed, 2) get dressed, 3) eat breakfast, 4) brush teeth.
  • Build a schedule using these steps. Use visuals and words to depict the steps of each task for your child.
    • It’s helpful to provide a way for your child to signify completion of each step—it could be adding a sticker on a chart, crossing it off a list, or even giving you a high five.
  • You may use timers and/or alarms to help your child stay on track. Or, if you need a more fluid plan, use daily occurrences (such as mealtimes) as reference points for what will happen during the day and when. 
  • Keep it structured, but flexible, too. 
    • Try to complete the steps in the same order each time to establish predictability.
    • It can also be helpful to teach your child to accept when the schedule has to change from time to time. Keep a little wiggle room in the routine, and be willing to occasionally do small things differently. This will help your child learn to be okay with the fact that sometimes things don’t go as planned. 

When Routines Change

Because a familiar daily pattern is especially important for a child on the spectrum, changing that routine can be especially difficult. Your child may be struggling to cope with the fact that their daily life is changing right now. Eventually, they’ll return to their old pattern of going to school, which may present a new difficulty. How do you prepare your child for unexpected turns of events, such as this?

Demonstrating occasional flexibility in the schedule, like switching up a small aspect of their schedule—or perhaps even putting a ‘?’ somewhere on the agenda for a surprise activity—may help your child learn that sometimes plans are adjusted, and that’s okay. 

Social stories are another proven tactic that’s extra helpful for autistic children in unfamiliar situations. Find or create a story, using pictures and words (or maybe even video), that relates to what your child is going through. Describe someone facing a similar problem, how they handled it, how they felt about it, and how things resolved in the end. This helps open your child’s eyes to the fact that difficult circumstances arise sometimes, and there is always a way to get through it.

Educational Activities Your Child Can Do at Home

Now that you’re home, you’ll want a good selection of activities to keep your child busy, happy, and learning. Consider reading together (and applying stories to their life). Try sorting snacks into colors, shapes, or textures (before eating them). You could also learn grounding techniques—such as counting to 10, reciting the alphabet, or listening to soothing music. Or set up a drawer or corner of the room that serves as a “retreat” for your child when they need to relax (or as a reward when they’ve done something well). Don’t forget to get some physical activity—outside, if you can!

Here are some more ideas you can try with your child:

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

This is an unprecedented time with unique obstacles. Be patient and forgiving with yourself and with your child. While it is important for them to have a structured day, that structure can have some flexibility, and the schedule doesn’t have to look the same as it does at school. In fact, working 1:1 with a student often goes faster than working with an entire classroom, so you may only need 3 or 4 hours of “school” time in a day. 

Be aware of your child’s highest needs, as well as their highest interests. Take this time to pursue their special interests—the things they may not typically have much time to focus on). Find what works for your child and let them help make their educational decisions. It may take some trial and error to figure out what’s the most helpful, and that’s okay. Some autistic children prefer hands-on experiences, others prefer computer learning. Most do best with a clear schedule, multisensory learning (a combination of verbal instruction, visuals, and interactive experiences), repetition and practice. 

It may be helpful to have a designated area (or two) for most learning activities—such as a table or desk. That said, don’t hesitate to let everyday experiences become teaching moments. Cooking in the kitchen or working in the garden can become science lessons. You can use household materials for craft supplies (keep a stockpile of those empty egg cartons and toilet paper rolls). Sorting objects or recognizing shapes are beneficial ways to study math. Folding laundry and putting dishes away are important life skill lessons. 

Finally, get help when you need it. There are plenty of online resources that can be instrumental in your new homeschool journey. Both Time4Learning and Applied Behavior Analysis Programs Guide have compiled comprehensive lists of online curriculum options for children with ASD. But don’t let the plethora of resources overwhelm you. It may be best to just choose a few to focus on—perhaps your child’s greatest needs and favorite topics. You can also use other people as a helping hand when you need it. Have grandma and grandpa take over storytime or crafts via FaceTime. Or if you have a friend who’s an expert on a certain topic, have them teach your child about it over a Zoom call. The Carmen B. Pingree Center is still offering therapy services, but on a limited basis. Learn more about the Pingree Center’s initiatives during the COVID-19 school dismissal. 

Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning has plenty of resources and tips for teaching your child at home. You don’t have to navigate this challenge alone.
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