Article at a Glance
Having a child with autism can be challenging on many fronts, especially when it comes to homework. As a mom of a thirteen-year-old son with autism, I’ve definitely had my own struggles and challenges over the years. Often, we have to consider my son’s learning disabilities, attention issues, anxiety, and sensory processing issues (all come as part of his autism diagnosis) in our homework routine. Here are some strategies we’ve used to help our son’s homework time become less of a battle and more of an engaging learning experience.
My son, as with most kids with autism, loves routine and predictability. Before we sit down to do homework, I come up with a list of tasks that I think my son can tackle in one sitting. Depending on the day (and his mood), it may be one thing, three things, or five things. I try to keep study sessions short so he can feel successful. When he completes a task, I reward him with a small break (trampoline time or a game of Scrabble) or reinforcement like a good behavior star or small candy like a jelly bean or Jolly Rancher. These are the things that motivate him. Every kid is different; just find and use whatever motivates your child!
Our son struggles greatly with visual-spatial processing and fine motor skills. He has great memorization skills and has often excelled at things such as math facts, but as he’s gotten older his math assignments require working out problems on paper. He often has a hard time keeping numbers in their place and organized on a traditional sheet of paper. Because he needed more space to work and has a hard time visually planning where things go on the page, I made some modified paper with larger lines with grey/white contrast between the lines. I’m always on the lookout for adapted resources (often a google search or Pinterest search will have lots of good resources), but sometimes I have to get creative and find something that works best for my son.
Because I know my son’s strengths often come in the form of memorization and visualization, I try to come up with ways to incorporate those study methods whenever I can. Understanding characters and their motives in a story can be hard for my son, so I decided to make “flashcards” of characters, listing things they’ve said and things they want or do with a picture of the character to go along with the traits. These “flashcards” really helped my son visualize and “see” the story a little better.
I grew up in a house where my parents designated a room in the house as the “study zone.” I had my own desk and desk lamp, with drawers full of pencils, pens, white-out, markers, calculators, and whatever supplies I needed. My parents thought I would study and do my homework better if I stayed in one place so I could really focus and get my work done. Despite their good intentions, I found it very hard to stay in the “study zone.” I was stuck behind a desk all day at school. The last place I wanted to be was stuck behind a desk at home. I wanted a change of scenery.
I’ve found that my son needs to rotate around the house when we do homework. We have four locations where he can choose to work: the desk in his room, the kitchen table, the couch, and the coffee table in the family room. Depending on his mood, how independent he can be, and what I need to do, we rotate through these locations. Sometimes, it’s easier for me to quiz him on vocabulary in the kitchen while making dinner. Sometimes, when we read a book for Language Arts, he wants to sit on the couch. Sometimes, he would rather do his math at the desk in his bedroom, and sometimes he wants to do it sitting at the coffee table in the family room. Giving him these options gives him a little more control over his environment, and I feel that it makes him a little more cooperative too when we have to really buckle down and work at something.
Sometimes I’ve had a long day, sometimes my son’s had a long day, and sometimes there are days when neither of us wants to interact with each other, let alone slug through homework together. These are the times when I tag team with my husband and he helps with the math or science homework, or I have my daughter take 10 minutes and quiz her brother on the latest list of Spanish words. Switching up with a partner helps avoid parent burnout too. I know when I get frustrated with the whole homework process, my son really picks up on that.
A lot of student daily planner scheduling is now online so you can see (and plan ahead) for any upcoming tests. About an hour before my kids come home, I log into PowerSchool (the online program my kids’ school uses) and I see what homework is coming home that day and how many days we have until a project or quiz is due. That way I can prepare the evening (the “to-do” list, any modifications, homework spots, or tag team assignments) before the backpacks drop at the front door and the afterschool snack starts.
Teachers are often willing to send home extra resources, books, and practice sheets if they know you are trying to reinforce and supplement at home. I have asked for home copies of novels read in Language Arts (so we can read ahead a chapter or two), extra math worksheets (to practice a concept that’s been difficult—integers was our struggle for a while), and flashcards (it’s really nice not to have to make your own set of Spanish flashcards when someone’s already made some for you). We’ve even had erasable human body diagrams sent home for extra practice.
Having a child with special needs can be challenging, but with the right tools and resources in place, I’ve found the homework battle a little easier. Sometimes it can require a little thinking outside of the box. It can be hard work, and I’m not always perfect at it, but when I put in the extra effort it always pays off in the best ways.
About the writer:
Sarah Beck lives in Fargo, ND, and is a writer, blogger, wife, and mom of two great kids: an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who has autism.
You can read about her autism-meets-middle school adventures and the challenges, victories, and learning curves that happen along the way at thisautismlife.com.