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Three Tips for Homeschooling Nonverbal Students

February 19, 2024

As the mom of a nonverbal, autistic nine-year-old and a mentor to homeschooling families, I’ve noticed a common bond. We all share a similar story. After a couple of failed IEP meetings, families often decide to try homeschooling. They’re terrified to begin, so they start looking for some tips for homeschooling nonverbal students.

Thankfully, parents already have the most important skills needed to teach a nonverbal autistic student to read and communicate. That’s why most of the nonverbal adults on social media, the ones winning poetry awards and robotics competitions, were homeschooled.

If you’re considering homeschooling your nonverbal student, here are three tips that might give you the confidence you need to get started.

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Homeschooling a Child With Autism

1. Presume competence

Knowing your nonverbal autistic child is intelligent and capable of more is the most important skill you need. In the educational system, students are required to prove mastery of a topic before they are allowed to move forward and learn more. 

Students with severe expressive language disabilities aren’t able to communicate mastery regardless of what they know. This results in students who may have average or gifted intelligence wasting away in classrooms that teach the same foundational material over and over again. It’s no wonder they get aggressive!

Presuming competence means assuming your student has average intelligence and can understand grade-level material. Rather than requiring expressive language to prove mastery, a parent can read more subtle clues.

For example, my son puts his face right up against a worksheet or book and flicks his fingers when he finds the material interesting. When he masters a topic, he runs off.

However, that doesn’t happen all the time. Some days, he appears to zone out, and I can’t tell if he understands the material or not. Presuming competence means assuming that he probably does, but his body isn’t allowing him to show it.

Each new school year, as we review what we learned the year before, my smart boy always confirms that, even if he couldn’t show it at the time, he was indeed learning.

An autistic child homeschooled 
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/homeschooling-nonverbal-students/

2. Use errorless learning

Errorless learning is the opposite of trial-and-error learning, in which a student is exposed to the lesson and then asked to prove mastery right away. Wrong answers reveal where the student needs additional instruction, which is then provided.

Trial and error doesn’t work for nonverbal autistic students because the inevitability of a wrong answer produces overwhelming anxiety. What’s more, the lack of neuroplasticity in nonverbal autistic brains means if they get the answer wrong the first time, that could become the answer forever, no matter what.

Errorless learning is showing by doing. To do it, present the question and immediately show the answer by using hand over hand or gesturing. Gradually back off as the student anticipates the correct answer until they answer independently.

3. Rethink augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)

The definition of AAC is too often limited to assistive technology devices that generate speech, but AAC devices also include the body. That means if your student can nod yes or no or make consistent facial expressions indicating yes or no, that’s AAC communication.

AAC modalities include:

  • gestures, 
  • sign language, 
  • facial expressions, 
  • picture-based systems like PECS
  • letter boards, 
  • handwriting, 
  • typing, and 
  • assistive technology devices.

Nonverbal adults who have broken the communication barrier use a variety of modalities depending upon efficiency, the appropriateness of each situation, and their abilities that day. Figuring out your student’s modality mix isn’t as difficult as it sounds. 

First, go for efficiency. What is the fastest way to communicate? Then, ask if it’s appropriate. For example, when a student is at home with family, bodily gestures and verbal approximations are often the fastest and easiest.

How does this apply to homeschooling? Unless we are specifically practicing expressive language skills, I would never ask my son to use his talker to answer a yes or no question because he can nod.

If he’s having a rough day with motor skills, I may not even ask him to circle or mark a correct answer on a worksheet. Simply participating by responding with a nod, squeal, or grunt is fine. Accommodation sometimes means serving as an interpreter and marking down his yes or no answer for him.

That doesn’t mean nonverbal students shouldn’t be pushed to build expressive language skills — quite the contrary. I often remind my son that if he wants someday to have his own apartment, a job, or go anywhere without me, he has to learn how to use his talker. If he wants to go to high school with his neurotypical friends and have a cool job, he probably has to learn how to type.


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When possible, let your student choose which modality they prefer. I’ve spent the last two years doubling down on teaching AAC to my son, only to have him now choose handwriting most days. It’s confusing because handwriting is a huge struggle for him, while he’s a whiz on AAC.

Maybe it’s harder for him to use AAC than it seems. Maybe he wants to be more like the NT kids. Either way, it’s crucial to his success that I keep an open mind about AAC and use it to support my son’s communication, not limit it.

You are your child’s best teacher

A 30-year special education teacher who has taught more than 1,000 special needs kids to read always says: “An average parent who dedicates at least two hours a day to their student can accomplish so much more than I can all day long in a group classroom.”

You can do this! In fact, when it comes to nonverbal students, nobody can do it better than you.

FAQs

Q: How do you teach nonverbal students?

A: Teaching nonverbal students often involves using visual aids, gestures, and alternative communication methods such as sign language or picture communication systems. Tailoring instruction to suit their individual learning styles and providing ample opportunities for hands-on learning experiences can also be effective.

Q: Do nonverbal autistic children go to school?

A: Nonverbal autistic children can go to school, and according to IDEA, they should get the right help to do well in regular classrooms whenever possible. This means they might attend specialized programs but still aim to be part of typical school settings.

Q: What type of school is best for kids with autism?

A: For children with autism, schools that offer specialized support services, small class sizes, and individualized learning plans tailored to their unique needs tend to be the most beneficial. The ones with experienced staff trained in autism education and a supportive environment that fosters social skills development can greatly enhance their educational experience.

Q: Can I teach my autistic child at home?

A: You can teach your autistic child at home with specialized educational approaches tailored to their needs, but it’s important to ensure access to appropriate resources and support from professionals trained in working with children on the autism spectrum. Consistent routines, clear instructions, and individualized learning plans can help create a supportive environment for their development.

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