Charlotte Mason Homeschooling with Special Needs Children

homeschool mom and child hands

I have a daughter with special needs. We diagnosed her with autism and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) when she was four years old, and I’ve been trying to use as many Charlotte Mason methods as possible in our homeschooling journey with her over the years. (She’s 13 now.)

I often get asked how the Charlotte Mason approach works with an autistic child. That’s a tough question to answer, because autism covers such a wide spectrum. Some autistic children are completely nonverbal; others talk up a storm. Some are uncooperative and violent; others are mainly passive and compliant (until a meltdown occurs, of course).

And if you widen the spectrum to include all special needs, the range of possible challenges boggles the mind.

So while I can’t tell you how your special needs child will respond to the CM approach, I can tell you what our experience has been. And hopefully it will give you some ideas and maybe some encouragement.

Our Experience with CM and Special Needs

  1. Keep reading and trusting.

    Our daughter has auditory processing disorders and several other developmental delays, so for many years I wasn’t sure whether she was even comprehending what I read to her. However, once she started to communicate verbally, I got some little peeks into her mind and every once in a while I get a glimpse that those books are in there!

    I encourage you to continue reading good books aloud in short segments with plenty of time to digest in between. It may feel like reading to a brick wall, but even when you can’t see or hear any indications that your child is understanding, don’t underestimate him.

  2. Short lessons and variety are your friends.

    Charlotte’s ideas of keeping lessons short and doing a wide variety of subjects seem tailor-made for our daughter. She needs a lot of processing time, so short lessons keep the input to a minimum and allow time to ruminate.

    For a while I concentrated only on reading, writing, and math, but the joy and interest in our school time quickly disappeared with that bare bones approach. When I intentionally scheduled a wide variety of subjects, the interest came back and school time is much more enjoyable—for both of us. And as long as I keep a schedule posted, showing which subjects we are doing each day, her craving for routine is satisfied.

  3. Copywork is a great technique.

    Because our daughter is very visual, having the correct model in front of her to copy has worked well. Her fine motor skills are pretty delayed, so putting the emphasis on quality over quantity is perfect for her too.

  4. Tweak narration as needed, but don’t give up on it.

    Because of our daughter’s communication delays, I didn’t start requiring a narration until a couple of years ago. I think she was 11 at the time. She can sometimes give me one sentence, and usually it is in the form of a question, but it’s a start! (For example, for Black Beauty she might say, “Was there a fire in the barn?” instead of “There was a fire in the barn.”)

    Sometimes I ask her to draw the story and then explain her drawing to me. During those narrations, I’ll write what she says on the page beside her drawing. Usually I’ll reword her questions to be in statement form so she will have that correct model before her. It seems that the little lag that happens while I’m writing one sentence gives her the extra processing time she needs to formulate the next one.

    Maybe someday she will be able to give several sentences in sequential order, but I’m content to move slowly, securing the ground beneath our feet. It helps me to remember what Charlotte Mason said: “Children learn, to Grow” (Vol. 1, p. 317). The goal is not that she know everything; the goal is that she continues to grow.

  5. Feed your child’s soul with beautiful art and music.

    It’s easy to include our daughter when we do picture study and music study together as a family. While she may not contribute to the oral discussions, I am trusting that the beautiful art and music feed her soul and enrich her as a person. Art and music can transcend language and age barriers, so I think they can do their work across developmental levels as well.

  6. Get outside.

    Sometimes it’s easy to think that time outside doesn’t matter to our daughter since she will rarely look closely at something out there. (Or maybe I should say that I rarely catch her looking closely at something.) But I recently read a book that pointed out all the many benefits that time outdoors gives to us—physically, emotionally, mentally. So we are making an effort to get outside more often. I figure it isn’t going to hurt! (Stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted.)

  7. Smooth the path but continue to challenge.

    Because our daughter is so visual, I modified her Bible lessons a bit. I set up a Bible felt-figures scene for her to look at as I read the Bible story. That modification seems to help her anchor the story in her mind. (And she asks for her Bible lesson every day.)

    I’m trying not to water down the story itself, but I want to make the path as smooth as possible for her to continue her challenging journey down the road of auditory processing.

  8. Look at goals from another perspective.

    One aspect of Charlotte Mason our daughter has yet to do, and that is Scripture Memory. We have been reciting and reviewing Scripture passages every morning for many years now and she has yet to join in. She’ll sit and listen, but she won’t recite.

    But wait, read that sentence again: She’ll sit and listen, but she won’t recite. If I think about it, my main goal with Scripture Memory is that she will get God’s Word in her heart and mind. The recitation part is a separate goal! If she can’t regulate her speaking skills to recite along with the rest of us, that doesn’t mean I haven’t reached the goal of her memorizing Scripture. In fact, sometimes when I stumble over a portion of a verse I’m reciting, she’ll correct me.

    So let me rephrase: she is memorizing Scripture, and we will continue to work on her recitation skills.

  9. Always remember that your child is first and foremost a person.

    When you deal with a child’s needs all day, it becomes easy to think of that child in terms of his needs. Reggie: the one who needs his diaper changed. Natasha: the one who needs new tennis shoes. In fact, it seems easy for us moms to fall into that line of thinking, because we are most often the ones who are trying to remember and to meet the needs of each child.

    So when you have a child with special needs, those extra needs can occupy a huge part of your thoughts. And we too easily slip into a habit of thinking of that child as “the one who needs such-and-such” rather than as a person. It can be especially challenging if that special needs child doesn’t communicate very well. Somehow it’s harder to discover who a person is when he or she doesn’t share life verbally or emotionally with you.

    But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a person, a whole person with feelings and dreams and hopes and questions. My biggest challenge is to quit being so near-sighted—focusing on the special needs—and instead, see the person living in that limited physical body. “A child is a Person” (Vol. 6, p. 18). That’s who Charlotte Mason encouraged us to educate and to love.


  1. Amen to everything that you said. My two kids have dyslexia and I’ve found that most of CM’s techniques work beautifully. The ones that don’t, I just modify. Just like you said in one of your other recent posts, every curriculum needs to be modified to fit the needs of your particular child. Special needs or not.

  2. Thank you for such a beautiful post! While I am not a mother of a special needs child, this post shares SO many things that we need to be aware of as homeschooling moms.

    Each of my children are unique…so that means I must reach them in different ways. One is the “textbook” student. She thinks in what I’d consider to be a straight line. Another has to move or do something with her hands all the time. Another wants to rush through everything so she can say she’s done, with little regard to correctly completing a task…except when it comes to doing something with her hands.

    Our family is living in Costa Rica and my husband has been somewhat disappointed in how the children’s language learning has been progressing. However, we see little glimpses daily of how just how effective immersion is for language. Even our 3 yr old is learning the Costa Rican national anthem just because he hears his sisters singing it. And our oldest girls can understand most conversations now and it’s been 3 months.

    Just because we don’t see leaps and bounds and outward evidence of learning, it’s still going on because the children are included…just like with your daughter.

    Blessings to you and thank you, again, for such a lovely post. I’ll be sharing the link with my readers.

  3. You have given me a lightbulb momment! While I know without testing that my daughter is at least ADHD, there may be a bit more going on in her interesting little self. She has always asked questions (her “why” phase lasted for more than three years) and she very often repeats what I’ve just told her back to me as a question. I don’t know why I haven’t recognized it as a processing issue. Thank you for such helpful input on teaching all our children, especially those who stretch us.

  4. Have you had any involvement with the local school systems for therapies? Or have you done any private therapies (occupational therapy, speech, etc) in addition to your homeschooling? We have a special needs child who is 4 and our desire is to homeschool, although we don’t want him to slip thru the cracks and not get something that could be helpful. In addition, how do you deal with negative comments / criticisms of homeschooling a special needs child- do you have any resources?


    • Just wanted to share…we are blessed to be able to go through a charter school. I can teach my daughter however I want to!!! But she also gets speech, OT, PT, etc. all through providers which are vendorized through the charter school.

      I’m sure many, especially professionals, question us taking an autistic child out of the social environment of the classroom, but we feel we can offer her plenty of social opportunities in the community, and work with academic strengths and weaknesses much more effectively.

  5. What an inspiring article! While I don’t deal with the challenges you have, I do need to work hard at remembering that my children are persons. I DO often think in terms of their needs, or what I need to do for them or train them in, or whatever!

    It’s so simple, but it’s so vital to remember these truths and practice them each and every day. The Lord keeps reminding me that teaching my children isn’t the most important thing I do with them – it’s helping them grow up, and that entails SO MUCH MORE!

    Thanks so much for the reminder.

  6. Oh Sonya, God provides my needs in the wisdom here today. I praise and thank Him for this here, words of encouraging wisdom, hope, peace, faith, trust. The inspiration. I breath in my soul words i need to hold onto that it is ok to go slow but don’t stop growing. oh may he keep growing. I know my son is there. He is a precious child of God. I am a child of God and he disciplines those he loves… I am loved. Thank you Sonya.

  7. Beautiful post! Such a good reminder. My son is also 13 and is Asperger’s/ADHD so I can relate to everything you said. Adjusting expectations to their limitations is so key. I always need to remind myself to have my son work toward his personal best, not my idea of what that should be. It’s very humbling.
    But it makes the little victories and accomplishments that others may take for granted so much sweeter.
    It truly is an “anguishing blessed journey” as you aptly titled your book.
    Using Charlotte’s methods have made all the difference

  8. Everything you wrote is so true for our daughter with autism. Five years ago, I was happy if Pamela remembered one word from a passage after we closed the book. Now, she narrates three to five, and sometimes more, sentences. The grammar is typically imperfect, but she is communicating and sharing what she knows in ways that I can even understand.

    The mind feeds on ideas, and that is so true for people with autism too. Pamela has been taking watercolor classes and people are struck most with her sense of color and vibrant painting style. I truly believe that all those moments spent outdoors, studying God’s creation, and studying great art have fed her mind so well that her expression of what she sees is beautiful.

  9. Thank you. I am constantly modifying based on my kids anxiety disorders, but we are moving in forward every year by believing in these CM principles.

  10. This blog, and the comments, are SUCH an encouragement! My daughter is autistic and is 6. She has tremendous difficulty narrating or talking about anything she’s read. We’re starting to see glimmers, but I’ve been frustrated. I am already trying to remind myself she’s only 6, but your blog puts everything into such perspective. So this one area she’s behind in? If she doesn’t “get” it for 2, 5, or more years? We’re still on the right track, and she’s still being exposed to all these wonderful living books.

  11. Thank you so much for this article!! I’ve been homeschooling my kids (ages 11, 8, 6, 5, 3 and 21 months) their whole lives. Right now, I only require written schoolwork from my oldest two, but my 5 y/o is showing an interest and I’m hoping to get her and my 6 year old started within the next 6 months to a year. The catch–My 6 year old son has ADHD, PTSD, Sensory issues bipolar disorder and fine motor delays. This is a GREAT resource to begin to think of how to educate my special little man 🙂

  12. Thank you so much for writing this! I was just telling my friend that I thought your daughter had learning challenges. I had been struggling with how to reason the auditory processing issues my son has (although not officially diagnosed) with the CM ways since there is so much reading whether aloud or alone both of which are a struggle for my son. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

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