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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.