The Home School Court Report
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May / June 2005

Nourishing your special needs child

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Growing at home
Nourishing your special needs child

by Andrea Longbottom

Excelling at home: Mary Hernandez holds her son, Raul, to a structured school schedule, but also involves him in household routines.
"He's like a sponge!" Mary Hernandez says of her 13-year-old son's ability to soak up knowledge. Mary's son, Raul, has epilepsy and slight cerebral palsy. Four years ago, Mary pulled Raul out of public school and began homeschooling him. She was frustrated with the school, whose teachers maintained Raul couldn't learn because of his disability and let him spend hours playing with toys. Mary brought him home, sure that her son could excel if given the chance. Raul has since learned to read and write. "He knows all the presidents from the first to the forty-third president!" says Mary proudly. "You tell him something, and he will remember it." At home, Mary holds Raul to a structured school schedule, but also involves him in household routines.

Children with special needs teach parents lessons, too.

"I explain to him everything I do," says Mary, talking about how Raul watches her cook. He also accompanies her on trips to the grocery store, where Mary teaches him how to shop and pay for food. She turns everything, from making a bed to washing clothes, into a learning opportunity.

Life isn't easy for Mary and Raul. Mary, who suffers from partial blindness, lives alone with her son. "It's a challenge, but I'm able to homeschool with God's help," she says. Mary is blessed and rewarded beyond measure as she listens to her son spell a difficult word, identify the colors of a flower, or read to her from his Bible.

Mary recommends homeschooling a child with special needs, rather than sending him or her to school. "I think it's the best thing for parents to do," she says, adding that "a child will grow more and learn faster if he is allowed to work at home and is encouraged by a loving parent."

Why is homeschooling often a good fit for the special needs child?
The idea of being completely responsible for a child's education is daunting for any parent, but especially so for those whose children require specialized care or training. Despite the challenge, many parents of special needs children are finding homeschooling a positive and rewarding experience.

More parents are discovering that educating their special needs child at home can be a positive and rewarding experience, providing a stable, secure learning environment.
Homeschooling provides a stable and secure environment in which to work and play. For instance, a child with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder functions best in an environment with fewer distractions and a schedule uniquely suited to his or her needs. Homeschooling can provide that individualized setting. An autistic child who is acutely sensitive to sound and has trouble interacting with others can be frustrated or even frightened by noisy hallways, school bells, and the frequent changing of classrooms and teachers.1 At home, the parent can reduce these distractions. In addition, a homeschooled child can work at his own rate and in the way he learns best.

Terri Dowty, a homeschooling mother and editor of Home Educating Our Autistic Spectrum Children: Paths Are Made by Walking, writes, "Home education allows a child to form relationships with anyone he or she chooses, at a manageable pace and within a real, mixed community."2 This "mixed community" includes people of different ages: siblings, neighbors, friends, and even the postman. In a secure environment where he knows he's loved and protected, the child can learn to interact with both peers and adults.

The home environment also provides learning opportunities that your child may not find in public school. Like Raul Hernandez, a child can accompany Mom to the grocery store or to the library. He can learn to make his bed, set the table, and prepare lunch. He can plant and tend a garden, walk the dog, or bake cookies for a neighbor. Learning these basic skills, or even observing them in action, is valuable preparation for the child, whether or not he will one day live on his own.

How do I start?
First, parents should familiarize themselves with state law. It is legal to homeschool a child with special needs. The First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution protect that right. However, many states have their own homeschooling laws, some of which may create difficulties for parents of special needs children. Visit our website at for information about your state's homeschooling laws. For help in understanding your state's requirements, Home School Legal Defense Association members are welcome to contact our legal department.

Focus on what your child can do instead of what he can't.

Second, have your child evaluated. Understanding his disability is the key to preparing for home education. Once you know the extent of your child's abilities and disabilities, you can focus on finding the methods and materials that will help him learn best.

Third, create a Student Educational Plan (SEP)-this is called an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) in the public schools. The SEP will define your goals for your child and whatever additional services your child may need to meet these goals.

Fourth, select your curriculum. As the number of homeschoolers has increased over the past 20 years, so have the number of homeschooling resources from which to choose. Joyce Herzog, author of Choosing and Using Curriculum, recommends that parents with special needs children choose curriculum that is "orderly, bite-sized . . . relevant to [the child's] life and taught in a comfortable multi-sensory environment."3 Herzog also encourages parents to consider "what you want a curriculum to teach, what worldview you want to pass on, and whether your child at the end of following that curriculum will be prepared for anything beyond one more year of school."4 She goes on to describe three basic types of curriculum: workbooks, textbooks, and unit studies.5 Your child may work better with one of these types of curriculum or a mixture of all three.

Don't become discouraged if the curriculum you choose doesn't seem to be working for your child. If you are willing to experiment with different methods and try other curricula, you will find one (or a combination) that fits your child's needs.6

That leads to the fifth step: experiment! Find out what works best for your child. Does he need a more structured school routine? Or does he need a more flexible schedule with frequent breaks?

Terri Dowty writes, "There is . . . no user manual. . . . you must seek out the unique path that suits your particular family, even if it bears no resemblance to anything you see around you. It may take a period of trial and error before you find the right balance-and even then, it will shift to meet the varying needs of your growing, changing child."7 Be flexible and creative. Discover how your child works and in what environment and at what times he works best.

Norman and Sharon Wallace run an ISP that caters to special needs children.
Parents may learn to meet their child's therapy needs themselves. Sharon Wallace, a homeschooling mother of two sons with special needs and director of an independent study program (ISP)that caters to special needs children, says it was hard for her to juggle her son's therapy appointments, schooling, and doctor visits. She encourages parents to research the type of therapy their child needs. "I made myself very informed and as a result was able to provide Timothy's therapy myself," Sharon says.

Finally, follow up with regular evaluations of your child, preferably enlisting the assistance of a homeschool-friendly specialist who has expertise in the area of your child's particular disability. The evaluations should demonstrate that you and your consultant are aware of your child's skills and weaknesses. Together you can discuss ways to help him progress.

By identifying your child's disability, learning about its effects, and exploring how you can help your child succeed, you will find yourself focusing on what your child can do instead of what he can't. A child with a disability may have less ability in certain areas of his life, but still be able to learn. Many companies and organizations offer instructional materials about learning disorders, and resources abound that parents can use to teach children who have special needs. See the sidebar, Helpful resources, fora list of sources frequently used by our members.

Is anyone else out there?
Parents who choose to homeschool their special needs child may sometimes feel isolated, but they're not alone: other parents experience similar frustrations, doubts, and joys. Sherry Bushnell, homeschooling mother of twelve (four of whom are disabled) and co-director along with her husband Tom of the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (NATHHAN), says she has been encouraged through one-on-one contact with other homeschooling parents.

Tom and Sherry Bushnell encourage special needs homeschoolers through NATHHAN.

The Bushnells' 12-year-old daughter, Lynny, has cerebral palsy and autism. When Lynny was very young, Sherry was searching for ways to help Lynny come out of her shell and explore the world around her. Another homeschooling mother who had a child with cerebral palsy invited Sherry to her home and shared how she was helping her own child progress.

Fellow homeschoolers can be a source of encouragement and inspiration. Mary Hernandez exchanges ideas and resources with her five sisters, all of whom homeschool. When Mary first began homeschooling, one of her sisters, whose son had graduated from high school as a homeschooler, shared her experiences with Mary and encouraged her in her new venture. Mary has also met several other homeschooling mothers through her church support group. "I can call whenever I need anything or need someone to talk to," she says.

If you don't know any other homeschoolers, join a homeschool support group. If there isn't one in your area, consider starting one. Look for other homeschoolers in your church. Find a homeschool co-op that offers classes or activities. You can also contact NATHHAN, and they will do their best to connect you with another family in your vicinity who homeschools a special needs child. Don't let feelings of isolation and discouragement overwhelm you-look for a friend who can help.

The Home School Foundation has established a Special Needs Children's Fund that enables many families to afford the freedom of using private special education services.
How can I protect my homeschool?
"Although homeschooling is legal, it is an educational alternative that many government officials don't really understand," says HSLDA President J. Michael Smith. "This lack of understanding can lead to significant legal problems. Over the last 22 years, HSLDA has advocated for hundreds of special needs families. We've found that families can take some preventative steps to avoid legal difficulties and keep them from escalating."

First, Smith advises parents, document your child's progress. If you are investigated for educational neglect, an SEP and subsequent evaluations will provide an invaluable defense.

Second, enlist the aid of professionals. By involving an educational consultant or specialist in your child's education, Smith explains, you can help prove your child's needs are being met.

HSLDA members may contact Special Needs Coordinator Betty Statnick for specialist referrals or visit to see sample evaluation forms.

What about public school services?
HSLDA encourages homeschooling families to think twice about accepting public school services for their children. Though these services are free and accessible, they also include involvement with government bureaucracies, which can lead to sticky situations.

If you decide to use public school services, be aware of what this decision will involve. Parents are required to let the school conduct an extensive evaluation of their child. Once the school has identified the child's abilities and needs, an Individualized Education Plan is created, listing the child's academic needs and outlining a strategy to meet them. Throughout the child's education, parents periodically meet with an IEP committee to document the child's progress and, if needed, to modify the IEP. If the parents choose to withdraw their child from public school services, they may find the school is hesitant to yield direct supervision of the child.

If your child needs professional help, HSLDA recommends that you use private services. While these services can be costly, we encourage you to take advantage of them and remain free from government oversight. (See HSLDA's brochure, Homeschooling Your Special Needs Child, at for creative ideas on finding affordable private services.)

A not-so-bright IDEA
A provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) raises a legal issue important to all parents who are homeschooling special needs children. This federal act gives grants to public schools so they can provide disabled children with a free education suited to their needs. In order for the schools to receive these grants, IDEA's Child Find provision requires them to identify, locate, and evaluate children who may be eligible for services.

This evaluation can create problems for homeschoolers. Public schools sometimes find themselves in a confusing position when it comes to dealing with homeschoolers who have special needs. Although no federal or state law requires schools to evaluate children whose parents do not want them to receive public services, some schools think they must conduct evaluations of every child in their district, whether or not the children's parents want them to receive public school services.

Why do schools persist in their efforts to evaluate children whose parents turn down the offer? "There are two reasons," says HSLDA Litigation Attorney James Mason. "One, a federal law states that a school can be held liable for damages if it fails in its Child Find duties (that is, if it fails to locate a special needs child or offer him services). Two, IDEA has been misinterpreted as requiring schools to conduct evaluations regardless of the wishes of parents."

"But neither reason justifies ignoring a parent's right to decline evaluation and provide for his child's education privately," Mason clarifies. "HSLDA is litigating this issue in two cases, one in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals."


Through the individualized attention of homeschooling, many diligent parents have prepared their special needs children for future endeavors at home and at work.
Tom Bushnell says that children with special needs teach us perseverance. Grief is inevitable for parents who find out their child has a disability, but with God's help, they can cope with their child's needs, helping him grow to his fullest potential.

As Mary Hernandez says, "It gets difficult at times, but overall, you're really doing better when you see the outcome. You see your kids growing in homeschooling, and you hear the smart things they say and the smart things they do. Then you feel, 'Oh, I could do it another year."'

Homeschooling our special needs children also adds a spiritual dimension to their education. "We have our children's hearts," says Sherry Bushnell. "We are giving our children a spiritual foundation that they would not receive in public school."

Whether you're considering homeschooling or just getting started, press on. Many parents have gone before you and are seeing their children learn and succeed. You can do it!


1 Terri Dowty, ed., Home Educating Our Autistic Spectrum Children: Paths Are Made by Walking (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002), 15.

2 Dowty, 12.

3 Joyce Herzog, Choosing and Using Curriculum for Your Special Child (Lebanon, TN: Greenleaf Books, 1996), 3.

4 Herzog, 3.

5 Herzog, 5.

6 Herzog, 4.

7 Dowty, 13.

About the author

Andrea Longbottom is a student at Patrick Henry College and works part-time in HSLDA's Communications Department. She grew up in Southeast Texas and was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. Andrea will graduate from PHC in December 2005 with a degree in literature.