We really enjoy homeschooling and would not change it for anything, but my daughter is also very social and loves being around other children, so we are always looking for opportunities to work on social skills. While homeschoolers of typical children have tons of options, there are some set backs for those of us with children with special needs. While our kids are often welcome in local sports, dance and Sunday School classes, the volunteers that run them are often not educated on how to deal with our children. They want our children to come, but they are not sure what to do with them when they do. I have found the best way to handle that is to be proactive in encouraging them and when necessary, training, those who will be leading the activity.
Church activities are some of the greatest opportunities for socialization and interaction with their peers. However, Sunday School can be quite the challenge for children with special needs who are not used to the structured setting it provides. Many homeschooled children with special needs not only need to learn the rules of classroom behavior but they will also have the added challenge of adapting their particular needs in that environment as well. Some of our children simply are not comfortable staying involved for that length of time while others have trouble concentrating because of the added noise. The challenges range from mild (like being sensitive to the sound) to something more severe (like not being able to communicate at all). How does a parent know that her child can cope and that the Sunday School class is ready to take on the extra challenge of adding their child to the classroom? Well, I found a great tool that can help. It's a book called Let All the Children Come to Me and it is directed towards Church volunteers and helps them not only understand the challenges our kids will face but gives them real and practical tools to use to make their inclusion beneficial for the entire classroom. This book is not geared toward any denomination and will help in any church setting.
While this book is a good tool to share with teachers, there is much you can do to help your child succeed in these environments. Here are some things that I did to help my daughter's teachers adapt to her needs.
Gess used sign language for the first couple of years of her life. Her speech was really delayed and while she could understand what you said, she could not respond verbally. She was able to respond with sign language though and so that is what we used. However, the nursery workers had no clue as to what the signs meant. Therefore, I copied the pictures of her most frequently used signs from my sign language book, laminated them and put them in her diaper bag. I then showed them to the teacher. The most important ones were of course drink and eat, but I also shared some church related ones that was familiar with, such as "church," "Jesus," etc.
Once my daughter started speaking more I had to be sure to communicate her verbal skills to the teacher. I let them know if that she could understand what they said, even if they could not understand her and that she could also answer yes or no questions, so when in doubt they could ask her those.
My daughter was still often shy about staying, so they allowed me to stay with her a few times. That not only helped my daughter, but it also helped the teachers because they were able to see me interact with her and got some ideas on what she could or could not do.
As she advanced up to classes outside of the nursery, it was a little more challenging because my daughter still is not good about staying in one place. If a door is open (or is able to be opened) she has this desire to go through it, especially once she gets bored in a certain setting. So I did the only thing I knew to do and I just let my daughter leave early. At reading time at the library when I could tell she was fidgety, we would leave. In Sunday School and AWANA I would have them send her to me when she seemed to be "done" or I would go get her after a short period of time. It worked really well and by the end the of the year she was actually able to stay for the entire class, and enjoys doing so. It just takes a bit of patience and time.
I also found that AWANA has some helps for special needs students. One is handbook for leaders of TNT called Awana For Me! A Guide to Working with Children with Special Needs which, like the book above, gives teachers ideas on how to make inclusion successful. They also have helps for the younger kids which shortens the memory verses they are required to memorize. My daughter is following that plan and is doing a great job so far this year (sometimes she even learns the verse without helps too!). You can find these helps at their website https://c.na3.visual.force.com/apex/default1029.
These are just some of the things we do at church so that while my daughter is there learning about Jesus and important theological issues, she is also picking up essential social skills along the way!