Front Loading: What works for ONE kid with autism

3 06 2013

My son “learns differently.” He struggles with auditory processing and has ADHD so, paying attention to a lecture is kind of a challenge. He also benefits from having a foundation to build on– learning new info without a foothold is pretty hard.

A few years ago we started “front loading” academic content standards so that our son would better be able to understand what his teacher was talking about. We believe that he learns best when information is layered. So, we started by going to museum exhibits, reading fiction (Magic Tree House series is GREAT!!), doing experiments and watching DVDs (Bill Nye, Disney Educational, IMAX, Discovery…) We haven’t had a vacation just for fun in about 8 years… but, we have had fun on our educational trips.

I’m not an expert and won’t advise anybody else on how to do this– each kid is an individual and learns differently–so all I can do is tell you how we do it and what works for one kid with autism.

Academic Content Standards:

So– we download the academic content standards from the Ohio Department of Education website– (these seem to change every year so, we check at the beginning of the summer). Then, we get the chronological order that it’ll be taught from the school and get the textbook* that we use as a guide for our work. Having the chronological order helps in case we don’t get it all done over the summer– and we rarely do!

*Recently J’s science teacher figured out that he is better able to follow along with in-class reading if he has audio of the text as well as the book so, I record mp3 of the textbook– one file per page and put it on his flashdrive so that he listen to it on his computer at school.


Based on the Standards and the textbook I go hunting for museum exhibits and curriculum guides that go along with the exhibits. (Smithsonian is GREAT about this!! they have online exhibits, curriculum, field trip guides, etc! Great stuff! And, my sister lives close by so DC has been a 2-3 times a year trek for us.) Museum and zoo memberships can be a big savings– we’ve found that we go more often when it’s already paid for.


For the last two years we’ve done big summer projects– last year it was a documentary about Humboldt Penguins, this year we’re doing a documentary about the water quality in Lake Erie. Museum and zoo memberships really cut down on the cost of visiting these places… last year we were at the Akron Zoo at least once a week all summer and used the membership to get discounts for the penguin encounter, breakfast with the penguins, etc…. you get the idea.

 J is all about making movies– and it really impresses his “neurotypical” friends… Making documentaries also gives him the opportunity to work on academic and executive function skills: research, writing, reading, organization, planning, etc. So, while he’s doing a project that the girls will OOOO and AHHH over, he’s working on some pretty important skills that help him achieve academic competence– even excellence.

Before you go accusing me of being a tiger mom, let me add that we have fun together. I’ll write more details about this summer’s project in another post but let me tell you that last week when we made our first trip to the lake (1.5 hrs away) we hung out and played in the water, went searching for the nearby lighthouse, talked McDonalds into giving him an extra happy meal toy (THANK YOU!!) and he had sole control over the music. We did gather the water sample, made notes about our observations of the beach area, shot video and noted the GPS position– but it wasn’t just about the project.


This summer’s project requires weekly experiments to determine pollution levels in Lake Erie– but even last year, we picked an experiment a week from one of those books that uses everyday items that most of us have around the house anyway.

Workbooks and Reading:

J is also doing two worksheets a day (word problems and writing skills for last year’s grade level– because these are his two weakest areas) and once a week we’re doing “History Pockets” to front load Ancient Civilizations (It’s designed for grades 1-3 so it’s pretty easy but creates the foundation for future learning and has a pretty good list of vocabulary words and we follow it up with a subject appropriate History Channel documentary.)

In previous years we’ve read the Magic Tree House series and it’s been front loading social studies as well. But since J has reached grade level reading (Whoo Hoo!!) we’re now reading fun, age appropriate stuff… currently James Patterson’s Middle School series. The goal is to increase stamina and fluency so he’s reading aloud and increasing the duration by a chapter a week– un-scientific but functional.

It’s time-consuming and makes me so thankful that I have a flexible work schedule (most days) and that my husband is a teacher and has time over the summer to help (in between working summer camps and tutoring).  We are really fortunate to have time to do this with our son and we have seen his skills increase as well as his earned grades (he is graded– per his IEP– based on performance not perceived ability).

So– that’s what works for J. I feel like I should put a disclaimer in… I’m not a teacher, psychologist or therapist. I’m just a mom who (with help from teachers, psychologists and therapists) is learning how my son learns and working within those parameters to help him reach his maximum potential.