How to Determine Homework Needs of Students on the Autism Spectrum

By Dot Lucci

Homework is an issue that needs careful consideration for the student with AS. Hopefully this article will help both parents and teachers focus your thinking about homework and make good decisions for your student. Decisions about homework should be addressed by the whole educational team, including parents and, if possible, the student (especially the older student). If the team determines that the student with AS can handle homework, then thoughtful planning, collaboration between home and school, and appropriate modifications will ultimately lead to a successful experience with homework—and greatly reduce the tears and homework battles many families experience.

Homework: Education? or just “work”?

Ask any parent, teacher, or student—there are many benefits and challenges to homework! Homework is a standard part of all children’s school experience and usually the amount of homework assigned increases dramatically as the student matures through the grades. It is an unwritten rule: teachers, students, and parents just assume that all students will do homework as part of their school experience. Homework expectations are often stated in the student handbook. Homework performance affects grading, along with attendance, class participation, tests/quizzes, effort, etc. Teachers have various reasons for assigning homework: fostering independence and organization, enhancing study skills, reviewing material from the day, demonstrating understanding of class material, etc.

Homework is not many students’ first choice for an after-school or evening activity. Many other things take precedence—and that sets up the homework battles for students, parents, and ultimately for teachers as well. For students, homework becomes a dreaded burden and a chore. For their parents, daily “homework battles” become exhausting! Teachers get caught up in this battle, and have to impose negative consequences (such as lower grades or detention) when a student does not complete all assigned work. And assigning/modifying, monitoring, correcting and providing feedback on a students’ homework adds to a teacher’s already full plate. For all concerned, homework is just that—work!

Especially for students with AS, it’s time to think outside the box. We need to re-evaluate the idea that homework is essential for all students. Let’s examine what are our goals are when we assign homework. Are we stuck doing something just because it has always been done?

Homework requirements, and the whole process of managing homework, need to be evaluated on an individual basis for students with AS. Many students with AS exert tremendous energy during the school day to “hold it together” and to do their daily schoolwork; homework is the last thing these students should be required to do. There are also students with AS who can handle the additional demands of homework: the key is to know the student you are dealing with and make appropriate accommodations if necessary.

Questions the team needs to answer are listed below. We’ll address these questions in detail in the rest of the article.

  • What goals do we hope to meet by assigning homework to this student?
  • Should the student with AS be assigned homework at all? What factors will be used in determining this answer?
  • Should homework be assigned in some classes and not others?
  • Should the amount, subjects, or type of homework assignments be modified for this student?
  • If homework is modified or removed from the student’s requirements, then how do we adjust the grading rubric?
  • How should homework managed at home? What role should the parent play?
  • How is homework assigned/organized at school?
  • How is homework returned to school?

What are the goals of homework for this student?

Homework goals for students with AS may be the same as for a typical student—or they may have a different focus. For instance, you might set goals in the social, communicative, or organizational areas. Helping students develop “executive functioning” skills (organizing, planning, goal-directed behavior, etc.) may be the best homework any student with AS could have. Homework can be used to preview upcoming work, chapters, reading, or vocabulary. You can assign the student self-exploration related to a topic, let the student pick/design his/her own homework assignments, etc. Other goals might be: estimating time needed for completion of assignments and then completing assignments in a timely fashion, prioritizing assignments and organizing work, developing routines or strategies, practicing asking for help from adults or classmates (or consulting a homework web page) when confused or frustrated, etc.

Should the student with AS be assigned homework? What factors will be used in determining this answer?
In answering this question, the team needs to take into account the student’s daily performance at school. Is the student able to make it through a school day relatively intact and with reserve energy—or does the student’s energy peter out as the day progresses? Can you see a decline in the student’s performance, sensory integration, and quality of communication from the morning classes to classes at the end of the day? If the student is managing the school day without undue stress, the first criterion has been passed favorably in regards to assigning homework.

The second criterion is how the student fares when s/he arrives at home. If the student “crashes and burns” at home (even though it wasn’t visible during the school day), that means that s/he used up a lot of his/her available energy during the day and has very little reserve for homework. Including parents and the student in this discussion/decision (especially as the student gets older) is essential to gathering this information.

A third consideration is how orderly or chaotic the home environment is, and is an adult free to support the student in completing his/her homework assignments?

All of these questions/criteria need to be answered before proceeding on to whether homework needs to be adapted or how to adapt it. Thus, both the human and non-human environment need to be assessed when determining whether to assign homework to the student with AS. The human environment includes the student and family members. Basically, stress levels, anxiety, and levels of exhaustion need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not homework should be assigned. Another human factor that needs to be taken into account is parents’ availability to support and assist the student. If parent support is not available, and the particular student will need adult guidance, then homework should not be done at home. The team can discuss whether the student can handle and benefit from doing some additional assignments in a study hall, resource center, or afterschool homework center.

If any red flags are present—signs of stress at school or at home, lack of available adult support—then the homework load should be reduced or eliminated, so that the student can focus on “re-grouping” for the next day at school.

If the student with AS resists doing homework there may be underlying reasons that have nothing or everything to do with the assignment—or with the concrete thinking characteristic of AS. For example, students with AS may be confused about why they should do “school work” at home. They are not typically motivated to do homework to please a teacher or parent or because they are “supposed to” do it to meet class requirements. They may choose not to do an assignment because they are not interested in the assignment or don’t see the relevance. Trying to find the underlying cause of resistance may be tricky but is worth the effort. As students with AS gets older, just ask them; they may provide you with the answer. For instance, a high school student I was consulting on stopped doing his class work and homework and when asked why he stated, “I’ve been told it’s ‘my job’ (as a student) to do this stuff—and nobody is paying me!”

Should homework be assigned in some classes and not others? Should the amount, subjects, or type of homework assignments be modified for this student?

If the team decides that it is all right to assign homework, there are some guidelines that should be adhered to, to make the life of the student, parents and teacher(s) bearable. Students with AS often times have trouble organizing their work: getting started, staying focused, multi-tasking, etc. Carefully consider the student’s specific issues when assigning homework, and modify assignments accordingly. Especially as the student gets older, homework assignments from multiple teachers need to be coordinated or the student may become overwhelmed. In general, homework assignments may need to be modified in terms of learning style, language, type, amount, format, due dates, time expectations, performance criteria, etc. The more clarity a teacher can bring to an assignment, by providing specific, detailed directions and expectations, stated in clear language, the better it will be for the student and parent.

  • Before the student leaves school each day, ask the student to state in his/her own words what the assignment is and what the expectations are. This way the teacher knows whether the student understands or not, and can correct misunderstandings.
  • Simplifying expectations or modifying how a student fulfills an assignment can go a long way to ensuring success. Some students with AS enjoy and excel at writing, but others experience difficulty. Instead of assigning an essay, you might want to ask a student with AS to make a poster, report orally, or create a PowerPoint presentation. Or, you can assign an essay of reduced length (3-5 page essay or no minimum number of pages).
  • You may need to extend due dates, or change dates for tests or long term assignments so that they do not all fall on the same day.
  • If a student has difficulty with handwriting, then having access to a computer is imperative.
  • Time limits: Specifying the maximum amount of time to be spent on each assignment, and the total amount of time to be spent on all homework each evening. Grade students on work accomplished. Modify future assignments to based on feedback about where the student got bogged down.
  • A student with a disability should be graded on how well s/he meets expectations that are appropriate to the student. Therefore, if homework expectations are altered, justice dictates that educators adjust the grading rubric accordingly, especially in middle school and high school. That is, one must change the way the grade is calculated (different percentages contributed by homework, attendance, tests, class participation, term paper, etc.)

Managing homework at home; what’s the parent’s role?

At school, students with AS like routine; life at home is no different. The student and parents and should create a schedule for life after school hours that includes downtime, some movement/sensory activity, food/drink, and homework—along with any afterschool therapies, sports, or social groups in which the student participates. If the parents and student are having difficulty creating this schedule, then an educator should help facilitate the process.

Because students with AS are often not the best communicators, a home-school communication system should be in place to coordinate efforts at school and at home. The team should decide which educator will maintain contact with the parent, and what communication media and frequency will work. a daily communication book that travels between home and school in the student’s backpack, weekly phone calls or e-mails, or some combination of these means. Some dedicated aides or teachers even give out home phone numbers for emergency consultations! You can also utilize a homework buddy, a homework webpage, or assignments can be faxed or emailed home to assist with clarifying homework and understanding the assignments. Include models of what the homework should look like, or the student’s “best work.”

Through this system, parents can immediately communicate vital information and concerns to teachers; teachers can communicate clear expectations and information directly to parents. As they get older, some students may also be able to add their own comments and concerns. If there is a communication book or agenda book then the parents have a reference point to check the accuracy of their son’s/daughter’s version of homework requirements. Having parents and teachers initial the agenda book assures that everyone is on the same page.

While the student is doing homework, an adult should be available to assist if needed. An adult may need to sit near the younger student to facilitate homework completion. Identify a specific place to do homework: a room or area, set up with a comfortable table or desk, chair (or the student’s preferred furnishings) and homework supplies. The supplies could be kept in a box for younger students. Allow the student breaks as needed, based on their sensory and attentional needs. Specify the amount of time to be spent on homework; use a timer so the student can monitor his or her progress. Parents should get information from school staff about average times of completion for specific assignments. Parents should then communicate to teachers the length of time a student spends on each subject/type of task. Know the student’s learning style and allow it to be used. For instance, if the student likes to lie on the floor while working, then let him lie on the floor; don’t force him to sit at a table/desk. If s/he likes to vocalize/self-monitor while working, listen to music or have absolute quiet, let her/him. Especially as the student gets older, help her/him identify study skills that work best for her/him.

How is homework assigned/organized at school?

During the school day, many older students benefit from a daily learning center period, or better still, one in the morning and another at the end of the school day. During these periods, learning center staff can help students organize, review/preview, begin or complete homework.

  • At the end of the day, verify that all homework assignments are written clearly in the student’s agenda book, that students are able to explain in their own words what is required, and that the student has in his or her backpack all materials necessary to do the work.
  • In some districts, homework is posted on the school website. If your district uses this tool, make sure the student knows how to access the right page on the internet and check his/her homework assignments.
  • Assign a student homework buddy from each class for the student with AS to call with any questions.
  • Help the student set up an organized binder. Include sections for papers to be returned to school, papers for parents, class notes, etc.
  • Color-coding supplies (folders, books, notebooks, etc.) for each subject also facilitates organization.
  • Some students may also need an additional set of books to keep at home.
  • Thoroughly organize any long terms projects (research papers, science projects, group presentations) at school, before the student starts to work on them at home.
  • Break the long assignment up into shorter steps.
  • Create a calendar with check-in dates and specific outcomes for each step.
  • Add each of these check-in dates to the agenda notebook.
  • An educator should checked progress daily or at an appropriate interval, to make sure the student successfully completes each step and does not fall behind.

How is homework returned to school?

Many students with AS who are assigned homework, and can manage it, still have difficulty getting the finished work to school. They leave it at home, misfile it in their binders, or lose it in their backpacks or lockers. For the student with AS, successfully returning completed assignments can be an excellent homework goal! To meet the goal, students with AS will need additional support from parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. Successful organizational strategies may include establishing routines, motor patterns, and checklists. Providing cue cards on the binders with question cues to remind them to turn their homework in, put it in the right folder, etc., may also prove useful. Helpful strategies may include: having teachers and parents sign the agenda book, establishing classroom routines regarding homework, creating a specific place in which to put completed homework, establishing verbal prompts and structured routines with the whole class, providing a backpack with multiple compartments and identifying what each one is for, utilizing trapper/keepers or multiple binders etc.

There are many ways to help a student with AS get organized around homework—but know that it is almost always a necessary ingredient to ensuring a successful school experience. Pick a system and a set of tools, monitor the system consistently, and fine tune it if necessary. Then enjoy seeing your student grow!

Dot Lucci, C.A.G.S. has worked as an educational consultant with schools and families all over the U.S. She is currently the Program Director of MGH Aspire. She has served on the AANE board and written classic articles about working effectively with students with Asperger profiles.