Today I am talking with Heather Cadenhead, who is the mama of two boys. Her oldest son Milo is 8 years old, nonverbal, and on the autism spectrum. Heather and her family have been on the autism journey for a few years now. She talks about finding resources for her son, getting a diagnosis, learning how to implement an AAC device into his communication, and how she came to the decision of homeschooling her two son’s everyday. 

How The Diagnosis Began

When Heather was pregnant with her younger son Linus, she began noticing that things seemed different in Milo whenever she looked at her friend’s kids or people in her small group at church. She would think, “Why isn’t Milo talking or playing with toys?” The pediatrician was pretty dismissive because Milo was so young at the time, around 18 months. A few weeks after that appointment, she knew she couldn’t wait any longer for answers and that they really needed to get a referral for an autism evaluation. She went back to the doctor and the pediatrician saw more of what she was talking about after she went into more specifics. She had Linus, and in the midst of having a newborn, went through the autism process with her two year old. He ended up getting the diagnosis in January, 2014. 

What Made Her Think It Was Autism?

Heather had an interest in autism way before she was married or had kids. Whenever Milo would exhibit those signs, she was more aware because she already had some prior knowledge. “But when it’s happening to you, and it’s real and raw, and it’s your child, you do have some denial too.” She started looking at youtube videos to get a better understanding of what she saw Milo doing. When she looked on youtube and saw what kids were doing, she showed her husband a video, and he was shocked. They both realized that the child reminded them so much of Milo. The biggest sign for her was that he wasn’t talking. Milo had words in the beginning, but he ended up regressing on them. He seemed to be developing language at first but then it halted and they never got it back. 

They went into the appointment expecting to hear the doctor say it was autism, but getting the diagnosis still caught them off guard. The doctor handed them a folder with brochures for Early Intervention, but Heather had never even heard about it before. Looking at it was like a foriegn language. It was shocking to see, even though they came in expecting it. 

How They Began Homeschooling

They hired a private practice speech therapist and Heather started a home-school co-op for typically developing kids and kids with special needs. For those that aren’t familiar with the homeschooling world, a co-op is a group of homeschooling parents who come together and teach classes based on that parents particular skills or interest. 

Heather really felt a calling to home-school. They did the co-op for a year, but Milo was really struggling. He was especially challenged because of the traditional classroom setting. She would take him out of the classroom and end up sitting in the hallway crying. They decided to discontinue his schooling and go back to homeschooling full-time in the home and continuing therapy programs there. 

Typical Day of Homeschooling

Pre-Covid, Milo had OT and tutoring during the week. For the past several years, they have hired tutors from the local university who are speech and language pathology students, and they will come and work in their home with Milo as well. Heather is also homeschooling Linus, so during Milo’s therapy hours, she would teach her younger son as well. A lot of people focus exclusively on life skills, but they also try to pour into Milo academically. So, Milo and Linus can respond to questions through writing, or do it orally. Milo is nonverbal, but he has an AAC device and he would respond to that. “It was really exciting to see how much he really was listening after hearing a passage. He could remember a lot of details.”

Learning an AAC Device 

Heather was very interested in the existence of an AAC device. She found out about it when Milo was 3. There was a program at a research university where you could apply and use an ipad with an AAC program with it. She took it home and had no idea what to do with it. Miilo was very resistant to it. She learned how critical it would be to find someone to help her learn how to use it. They found their current speech therapist and she evaluated him for different programs with his AAC device, taught Heather and Milo how to use it, and it ultimately helped him to start soaring.

A lot of people’s hesitation is the same that Heather had. “You don’t want them to not speak because they have an AAC device, but honestly his expressive language and his speech has been worlds better since we started using the AAC device, because he is getting that input constantly.” She has noticed it has improved his speech and she wished she could’ve started years ago. 

Advice for Home-School Moms

Homeschooling is something you have to want to do. If you are feeling drawn towards it, don’t let your insecurities stop you from learning. There is a whole world of things you didn’t know ten years ago before our kids were diagnosed. Just because you aren’t this homeschooling expert today doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good autism mom or good home-school mom. 

“My mom home-schooled us and she only had a high-school diploma. You don’t have to have an education degree to be a successful home-school parent. There are so many different methods and curriculum choices.” 

You are going to feel so overwhelmed especially at the beginning. There are so many voices and different routes and options. Your mind is exploding with questions and there is no guidance. Take a step back and realize you are not going to know the answer to all the questions right away. At the end of the day, your child is going to benefit so much from you just sitting down and having a movie night or spending time with them. Have a fun adventure together. Those things will do more for your child’s development than staying on your phone and researching for hours and hours. It’s gonna be okay, and just focus on loving your kids. 

Important Takeaways

  1. If you are not satisfied with your doctor’s opinion about your child, keep pressing. If they say it isn’t autism, but you think it is, find someone who will listen. Don’t ignore those instincts that you have, because you were given them for a reason. 
  2. Homeschooling is not for everyone, but if you feel the call to do it, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a higher education. You are still capable of researching and learning what they need the most in their education. There are so many options and so many resources that can help you on your homeschooling journey.
  3. An AAC device can be so helpful. It helped Milo to begin communicating what he wanted even though he is technically nonverbal. It was the best decision that they made for him. Milo still struggles sometimes, but it is so crucial in providing open channels of communication and understanding their son more. 
  4. You may feel overwhelmed at the beginning, but what matters the most is that you take the time to spend with your children. Hours of research on your phone is not what is going to help you truly understand your own child. They will benefit the most from quality time with you, even if it is random movie days or hikes. 
  5. Your child is the same kid they were before their diagnosis. You may be stressed out and unsure of where to go or what to do, but at the end of the day, you will figure it out and make it work. It won’t happen overnight because learning is a process, but eventually you will find answers. 


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