After learning that she didn’t need any formal qualifications to homeschool her daughter with autism, this Florida mom created a child-led learning space at home and saw her daughter thrive. Now, she’s reassuring other parents that they can do it too.
“Society has told us you are not qualified to teach your child, only educators are,” mom-of-two Fiorella Acosta Perkins of Tampa told The Epoch Times. “That’s just simply not the case; homeschooling has been around a lot longer than public school has.”
Fiorella has two daughters: 2-year-old Silvia and 4-year-old Emilia, who’s on the autistic spectrum. The 30-year-old mom left her career as a microbiologist to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.
Fiorella first became concerned about Emi’s development when she noticed her then-toddler wasn’t talking. A doctor advised her to wait, but when Emi still wasn’t talking at 18 months, didn’t make eye contact, and wasn’t playing like Fiorella’s nieces of a similar age, she sought help again.
“It was actually at [Emi’s] speech therapy evaluation that they pointed out she could be on the spectrum,” she said.
Unfamiliar with autism, Fiorella panicked. She experienced a “mourning period” of her expectations as a parent, but when Emi was formally diagnosed in 2019, she sidelined her fear in favor of action.
“We started speech and occupational therapy right away,” she said. “Then of course, in 2020, the pandemic hit, and all of her therapies were changing … it was then I came to the realization that I can’t depend on anybody for my child’s progress. As a mom, I was like, ‘Okay, I need to learn how to do this on my own.'”
Fiorella and her husband had discussed homeschooling before they had children. Fiorella was the one with reservations, but the choice became a “no-brainer” during the pandemic and she was determined to explore this option.
She then began researching more, and in 2021 when all the kids were going back to preschool, she didn’t feel comfortable leaving Emi with others as she wouldn’t be able to communicate her needs to them. Fiorella then started to read more and tried various methods at home, and she really began to notice Emi blossom.
Fiorella also connected with other moms of autistic kids on social media. When many insisted that she didn’t need a special education degree to homeschool, she was incredulous, but the children of her newfound friends were thriving.
“I was raised like, ‘You go to school, you graduate, you get a job, that’s just what everybody does,'” she reasoned. “I love school, and I have nothing against school in general, but I just don’t think it’s for everybody.
“I cannot adapt public school to my daughter. I would have to really force her to adapt herself, who she is, her needs, in order to fit into the public school system. With homeschooling, you actually adapt the education to the child completely.”
The more Fiorella read about homeschooling, the more she learned how qualified she already was and she started to believe that there were many different ways to educate a child at home and hone their strengths rather than weaknesses.
Emi’s learning is led by her specific needs.
“She just naturally is really interested in letters and numbers, so we do a lot of that,” said Fiorella. “I definitely emphasize reading; I want her to like reading books, because if I can teach her to read, then she has the ability to learn anything she wants.”
Apart from her academic goals, Fiorella also helps her daughter with “life skills” such as self-care, brushing her teeth, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, and socializing. She uses at-home enrichment activities from the international nonprofit HIPPY, which provides families who have kids with developmental delays or who are at risk for developmental delays with programs across the United States and internationally.
Through Emi’s therapists, she has also learned that there are three pillars of homeschooling a special needs child.
“Patience is key, consistency is vital, and love is innate … when you come from a place of love, nothing can go wrong,” she said.
Emi has had frustrations in the learning environment, from sitting still, to waiting, to navigating groups, but her mother has learned to mediate by changing the environmental settings.
“We took everything outside in nature; we’re going to play with rocks, count the rocks, paint the leaves, play in the sand, go in the water, spend an hour in the pool, and then maybe sit down and read a book,” she said, “just so that her body and her mind are calm and regulated before she can actually be ready to learn something.
“She likes being challenged, she just needs that slight adaptation beforehand, getting those sensory needs met,” she explained, likening hers and Emi’s space to a “little world” in which the 4-year-old can relax without outside pressures.
By honing in on Emi’s strengths, rather than her weaknesses, Fiorella began to see her daughter’s true potential. One of her biggest successes to date is teaching Emi to speak in a homeschool setting.
She took an online course from Mary Barbera and started applying these techniques during the pandemic, for 10 minutes a day, every day. Four weeks in, Emi was saying words. Her first word from a flashcard, “car,” was an emotional moment for her mom.
Emi’s words have also allowed Fiorella to appreciate her second daughter, Silvia’s, speech development. She insisted, “She’s not on the spectrum, and her words mean just as much.”
However, parenting Emi outside the learning space is not without its challenges. Fiorella struggles with Emi’s verbal limitations and the fact that she cannot easily communicate sickness or pain. She also struggles with other people’s perceptions of her daughter.
“If we head to a playground and she tries to play with a child but she’s verbally stimming, making these loud noises because she’s excited, and the kid is weirded out and runs away, that just crushes you as a mom,” she explained. However, she then steps into the conversation sharing with the other child that Emi is just trying to play with them.
She claims that a parent must learn to dismiss the expectations of others before they can properly advocate for their own child.
But since homeschooling, Emi is communicating more and making more eye contact. She can socialize in a way that’s comfortable for her with kids of all ages, so much so that Fiorella would “100 percent recommend” homeschooling to other parents.
She is also shocked by how much she has gained from the process herself, besides invaluable help from her husband and mom, Emi’s grandparents, and her aunts and uncles. They have also joined a “wild school” homeschooling group and enjoy regular meetups in natural parks and outdoor spaces.
Fiorella even started her own community on Instagram, Growing on the Spectrum, as an “unapologetic” space for Emi’s friends to gather, and for herself and her husband to connect with other parents of autistic kids under 5. They meet in person every month.
“Now we have gone to each other’s birthday parties … those kinds of things mean a lot to the kids, but also to the parents,” she said. “It’s grown little by little; we’re looking to expand to other cities.”
Fiorella has received supportive comments and advice from other like-minded parents on Instagram and even hears from adults with autism wishing they had experienced homeschooling as a child.
“It’s very reassuring,” she said, “because ultimately I want Emi to look back on this account and say, ‘Wow, that helped me so much.’ But when she grows up and looks back at this, I’ll say, ‘I didn’t do this, you did this, you accomplished all of this,’ because it really is on her.”
Bolstered by a quote used by another mom she follows on Instagram—”I believe in the power of yet”—Fiorella’s personal philosophy is not to focus on what Emi can’t do, but rather on how to help her do it.
Today, 4-year-old Emi attends applied behavior analysis [ABA] therapy three times a week, and hippotherapy once a week. Every session, Fiorella learns as much as she can about her daughter’s diagnosis.
Her favorite reward of all in parenting her bright, loveable, fearless daughter is Emi’s unique way of expressing affection.
“When you get an Emi hug, there’s nothing like it,” she told The Epoch Times. “She may not be able to tell me, ‘I love you,’ but when she … rubs her face against mine, you can’t deny the love she shows, because it’s genuine.”
Share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and continue to get your daily dose of inspiration by signing up for the Bright newsletter at TheEpochTimes.com/newsletter