Traditional school wasn’t working for Alexander Luther. The 15-year-old, who has autism spectrum disorder, would get overstimulated and tired toward the end of the 6-hour day. His mother, Sue, a former teacher who had homeschooled her son during the pandemic, knew some well-timed breaks would help him maintain focus so he could learn the life skills he would most need as an adult.
So, Luther designed a home learning plan for him that combined lessons in core subjects with practical skills such as counting money, budgeting, housekeeping, and staying healthy.
“The goal is for him to be as independent as possible,” she said.
Luther, a former military spouse and single mom from Largo, Florida, stopped using Alexander’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities to pay private school tuition and started using it to buy the supplies necessary for him to learn at home.
Florida lawmakers passed the Unique Abilities scholarship program in 2014. Formerly known as the Gardiner Scholarship, it provides an education savings account that functions like a restricted-use bank account from which parents direct funds to pay for private school tuition and fees, approved homeschooling expenses, therapies, tutoring and other education-related expenses.
Luther used some of Alexander’s funds to buy a virtual reality headset for physical education. He uses it to play Beat Saber, a rhythm game where players slash colorful cubes with virtual swords as they fly toward them to the beat of fast-paced music. Luther says the game not only provides physical activity but helps prime Alexander’s mind for learning. Small-scale research has suggested that so-called exergaming, which combines virtual reality games and physical exercise, can help younger users improve their performance at specific cognitive tasks.
“VR has come a long way,” said Luther, who used personal funds to buy herself a headset to play Beat Saber and other exergames. “It’s a great workout, and we can do it together. It’s such a great tool. It’s going to be in a lot of schools someday.”
The VR activities also allow him to learn social skills.
“He’s got to learn how to take turns and how to interact with others,” Luther said. “It gives him the space he needs. Nobody’s touching him.”
Luther bought Alexander’s laptop and headset through MyScholarShop, an online purchasing platform for families who have an education savings account. The portal lets parents buy pre-approved instructional materials and curricula without having to pay out of pocket.
A typical homeschool day begins with breakfast after dropping off Alexander’s younger brother, Miles, 13, off at a charter school.
Alexander helps make the toast and jelly and puts away his dishes after he eats. The activity is not only for nourishment but also to teach Alexander the life skills needed to live as independently as possible as an adult.
Next is handwriting practice, followed by instruction on the laptop. Then he takes a break before lunch, when he helps Luther prepare the meal and clean up afterward.
Alexander spends the afternoon on math followed by science, which typically involves projects such as making a lava lamp or growing a plant.
The last part of the day includes Beat Saber or yoga and then winds down with an art project before it’s time to pick up Alexander’s brother from school.
In the evenings, a therapist certified in applied behavioral analysis comes to the house to help Alexander with self-care skills such as showering. The family’s insurance covers the therapy sessions, but for other families, therapy provided by a certified behavioral analyst is an eligible scholarship expense.
This year, Luther has seen Alexander make progress in math and counting. She uses play money to help teach him addition and subtraction and how that works in real life scenarios. He recently began receiving government disability payments, making money management an even more important skill. Sometimes they dine out so Alexander can practice personal finance skills by recording transactions on Cash App.
The app gives him a place to keep the money he earns from doing simple household chores such as putting away his laundry and cleaning his room.
“If he wants a hamburger or a video game, he can use the app to buy it,” Luther said. The app also keeps a history of transactions so Alexander can evaluate his spending choices and improve his decision-making skills. “I want him to know so no one can take advantage of him,” she said. “I want him to be able to figure out “Did I spend this or did someone take it from me?’ I know he’s never going to be able to be on his own completely, but he needs to be aware.”
Luther said he also has improved his handwriting as well as his patience and focus.
“Getting him just to do that has been a huge improvement,” she said.
Luther said she sees a need for more programs to serve teenagers who can’t go to college or technical school but who need training in job and life skills.
“That’s the school I always wanted to start – how to survive in the world if they don’t want to go to college. We would have fewer dropouts. That’s part of the whole school choice thing, isn’t it?”