Off-Grid With Autism

Raising children on a farm and homestead can be a challenge—raising a child with special needs can be an even bigger one.

by Tessa Zundel
PHOTO: Tammy Trayer

We all know each kid raised on a farm or homestead is special, but the farm help us care for our special needs children, as well. A vibrant homestead has much to offer a family raising up these great children who simply need a different breed of care.

To gain some insights on raising a homestead special needs kid, I asked my friend Tammy Trayer to share her story with me. She’s mother of Austin, her now 18-year-old, high-functioning autistic son. Their family moved to their off-grid Idaho homestead when Austin was 13, and Tammy says it was the best thing they could have done for him. They were able to determine that diet played a big role in how Austin presented autism. When he was little, they tried a number of therapies and discovered that his body was sensitive to dairy and grain. Tammy says:

”For Austin, as little as a teaspoon of dairy could cause him … to be very angry and even violent. We also incorporated supplements, such as zinc, magnesium and calcium, into his diet, which helped him immensely, nearly removing his anger and emotional outbursts. I learned how to work with him and to really read my son in an effort to completely help him overcome autism. Today we are 98 percent there and going strong.”

Being able to produce “clean” food on their own land has been of enormous benefit for Austin. The Trayers avoid processed foods by cooking from scratch, raise a number of animals and hunt extensively on their land to further fill their table with healthy foods.

The Value Of Farm Work

The work of the homestead, especially with the animals, has provided another benefit to Austin, as well. Every child needs to know they’re valued and needed, and every family member needs to learn to work hard and contribute to life at home. Tammy agrees, and sees the work that Austin has learned to do on their homestead as something that has allowed him to “come out of his autism shell and find himself.” Tammy says:

“Austin is responsible for caring for our animals. We have meat rabbits, laying chickens and milk goats. He takes his jobs very seriously, and his animals have played a role in helping him to come out of that autism shell. Last year we bred our milk goats for the first time, and when the two sets of twins were born in January, he was very proud because he cared for them. … In addition to his animals, Austin is also responsible for chopping firewood and even helping with dishes sometimes, and he is a part of all our activities, so if we are canning, so is he; if we are butchering, so is he; and if we head out for a day of fun, so is he.”

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Of course, you’ll need to approach farm work differently for each special-needs child. If your child has a physical impairment, then providing him with tasks that can be modified to fit his capacity is important. If gathering eggs is not possible because of a wheelchair or if your child is limited by distance, perhaps washing and counting the eggs is a duty better suited to his abilities.

With autism and similar issues, it’s quite common for a child to have auditory processing delays. It’s important to write down the chore list for your child, as well as going over it verbally. Tammy wrote Austin’s chores on the side of the chicken coop. You need to keep your child’s attention when you speak to them, and only give them one task at a time to begin with. Providing too much information at a time will be wasted effort on your part because your child might only hear the first or last part of what you say. Make sure your child is focused on you the whole time you’re speaking, and ask him to repeat back his assignment to be sure he’s got it.

Schooling At Home

Homeschooling isn’t right for everyone, but should you decide to bring your special-needs child to the homestead for school, you might just find that a whole new world opens up to you and them. This was Tammy and Austin’s experience:

“Austin was in the public schools until we arrived on our homestead when he was 13. Although we were blessed with many angels along our journey through the public school system, he struggled greatly. He was overstimulated all the time by the activity going on around him in school. Because he was overstimulated, he was angered easily and stressed because he could not keep up. … He was in 8th grade when we arrived on our homestead, but academically he was in 3rd/4th grade. At that point, I felt the timing was right and that God had lined things up for me to start homeschooling him, and it was amazing to see the results.

Using a program called Switched on Schoolhouse, coupled with Austin’s determined attitude, he was able to complete two school years’ worth of work in one year. Tammy says that engaging in school year-round and using an unschooling method (where all of life is school) has continued to help Austin thrive. Tammy shares:

“Our lifestyle also incorporates an extreme amount of extra-curricular activities and classes necessary [to learn] life skills. Austin has a metal and wood shop where he has learned blacksmithing, welding, and the use of traditional and modern tools in woodworking. He helped build our house and two traditional log cabins, a barn, chicken coop, rabbit hutch and garden. He is in the kitchen all the time with me, in addition to learning to fell trees and chop firewood, raise animals, butcher, harvest our meat from the wild and our bounty from the garden, and foraging from the wild. His skill sets are amazing, and I feel very blessed to be able to provide him with this lifestyle.”

There are myriad homeschool curriculums and programs, so never feel like you have to do it just one way. The beauty of schooling at home is flexibility, so take advantage of it.

Communication Is Key

Even if homeschooling doesn’t turn out to be something you can do, making time for just you and your child to be together can be important for their development, your relationship, and your parental ability to keep track of how they’re developing. For Tammy and Austin, this meant taking walks together on their land. Such a simple thing that really didn’t take much time, but from those walks came loads of insight for Tammy:

“We have always made it a point to keep communications open … and during those walks we would just talk about anything and everything! I am well versed in Legos, movies, dinosaurs and whatever the topic was that he was stuck on at the time. … I felt it was important for me to allow him to take that time to express himself. … There were times he would get stuck on a subject and repeat himself … and I learned to just point out to him that he was stuck, and maybe now we could talk about something else. That helped him realize that he did get fixated on subjects and helped him learn to catch himself. … Because of those walks early on in his life, as he hit puberty and tougher spots, he would talk to me about anything, which to me was priceless. He would express so much to me that helped me to help him.”

Parting Advice

I was inspired by Tammy’s positive attitude and the fearless way she has embraced parenting a special-needs child, especially in her off-grid homestead setting. She says she’s seen so many improvements in Austin since coming to their land. For those who struggle in raising a special-needs child, know that you’re not alone. On the farm or homestead, you’re in a uniquely situated place to give your child useful chores, careful instruction and a real world place to practice their budding skills. Tammy offers:

“It is easy to get caught up in the struggles, especially if you are embracing them by yourself (I did that for a stretch of 5 years) or you do not have a supportive partner. But take good care of yourself, focus on your progress and the positive things in your life. Remind yourself that there is a child in there that is struggling and misunderstood. [A child] that you have not had a chance to meet yet because he is masked by autism. Help your child and know that all your efforts will pay off even if it is hard. You are not alone. It is definitely a process and will not happen overnight!”

Austin and Tammy are passionate about sharing their story as a family of off-grid homesteaders, so to learn more visit “Trayer Wilderness” and “Mountain Boy Journals.”

More of this interview, including another with special needs mom Kathryn Robles of Farming My Backyard, can be found on my blog, “Homestead Lady.”

If you have a working farm and are interested in what you might do to help the special needs kids in your community, visit Downs on the Farm for inspiration and ideas. You can also contact them with questions. I also recommend this article provided by Friendship Circle.

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