A Pirate's Resources

Across the Learning Spectrum

Making Creative Writing Accessible to All Learners

A few years back, Chris (the author of A Pirate’s Guide) gave a wonderful talk for the SEA Homeschoolers online conference, Homeschooling Children Across the Learning Spectrum. His talk, “Making Creative Writing Accessible to All Learners” was born out of several families’ responses to A Pirate’s Guide. If you’ve got 40 minutes, join us as he encourages parents in the journey to help their neuro-diverse students become more creative and expressive through creative writing. And if you are short on time, or want to take it in slowly, check out our series of articles under the category Across the Learning Spectrum.

Watch, or read, and be encouraged!


Homeschooling Across the Learning Spectrum

We wrote this curriculum for homeschoolers, and learners of all ages. It didn’t occur to us to think about it in terms of anything other than :: what do they need to know so they can become better at expressing themselves, at telling stories? And how can we do it in a way that is fun, easy, and actually does the job without any fluff? So it was a surprise to us when some of our biggest fans were homeschoolers that are on the learning spectrum. Parents of kids with learning disabilities and kids on the autism spectrum and other kids that are not your traditional student are regularly finding this workbook to be very valuable.

In having lots of conversations with these parents, we found three reasons why:

  1. This workbook is doable. It is something that the student can do without being overwhelmed or overstimulated.
  2. This workbook takes incremental steps. Gaps that can cause frustration are minimized and bridged.
  3. This workbook is an opportunity for them to succeed and feel good about themselves and their work.

First of all :: Keep the Work DOable

As we talked with many moms of children on the spectrum or with learning challenges, they all said: This workbook isn’t overwhelming to their kids. At first this felt strange, because I find the curriculum quite rigorous - it takes quite awhile to work through, and it does require a lot of the student. This disconnect for me was really because I didn’t understand what being the parent of a child on the spectrum was like. To quote one parent, “our world is one PTSD episode after another, it’s very stressful all the time. Sometimes homeschooling a special needs child, even though it is the best thing for them, is very hard. It’s like being in a battle. And educating our child. And being a therapist. And being a mom. What’s helpful to us is simplicity. I also find it helpful when things are not timed, with no deadlines.”

What she was describing is that this workbook allows kids to take small bite size pieces. Even though the workbook has exercises, there are not real beginnings or endings. Your student can start an exercise and keep going through it, but when they are tired, or done, or have a meltdown, or someone interrupts, they can simply stop. The next time, they will just begin wherever they left off. It’s not like writing an essay, or a large task you need to do, where you just have to press through with it. One parent described how her son struggles with self-esteem and confidence, and being able to finish an exercise in his own time builds his confidence. Because this curriculum allows him to decide how much he can do, he gets to decide, and he can be successful. When her son can’t finish something, he feels defeated, and can act like he’s losing a limb; there can be a total meltdown over something as simple as not finishing a lesson. But with
A Pirate’s Guide, these aren’t “lessons” - they are just exercises. It allows the student to decide to stop after two or three things, or push through and do more of them to get through to the story.

Moving Slowly in the Right Direction :: It is Possible

As I’ve talked with parents, it seems like all of them - no matter where their kid is at, how many needs they have or don’t have, they want to see their kids progress, and sometimes it feels like they are not moving or developing at all. And I just want to encourage you - it is possible. And I’ve seen it happen in this area of creativity.

The mom who shared with me that her son couldn’t work with play dough, and only did legos exactly as the instructions dictated, shared this most wonderful story with us, after having spent a season doing
A Pirate’s Guide. It was encouraging for them, and for us as well.

Their autistic middle school aged son was very literal. At the beginning of the process of doing creative writing, his muscles just weren’t very strong. And when he was asked to answer a question - he would just give a single word and be done with it. She said it was literally like pulling teeth to get him to answer, but now that he’s gone through the workbook, it’s not. She described how even her husband had noticed the progression, had seen that his writing had developed and become easier for him. Her son has gotten to the point of saying, if I do this, and this, and this, and put it all together, it actually sounds good.

That’s the key: their son was the one recognizing that
he was doing this - he understood his muscles were weak, he understood that he hadn’t been able to do it, then when he saw himself being able to do it, he was encouraged. Now, don’t get me wrong, the progress here is small, but for them and their family, any movement at all was very significant, and it really came home to them this past Thanksgiving.

The mom described how every Thanksgiving everyone puts the things they are thankful for on what they call a Thankful Tree. In the past, her son’s items on the thankful tree were just simple foods (potatoes, turkey). But this year, she shared how he wrote down non food items, and things with descriptions, and in that, they could really tell that he had come a long way. Hearing this, I cheered.
Her son was expressing himself, and expressing something he hadn’t been able to express before. He hadn’t been strong enough, but now, his muscles were growing, and his ability to share who he is with his family is growing.

So to summarize the point here - I don’t think this has anything particular to do with my curriculum or anything other than it is just using a tool of small, incremental baby steps that gradually get harder and enables them to win, to keep going, to not get lost, to not get stuck at the edge of this cliff with a gap that’s too big for them and they just give up.

When the Work is its Own Reward

Another unique aspect of A Pirate’s Guide is that there is a story woven through out the workbook. There’s the story, and then exercise, and then more story. For some kids, the story acts like a reward.

And while we are on the subject of rewards … One parent shared how, as a 42 year old, she had grown up without rewards , but today she feels that all things need rewards. Every activity and book, every app, is about earning something - stars, points, leveling up. She’s found that it is too much for her autistic son. (It’s too much for me, too.) He gets focused, but the focus is solely based on getting the prize, not the work itself - he’ll work just enough to get to the prize. Then this parent described how, in
Pirate’s Guide, because the prize in this curriculum is the story woven in and out of the exercises - the rewards are integrated into the very work itself.

And the other unique thing about this reward is that it is in their mind - for other than the cover of the book, there are no illustrations or drawings inside the book at all. Most curriculum has characters and stars and doodles and drawings … and as a parent told me - their kids are overstimulated as it is. Our kids are inundated with stuff on their phones, computers, and television screens; it can be a challenge just going into a store, because there is just so much stimulation for them. So in a curriculum, anything extra can be too much. So many moms have found it valuable that their students are able to visualize the characters in the story out of the written words (not through images) and the whole process is streamlined and simple.

Parents need curriculum that is something that their kids can do that is not overlong, or overwhelming, or overly taxing them. They need something that their student can accomplish, finish bite size pieces and build their confidence, and that doesn’t resort to bribes or rewards or meaningless things like stars or points. The reward should be the thing itself - and one of the rewards of stories is being transported to a different world, meeting new characters, going and experiencing things that you yourself would never do in your own real life. We get to experience this when we watch a movie or read a book. And we can connect this for our kids when they are writing a story. We want them, as they are creating a story, to have the same experience of traveling to a different world, but this time, it is a world they are interacting with, they are creating. This is one thing that makes video games so attractive to kids, and why so many boys, particularly on the autistic scale, gravitate towards them. There is a huge desire to be creative, to act and function in a world, without the limitations that they experience in this world. Writing stories can be the same thing, but it is much more work. It’s easier to pick up a game console and play within an existing world. It’s more difficult to do this with pen and paper and something they get to create. Hopefully, this pirate story and the exercises help bridge that gap between passive (playing a video game) and proactive (writing their own story from scratch), by making it easier for kids to enter into a world, and begin to enjoy creative writing.

Second :: Bridging the Gaps

One of the moms we spent time getting to know is a curriculum reviewer for a publication, and she is inundated with new curricula and has reviewed lots over the years. Most of us homeschooling moms can go through a fair number of texts and workbooks and study packs trying to find the right one that fits our family. This is only heightened for moms whose kids have learning challenges. They so long for something that will enhance the learning experience for their kids and encourages them to want to learn - for that learning experience to be a good, positive experience that their kids will want to do.

A common barrier is what this mom called “gaps.” This is where you are working on something, and the next step that they ask your student to take is too big a leap for them to comprehend or succeed at. They can’t do it. For example, incremental learning in math would be something like: 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 1+3=4, 1+4=5, and so on. Working in this way allows the student to take the previous step, see how it applies, and move on to the next step. It’s small enough that they can bridge from the first to the next example. But many teachings tend to take a leap. They show the student that sequence, and then ask “what’s 7+9?” That is too big of a leap. Gaps like this aren’t just a problem for special needs kids, it’s a problem for us all.

Whenever we come to a barrier or a chasm that’s too big to cross, we shut down, we give up, we don’t know what to do. It’s the level of scale that determines if we can push through, or if we shut down; it’s a matter of how big the gaps are. For some kids you can have fairly big steps and they can navigate that fairly well. Others need the steps to be close and tight for them to keep walking the path. So the challenge for all parents is to find a curriculum/program that does not have gaps that are bigger than their child can handle. And this is something that has been stated again and again by parents who have used
Pirate’s Guide: it makes use of very small, incremental baby steps, and leading by example. It’s very directive, and removes the gaps, so that the student can keep walking forward confidently. No flying leaps!

Second :: more gaps

And here’s a unique kind of gap - totally different from just taking too big a step between 1+1 and xy+52. It’s a gap in strength and ability.

I’ve been told by numerous parents with kids on the spectrum, is that their kids can have a very black and white nature. They are the kind of kids who, when they ask the time, don’t want to know that it’s 3 o’clock, but that it’s 3:
01. Oftentimes, this can be the biggest block to these kids being creative. They can be very literal, so factual and focused on the actual, that, as a parent, you don’t have any idea of how to help them to be creative. Our hope, when Chris set out to write this workbook, wasn’t to present kids with a proper course of study, but to help them actually develop creativity. Creativity is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the more you work it out, the stronger it can become.

This becomes an issue in area of the arts especially. For example, you might sit down with your child, and say,
let’s draw something together. They don’t know what to draw (blank page!), and you suggest a tree. They sit down to draw the tree, and they try but can’t, because it doesn’t fit what they expect a tree to look like. So they give up. This gap is to big for them. What is happening here? The creativity muscle isn’t very strong. If they practice drawing trees - start with simple trees, and then add a line here, a little shading there, all by following a clear example, and focusing on only one part at a time, they can step back and see, wow, I drew a tree!

To return to the idea of handing a student a blank piece of paper and saying, go write … the reason that is so intimidating to us is that that creativity muscle isn’t strong enough to do something like that. The gap with our creative muscle strength is too much. Simplifying the process by giving them a focus (“choose what kind of sea monster you would be”), leading them into creativity,
that is a muscle they do have, and so they can answer the question and build up a little strength. A Pirate’s Guide can be seen as a training program for our creative muscles. Each step is small, explained, modeled, and then, as the student successfully completes a portion of the exercise, the muscle grows, and they can do harder and harder things.

Creativity CAN Grow

I spoke with a parent that was sad because her autistic son could just not play with things like play dough. Even with legos, she described that her son could only create what the instructions outlined, and once he put that puzzle together, he’d be done. For her, it felt like pulling creativity out of him was impossible. But I think the real challenge here, what’s really happening, is a description of the strength of a muscle, and giving that muscle a chance to lift the weights that it is capable of lifting. And that’s why incremental learning is so important, and why we created Pirate’s Guide to be so incremental. To think of it like exercise - you start with the arm weight that your arm can carry, and you slowly over time build that up until that muscle gets stronger and you can lift heavier and heavier weights. The same is true with creativity. For her son, he could only “lift weights” of following detailed instructions.

The goal isn’t to pull creativity out of our kids, but to help them build them muscles so that it can come out naturally.

So now here is something that I find really interesting. Professional storytellers struggle with these exact same things. They feel that their muscles are not strong enough either. I asked Chris about it, and he reminded me that story is one of the most complicated things that we as humans can do. In a sense, it’s harder than rocket science. So he spent years (literally, years) trying to find a way to break down story into smaller parts, that would make it more manageable. This made sense to me. When you have something that is complicated, you break it down into the most simple, basic things, and then focus on those one at a time. That is essentially what we are doing when we teach kids English grammar - things like nouns and predicates and subjects and adjectives and clauses; all those really scary words that we come across in English grammar are just these small, simple things that make up sentences. Taken one at a time, we can master them, and in turn, master sentences, and the paragraphs, and then pages. So Chris’s goal was to make story as simple and as straightforward and gentle as possible for everyone.

And in doing this, he inadvertently made it accessible to kids with learning needs. Kids on the autistic spectrum. Kids that have attention disorder, kids that are not professionals. And that’s the great irony - the problem that professionals have is the exact same problem
all of us have. Your kids aren’t any different than kids who are academically gifted and excelling in their school. We all need a gentle, slow, straightforward path to the destination to which we want to go.

Third :: Overcoming Self-Criticism

Finally, we have heard, over and over from parents with kids with learning disabilities, that their children can be very negative and critical towards themselves. Many described it as self-hate. Their kids knew that they had problems, that they sometimes didn’t fit in, they knew that they had disabilities, they knew they had limitations. They feel bad about themselves, and their schoolwork and some curriculums just reinforced that feeling that they are broken and they don’t have the ability to do these things.

This is why self-pacing can be so helpful. And why we want to provide material that is presented in steps that can be taken, in their own time, and without fear of judgment. One mom described their days to Chris: “so many things in our lives are just rush rush rush, it’s so rare and so valuable to be able to open up a book and just go through it slowly, for as long as he is able, and to close it at any time. The net effect of this is that it reassures us that this is not going to be one more thing that my son is going to have to feel bad about as well. It’s depressing when I can’t get my kid to do his work because I’ve had a late night with him, or any of the other things that happen in our day to day life. Chris, you have to understand that they are going through meltdowns all day long and that the thing that you’ve created isn’t overwhelming. It doesn’t have sensory overload - colored pictures, graphs and charts - all the other grammar books have lists, memorize these rules, do this, do that, here’s this, and all of it is overwhelming. Your program is easier, simpler, and stress free.”

Almost every kid on the autistic spectrum has sensory issues, and they get overwhelmed. They can’t take too many words at a time, or too much to do at any one time. Or too much to understand at any one time. There is so much information thrown at them all the time. There are tests and quizzes and reviews, and grades, and scores and assessments - none of the which we do in
A Pirate’s Guide. All you have them do is practice what you are learning by doing the exercises themselves.

When the mom described this to us, both Chris and I thought, wow. We feel this way a lot of the time. Many things are pulling on us, we are rushed, feeling graded and assessed and tested. If I’m honest, I would have meltdowns a lot of the time (if I’m really honest, I’ll confess that sometimes I do). There is so much to do and not enough time to do it, I feel like I am not doing a good enough job. I long for things that are simple and quiet and stress free. I can’t promise that, in using this curriculum, your student will have a stress free experience, suddenly express themselves with ease, and feel great about themselves. I can’t promise that, but the evidence is showing that it will be more stress free. It does help them express themselves with greater ease. And the ones we are hearing from are feeling better about themselves in this area.

The point I can make is this - we all want to communicate to our kids that they aren’t broken. They are not a problem. All the self hate and criticism is something I think we all wish we could magically pull out of our kids and throw a billion miles away under the sea in a galaxy super far away so it never comes back.

Overcoming the Negative :: Have Hope!

The unfortunate reality is that it seems like self-criticism, self-judgement, self-loathing are getting worse in our culture, in general. So what do we do as parents? How do we help our kids, how do we help ourselves, in this? I think one way is simply being together. I think this is one reason that homeschooling can be such a gift to our kids and ourselves. We get to spend a lot of time with each other. And this has some good and some bad. There’s going to be the times of fights and meltdowns, when you have to leave the grocery store with a lot of items left in the art. But there are also the sweet, tender, wonderful, magical times, whatever that looks like for you and your kids. It may be singing a song together or dancing a silly dance around the house, it might be bedtime stories or going on a roller coaster and screaming your lungs out together. Whatever it is for you and your family and your kids, I encourage you to do that more. To focus on it more. In doing these things, we are saying to our kids: I want to be with you, I like you, you are not broken, you are not a problem.

I hope your homeschool, your actual schoolwork time can be the same. And all too often it’s not, it’s a fight, the battle of wills. Too much stimulation and over focus on prizes and rewards that don’t really affirm who your kid really is at the heart. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many examples of wonderful experiences that parents and kids share in homeschooling together.

When Chris set out to write this curriculum, he created it to be an independently used workbook, but his hope is that it could be something parents and kids do side by side, and it could become one of those special moments that you and your child share together. It doesn’t need to be something that a parent just gives their student and then goes off, leaving the child alone and separate to do it. When parents
do this with their student, and answer the questions themselves, you can share your answers with each other, share your character, and all the things these exercises will draw out of you. So if you do try it out -have fun with it, just enjoy it, together with your kids and your family. I know this isn’t always practical - especially if you have several kids (though getting everyone in the family doing it can be very, very fun). So it can be used independently, and then we encourage you, busy mom or dad, to take a few moments. Read through the story and their exercises. Ask them questions, show them that you are interested. (You can check out these articles for encouragement on doing just that). Make it something that, even if they are able and willing to work on it independently, you come together and encourage the growing creativity muscles they are building.

These are the three things that I’ve learned in talking with numerous parents about their kids and their problems and their needs, and how, in some small way, this creative writing curriculum has helped them.
first is to do something that they can do - be it just a small exercise. Just bite sized pieces that they can finish and accomplish. Make it something that isn’t overwhelming or overtaxing or over long or over stimulating. Make it something they can start and finish and feel good about.
second is to do something that utilizes incremental steps that don’t create gaps or bridges or walls that block their progress, or stop them from getting to the goal or end or across this chasm they think they can never get across. We need to build bridges for them, make things that they are able to accomplish, so they can continue, and don’t give up or lose hope.
third, do things that say that they are valuable, that you care about them. Do things that counteract this poison of negativity and criticism and self doubt and self hatred. Things that say YOU did this, here’s what you’ve done, what you’ve made, what we’ve done together. Here’s who you are, and this is how I view you.

It’s possible. Have hope!


The Challenge for us all in approaching creative writing ::

You don’t feel that you are a good writer.
What if you aren’t naturally “creative” yourself? What if your student isn’t?
You don’t really know what curriculum to use.
Why do so many of them assume you already know things?
Why do they jump through the material so quickly you end up missing things?
Why do they ask you to master a whole new subject in order to teach your student an elective?
Your kids have a difficult time with writing.
What if they don’t like writing, at all, much less creative writing?
What if they love to write, but don’t know where to begin?
What if expressing themselves, at all, is a challenge?

The Challenge for those on the Spectrum ::
All of the above … AND …
Your student struggles with being easily over-stimulated, over-whelmed.
Your student cannot make big leaps through material.
Your student sees things in black and white and doesn’t express themselves easily, in general.

I have good news. It is
possible. Teaching creative writing - wherever your student is at - is possible. And it yields good fruit. One thing I’ve seen again and again, is that when parents are given the right tools to teach this subject, and have the right attitude, it can be a really positive and rewarding experience. There is hope. I encourage you to hold on to hope as you go on homeschooling, specifically in getting your child to open up to write, to share words, to speak their thoughts, and share what’s going on inside them, to you and others. It’s a worthwhile thing to do, and while it can be difficult, I do believe the rewards are more than worth it.

Though we didn’t start out to create an accessible writing program, the evidence from those families who have tested it with their neuro-diverse students is that it works.
And it is worth it. Read on for more encouragement.

Encouragement or Expectation

Recently the mom of a middle school aged son wrote to share that, while her son had initially engaged well with Pirate’s Guide, he was struggling, every day, to put pen to paper and write anything more than the fewest words possible in his workbook exercises. She was very discouraged, and, I think may have felt that her son wasn’t succeeding - or that the workbook wasn’t helping him grow in imagination.

I hear this a lot. So many of us worry that we or our kids are not “creative.” Many of those on the Spectrum struggle with accessing their imagination and playing or creating creatively. And many neurotypical and neurodiverse students alike struggle with writing their whole lives. As a parent, we want to encourage our kids to grow and develop, but sometimes they seem to resent our encouragement!

One sure fire way to squelch imagination is to place premature expectations on them. I wonder if this mom’s enthusiasm and desire to
encourage her son was felt as expectation by him. I wonder if he felt the expectation (spoken or unspoken, from the workbook, from the mom, from himself) that he had to suddenly become creative and use his imagination? This can be very scary for many kids (and adults too). Writing and sharing our imagination/creativity is a vulnerable thing, and that’s one of the main reasons a lot of people (of all ages) shy away from it, esp. from sharing it.

With something like creativity as we are “teaching” it in this workbook, you can take a very laid-back, relaxed approach. Your students can use as few words as they want. There should only be the expectation that they are giving the work some effort - NOT that there will be “success” (at least not in the short term). My own son, who is a Pure Math major in college right now, is not a traditionally “creative” kid. For him, doing
Pirate’s Guide (he and his sisters were our first test audience) was purely obedience to mom (the teacher) and respect for dad (the writer). He put the time in, chose not to write the stories in the “Raise the Anchor” sections, and basically did the assignments to get them done. He was given full credit for the character building of obedience to the assignment. He never really got interested or excited about imagining different options (though, when he did portions of it again in a coop group, his answers were much more interesting because they were shared out loud, and his friends inspired him a bit. Gentle peer pressure can be encouraging). He can, however, have a meaningful conversation now (6 years later) with us about story, and when he finds an unexpected villain in a movie he’s watching, or he finds connections or values that he might have otherwise not been aware of.

I share that to say that our kids may not be ready to be “imaginative” in the way that we define or hope. But if they are willing to put in the time and, however sparingly, complete the exercises (and you as the teacher might choose to minimize those - have them fill out half of each list instead of all, etc), you might find that, over time and without any pressure to meet any expectation, they naturally becomes more adept at it. And honestly, even if that happens primarily within their own head, it will have increased and strengthened that creative muscle, which will help them be able to work out a bit more in other areas of life.