How do teachers whose students are on the autism spectrum do in isolation, when so much of their work is hands-on, such as singing or playing or practicing body language?
Or when instructing students is impossible from afar, how does the teacher transform the parents into worthy substitutes? After all, the parents weren’t trained to be teachers. And besides, they have their jobs to worry about—or perhaps it is even worse, and they are unemployed or have other children to look after.
For the children with special needs, who number roughly 7 million in the U.S. aging from 3 to 21, the COVID-19 Pandemic and its resultant school closures can be especially frightening. Whereas at school, they received personalized attention from trained professionals who are extremely familiar with their perceptions and processing, at home this doesn’t exist.
While the home may be full of love, no amount of love and care in the home can transform the average parent into an effective special education teacher. What’s more, it can’t enable even the most well-meaning parent to become proficient in online speech therapy or online occupational therapy.
“A lot of students have had one-on-one professionals with them in the classroom, along with general-education and special-education teachers supporting them,” said Elizabeth Barker, an accessibility researcher with the Northwest Evaluation Association. “Now, we’re asking parents to step into all of these roles.”
Unfortunately, for some students who require special education services, the tools that are being used to facilitate remote education such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and printed packets are in some way inadequate.
Often, students with disabilities require assistive technology. Take, for example, a child who is visually impaired. He may need screen-reader software that will read the text to him or a braille reader to enable him to read the text himself. But most online platforms aren’t assistive technology compatible.
Or consider deaf and hard-of-hearing students. They often find it difficult to communicate on Zoom when there are many other students in the meeting, on display.
What’s more, many families with a deaf child don’t know sign language, which means that school is (was) the only place where they can communicate with other deaf people.
On the other hand, some teachers and parents have been putting in long hours, and have become very creative in finding ways to move forward despite the significant challenges the COVID-19 Pandemic has posed.
Tracy Murray teaches kindergarten through the ASD Nest program in New York City. This innovative program integrates students who have autism spectrum disorder with general education students in the same classroom. She has four special education kids together with eight general education children.
Through tireless efforts, Tracy Murray has successfully transferred practically all of her routine classroom activities to Zoom meetings, including her “social club,” where her four ASD students practice communicating with each other and Murray. Through Zoom, the classroom has been replaced with online speech therapy, and then some.
Surprisingly, Murray has found that these children on the spectrum who generally have difficulty looking at people directly, find making eye contact through the computer screen with greater ease. “We have their eyes looking right at us, and it’s not painful for them,” Murray said. “It’s beautiful.”
Special education students find change and inconsistency particularly stressful due to the neurological deficiencies that are at the root of their particular problem. So it is that much harder for them to be flexible. At the same time, this period of social distancing and removal from their preferred environment may benefit them as they are learning to cope with diversity and will grow from the experience.
And the Verdict, Please!
COVID-19’s long-term impact on special education students is as yet unknown. Many educators and researchers are quite sure that there will be severe regression in both their learning and skills proficiency.
This phenomenon is evidenced every summer and winter vacation (to a lesser degree); it is clear that, the longer the students are away from regular instruction, the farther they fall behind.
But as some courageous and dedicated teachers, faculty members, and families are already showing, the results for some could be quite different. When the dust settles, these children might be more prepared than ever, compensating in ways they never imagined, and open to new possibilities they previously didn’t know existed.
Help Your Students Cope with the Crisis
The response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is unprecedented. Because of our unique role in children’s K-12 education including online speech therapy, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to assist schools, therapists, and students with this transition to online learning and seclusion. To ensure that our students remain engaged and supported, our therapists are providing complimentary “Support Sessions” to the country’s youth. We are also assisting schools with online therapist training.