Autism Complicates an Already Difficult Situation
Students with autism learn and adapt in different ways from other children. Take something as basic as understanding the “new reality.” Although other students may understand why they have more homework and can understand the pandemic – why everything is online, shut down, and distanced – students on the autism spectrum can have a tougher time. And often these autistic children aren’t even aware of their differences.
The University of Nevada, Reno Professor of Speech Pathology and Ideology Debra Vigil said students with autism have difficulty grasping aspects called “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is understanding that other people have different thoughts and feelings from yours. Individuals with autism want to learn and are willing, but Vigil said that getting there is the challenge. So to help these students, we need to modify the game plan.
1. Explain What’s Going On
Begin by explaining why the school has transitioned to online learning. Tell your autistic child why online or hybrid learning is necessary for now. Social stories may assist these students to understand the situation and encourage them to share their feelings. And continue to talk about this throughout the school year. Students may not fully comprehend how they are affected until they have personally experienced it.
2. Foster Calm
While some students struggle with online learning, within the autistic population, the percentages are even greater. They may miss friends, teachers, and old routines. It is important to convey to these students that online learning is only temporary. Instill in them the hope that they will return to the classroom eventually.
3. Collaborate with the Teachers
It’s important to maintain regular contact with your child’s special education teacher. The teacher may ask you to assist with collecting certain data on your child while at home. This data will help the teacher to develop academic, social, and behavioral programs that will benefit your child through this school year.
Keep tabs on the progress your child is making towards the goals of his/her Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Your child’s special education teacher is an excellent resource in setting up “play dates,” or times to interact with other autistic students online so they can all share how their days at school and home are going.
Regular Education Teacher
Many autistic students attend a regular education classroom for at least part of the school day. While your child is learning at home, maintaining contact with your child’s regular education teacher is important as well. Your child’s classroom teacher can offer insight as to how your child is interacting with other students online.
Classroom teachers can also help place your child in an optimal group of other students with whom to interact. Working with this teacher will help you to instill a “sense of normalcy” throughout your child’s day.
4. Routine and Schedule are Sacred
From timers to picture schedules, when it comes to those with autism, a routine is necessary. To navigate their social world that is so difficult for them to understand, a concrete routine is indispensable.
Even if your child’s remote learning program schedule is flexible, it doesn’t preclude you from setting a daily routine for your student. Transitioning from one activity to another is often challenging for children on the autism spectrum. Visual schedules and visual timers help to make the day predictable, which will be calming for the autistic child.
Besides, visual timers help the child to better understand the length of each online session. Knowing how much time there is to complete an assignment will mitigate anxiety as well.
5. Carefully Design the Workspace
Work with your autistic child to determine where to set up the designated workspace in your home. This promotes a sense of ownership. This can be further enhanced by allowing your child to give it a personality by encouraging him/her to decorate the workspace as well.
According to Autism Speaks, autistic children often struggle with executive function skills. This means that these children are more easily distracted and have difficulty focusing. While the school environment is carefully structured, with minimal distractions, at home this is often not the case. When creating that workspace, assure that it is as distraction-free as possible. If possible, choose a spot away from pets and siblings.
The autistic child may need extra assistance in staying organized. Designate a place to hang the knapsack every day. Provide baskets or organizers to place markers, crayons, and pencils. Ask your child’s teachers what supplies are needed to ensure a successful day. Buy separate binders for new assignments, and completed assignments that need to be submitted to the teacher.
6. Those Sensory Needs Require Your Attention
At school, many kids on the autism spectrum will receive help managing their more pronounced sensory needs throughout the day. This can take any of a variety of forms such as quiet breaks, active time, sensory stimulation, and more. Some children may use special tools as well, such as fidget toys or bouncy chairs.
If you are unaware of what kinds of sensory breaks or tools your child receives during the school day, refer to his/her IEP. Therein you will find the sensory help listed in the Accommodations section. Attempt to replicate these sensory breaks at home, with the understanding that you may need to make modifications commensurate with the equipment and facilities available at home.
7. Be Extremely Generous with your Praise
It goes without question that missing school altogether, or even being in the classroom inconsistently, is more challenging for your autistic child than for other children. It’s important to spend time together and “check-in” on a daily basis. This provides opportunities for the child to talk about and express feelings as to how things are going.
Look for the “small victories” and give your child genuine acknowledgment and praise. Your inspiration and encouragement are especially important at this most challenging time!