For many students, the return to school looks different this year. Many school districts are choosing online learning or hybrid learning models in response to the ongoing pandemic. This transition presents new challenges for students, parents, and teachers. When it comes to supporting digital education for students with autism, we are all learning together.

distance learning, school covid 19, autism

Unlike most topics we discuss, we can’t point to much research on supporting students with autism as they begin online learning. There simply isn’t much research out there yet. One 2019 systematic literature review found only four previous studies on online learning experience for individuals with autism. However, we have gathered some resources and ideas that may help smooth the transition for students with autism and their families. 

Explain the situation

Start by explaining why the school has transitioned to online learning. Tell the student why online learning or a hybrid solution is necessary for now. Social stories may help the student with autism to understand the situation and explore whatever feelings may arise. Be prepared to talk about this frequently as the school year gets underway. Students may not fully understand how the changes will affect them until they’ve experienced them first-hand.  

This webinar (below) presented by counselor Amanda Tami, LPC, BCBA, offers tools and advice for discussing the pandemic’s impact and helping individuals with autism deal with altered plans and other disruptions.

Create reasonable expectations

Some students may struggle with online learning. They may miss friends, teachers, and old routines. Others may prefer it. Learning via computer screen removes many of the social pressures that can feel overwhelming or distracting.

For both types of learners, it is important to help them understand that online learning is a temporary situation. They will need/get to go back to in-person classes eventually.

Set a schedule

One thing that many schools do well is to provide students with a consistent and fairly predictable schedule. Many individuals with autism feel more comfortable when they can anticipate what is going to happen next. You can improve their online learning experience by setting and maintaining a schedule. Set times for the start of the school day, breaks, and the end of the school day. Communicate with the child’s teacher to understand the class schedule as well. You can post a visual or written schedule near where the individual studies. Use priming to help the individual successfully transition. For example, you might say, “five minutes, and then it will be lunchtime.” This gives the individual time mentally prepare for the new activity.

Involve the whole family

Online learning affects the whole family, not just the child with autism. Siblings may also be learning remotely. Parents may be working from home, or they may have less time to handle the chores of the day with children studying from home. A family-centered approach can help everyone better manage online learning schedules and expectations. 

Discuss everyone’s needs and work together to set boundaries and timelines to create the best possible situation for everyone. This may include mutually agreed upon study/work/break times. Quiet hours or redistributed responsibilities. 

Set up supports

Many of the supports already in place for your child may not follow them into the home learning environment. Work with teachers and administrators to modify your Individualized Education Plan and Behavior Intervention Plan for remote learning. Reach out to your care team for any resources they can provide. 

Remember that this is a new territory for most of us, teachers and counselors included. Open, clear communication and regular check-ins can help smooth the transition to online learning. For more tools and resources, connect with your state and local education advocacy organizations. 

For more information on preparing to go back-to-school during the pandemic, watch this webinar presented by Amanda Tami, MA, BCBA, LBA, LPC.

ARI thanks Amanda Tami, MA, BCBA, LBA, LPC, of The Johnson Center for Child Health and Development for her contributions to this article.