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When it became clear that the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic would force her children’s Maryland schools to close, Maggie Haslam recalls a sharp, panicked thought: “What are we going to do?”
Her reaction likely mirrors that of millions of other parents suddenly facing the prospect of some form of schooling at home, while also juggling jobs and other unknowns. But for the Haslams and their 15-year-old son, Drew, the closures presented a special set of concerns. Drew is “smack dab in the middle of the autism spectrum,” Haslam says, and he and his family rely on intensive, targeted, and highly individualized educational support from teachers and therapists at his school.
“There are all these things that we don’t know how to do, that he gets every day, that he won’t be getting in the near future,” Haslam says.
For Hannah Grieco, a disability and education advocate who lives in Arlington, Virginia, the closures meant she’d need to resume some of the same homeschooling approaches she’d used before with her autistic 12-year-old son. With a master’s degree in education and eight years of experience as a public school teacher, she says she felt more prepared than other parents in a similar situation might.
Still, she felt worried and overwhelmed. It’s one thing to provide significant support to their children in the evenings and weekends. “But all day, every day—as a parent and teacher—while also working?” Grieco says. “That’s very hard.”
While schools sort out strategies to teach children at home and how best to support students in their special education programs, parents and caregivers are turning to each other to help set their autistic learners up for success. Here are some ideas from the experts.
Reach out to—and be patient with—schools
As teachers and schools scramble to adapt curriculum and lesson plans for students at home, remember that hiccups are to be expected. Adjusting for special education learning needs might take a bit longer, since these type of learning plans require individualization.
“The number one thing is to reach out to your school, learn what resources they’ve been using, and what would work best for your student at home,” says Katie Mauro, a library and media specialist in Newtown, Connecticut. “Your teachers are probably already working on this—we’re learning ourselves. There’s a big gap for everybody and it’s evolving day by day.”
With that in mind, don’t sweat it. “Everyone is going to be behind,” Mauro says. “Teachers all know the fall will look different this year.”
Haslam said that shortly after her school announced closures, her social networks provided critical support as she looked for specific solutions for Drew, including how to fill gaps that his school-based occupational therapist and other specialists provided, as well as activities to maintain or build his skills.
“I’m connected with people in the autism community all over the country, and a social media post earlier this week got about 70 comments,” Haslam said, including ideas from some of Drew’s former teachers. “Everyone recognizes that everyone else is struggling. Everyone wants to share what’s working.”
Stick to a schedule
Developing a consistent routine is something all parents are hearing right now. But for autistic students, “I can’t stress enough that structure is key with this new change,” says Kerry Magro, an author and speaker who’s on the board of directors for the National Autism Association. Magro himself grew up on the spectrum and with a learning disability, and said that having a regular schedule had a profound impact on his early years.
But be realistic, Haslam advises.
“I came up with this ridiculously ambitious schedule, which went great on the first day,” she says. “But the next day it went completely off the rails.”
Now, Haslam schedules short blocks of work immediately reinforced with a preferred activity. (For Drew, that’s TV or YouTube.) It seems to be going well.
“Re-establishing a sense of normalcy is important,” says Sean Smyth, who teaches English and social studies at The Study Academy in Toronto. With 60 students of diverse learning needs and abilities, the school has been working to advise families on strategies to ease the transition to home-based and online learning.
“Not every minute of every day needs to be accounted for,” Smyth adds. “Just something for the child to know that this is a time for academics, or to expect free time, or to go outside and exercise.” (And don’t forget, Magro says, that going outside as part of a child’s daily routine is also beneficial for mental health.)
Create a learning space
Unlike special education classrooms, which are carefully designed to reduce triggers and tailored to support individual learning needs, the family home can be a minefield of distractions. To mitigate that, designate a particular area in your home for learning.
“While the child’s bedroom may be a safe place, it’s not their learning environment,” says Cheryl Sheffield, a special education specialist who’s been teaching for 25 years in northern Ontario. “But the work area doesn’t need to be sterile and void of life.” Whatever space you choose—a special corner or designated seat at the family table—Sheffield recommends that the child have hands-on materials nearby. Even better: items that can be rotated to keep things fresh, such as toys, books, chalk, paint, and markers.
Distractions are still likely to crop up in a home learning environment; try using them as rewards that can be worked into new routines. For example, if your child loves a certain snack, turn it into a learning game: watching candy dissolve in milk to see how it changes the milk’s color (with a reward of undissolved candy), or cheese crackers as props to practice exchanging money.
For non-verbal children or those who struggle with communication, Sheffield recommends including a variety of resources, such as graphics, pictures, traditional charts, and a “feeling chart” to help express emotions.
If your child tends to be extremely interested in one topic, use that to your advantage by structuring daily learning around that subject.
“It’s important to push activities where students can still build skills,” Smyth says. Instead of watching the same video or reading the same book, supportively push your learner in different directions. That can help encourage more learning as well as diversify their communication skills.
For instance, have them help make a video or podcast episode about their preferred subject, or create a comic strip using free online software. “A gentle push that’s still in a comfortable realm—where they can still enjoy their thing—can help them go a bit beyond the comfortable,” Smyth says.
Use a variety of resources, online and off
With so many students learning from home, the amount of resources available to families can be overwhelming. “Plus you’re seeing what everyone else is doing on social media, and it can make you feel like you’re not doing enough,” Halsam says. “We decided to cut ourselves some slack.”
Focus on what works for your child. Learners on the autism spectrum often benefit from a compelling “hook” to entice their interest in a new subject, or different sensory methods to get engaged, Smyth says. For instance, a teacher in a typical classroom setting might announce a new subject, lecture for a few minutes, and then start an activity. But Smyth recommends finding ways that autistic learners can grab onto, such as an interactive map with photos, audio, and video that tells a historical story, making a history lesson far more accessible.
Other tools for sensory learning include Google Earth Voyager for social studies; Seek, an iNaturalist app for identifying plants and animals in the backyard via augmented reality; and Audible’s free audiobooks, which Smyth notes are often more accessible for dyslexic, dysgraphic, or lower-grade-level readers.
Sheffield recommends looking up a few resources developed specifically for teachers—such as this checklist for getting and focusing student attention.
And, Haslam adds, don’t forget that just giving your child the power to choose can be huge.
“For kids on the spectrum, having options and choices is empowering,” she says, noting her strategy of offering Drew either an explorative walk outside or 15 minutes of videos. “If you can give them control in their everyday routine, that can go a long way.”
Maybe most important, though, is for parents to prioritize health and wellness—and that includes for themselves. “Be prepared, be proactive, and be a positive role model,” Sheffield says. “Keep expectations low and praise success.
“Parents really need to recognize that they are human.”