As of spring 2020, school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have affected at least 55.1 million students in both public and private schools across the U.S. (Map: Coronavirus and School Closures in 2019-2020). As schools started in the U.S. this fall, many students have engaged in fully remote learning. Life, for elementary school children used to having recess or college undergraduates used to in-person lectures, has completely shifted. While these adjustments have been difficult for all students in terms of education, they have been especially challenging for students who experience Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder related to brain development, and impacts an individual’s social and communication skills, as well as behavior (Autism spectrum disorder – Symptoms and causes). Repetitive behaviors, having trouble expressing needs using typical words or motions, having trouble adapting when a routine changes, having trouble relating to others, having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings, and avoiding eye contact are some of the symptoms that individuals with ASD may experience. Detection of ASD can occur as early as 18 months. Even though there is currently no cure for ASD, early intervention therapy can assist children with ASD in focusing, walking, talking, and interacting with others (What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?).
General challenges that many students, parents, and educators have faced during remote learning throughout the pandemic include concerns about technological security, workplace environment, privacy, increasing feelings of isolation, and limitations in engagement throughout remote learning (Online learning concerns that shouldn’t be ignored). However, children and older students with ASD or other learning disabilities couple these concerns with other challenges as well. Specifically, students with ASD that may have trouble communicating in classrooms may find it more difficult to communicate virtually since social engagement is profoundly reduced via remote learning. Many of these students, especially younger children, have aides that assist them in social engagement and attentional issues in classroom environments, and they may not be able to have their aide support them in person with quarantine and social distancing measures in place. Students with ASD who received “related services” or school therapists and behaviorists that monitored and assisted them with behavioral difficulties may no longer receive them (Coronavirus: What happens to students with disabilities when schools close?). Additionally, many students with ASD often process information and learn differently from their peers. For instance, many students with ASD have trouble working independently, struggle with time management, are more likely to have difficulties in tasks involving language and communication, and experience high levels of anxiety which may be worsened due to the stress of remote learning. Oftentimes, individuals with ASD associate specific tasks with locations, and thus may resist doing school work at home (Webster, 2020).
Despite such challenges, there are some tips to help students with ASD adjust to remote learning. Some tips include creating a learning space to associate with school work and a routine that allows them to not become overwhelmed with the sudden changes happening. Children with ASD may have trouble engaging in independent tasks, something that has exponentially increased due to limited opportunity for social interaction in remote learning. Therefore, independent tasks such as completing homework may be challenging for students with ASD. However, research has demonstrated that creating a homework plan with clear communication between the parent and educator about which content should be prioritized as the main “takeaway” from lessons makes the individual task less anxiety inducing or overwhelming to the student, while being equally educational and effective. For instance, instead of writing an essay on the story or history of early settlers, students with ASD can use puppets to tell this history since they may have trouble thinking about what goes on in someone’s mind or relating to someone else’s story. Thus, this method would make the individualized tasks less overwhelming, more engaging, and helpful to the student in overcoming any hardships that may exist when it comes to understanding or relating to someone else (Webster, 2020).
Additionally, there are some positives to remote learning that can benefit students with ASD. Technology can offer students with ASD the opportunity to learn a wide range of academic skills by presenting educational content in a way that better fits the students’ learning style, which is oftentimes visual learning. In particular, apps that are specifically designed to improve language and literacy skills for different learning styles can be of use to students with ASD who often learn and process information differently from their peers (Webster, 2020). The Learning App Guide to Autism and Education is a useful resource for parents, educators, and students with ASD because it contains reviews for learning apps categorized by skill areas and age groups. For instance, Babnoor, the first Arabic language app, will launch in UAE to help children with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders by teaching children how to create sentences using symbols or images (Dawodi et al., 2020). Overall, online learning apps and platforms can be engaging through educational games or presenting learning styles for different types of learners, including students with ASD.
Coming together and relying on different resources has been helping all students continue to make the best out of the education they receive everyday. Students with ASD may experience additional challenges relating to adjusting to remote learning, but there are many tips, resources, and positives to look forward to. At the end of the day, no one can stop students from learning. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
Dawodi, A., Alzahrani, S., Almumtin, R., Alshyban, S., Alshabanah, M., Alrajhi, D., Alsmadi, M. and Almarashdeh, I., 2020. Developing and Implementing an Online Learning Platform for Children with Autism. International Journal of Scientific Research in Science and Technology, pp.176-188.
Webster, A.A., 2020. 5 tips to help parents navigate the unique needs of children with autism learning from home. The Conversation, 4, pp.1-5.
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