Autism Education in the Era of Social Distancing

How school closures are impacting the neurodiverse student population, and how technology is bridging the gap for virtual learning.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a world of uncertainty for all of us, impacting nearly every aspect of our society – especially our education system.

Across the globe, mandatory widespread school closures have created a massive disruption of K-12 schooling, impacting teachers and students alike. As a result of the pandemic, there have been approximately 124,000 public and private school closures and an estimated 55.1 million students who have been impacted, according to a report from Education Week.

During these unprecedented times, students and school faculty are leaning on technology to prevent a disruption in learning as a result of stay-at-home orders – but for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other behavioral disorders, school closures have a larger impact. Along with adjusting to this new technology-based learning model, children with ASD are also dealing with the loss of in-person access to the social activities, learning support services, and care that they rely on and are accustomed to. Students with ASD are more prone to struggling with online classes than their peers, and disruption to their daily routines may strain their learning progress even more, putting pressure on parents and caregivers to guide them so they make progress congruent with their in-person learning environments.

Further, some students with ASD were also receiving direct care from board certified behavioral analysts (BCBAs) to ensure they were making progress and having a positive learning experience. These clinicians often administer behavior intervention plans to create one-on-one support between themselves and the learner for extra help and support. Losing in-person access to their BCBA is yet another hurdle the learner has to overcome.

With schools closed, teachers are utilizing technology to serve special education students in the interim, with hopes of establishing some level of normalcy and routine. Online instruction requires teachers to use new strategies in order to implement specialized education tactics for students that allow them to focus on transitioning learners and creating an effective online learning environment. But while all teachers are struggling with the new normal, special education teachers in particular, are facing unparalleled challenges in transitioning both their teaching plans — and their students and families — to home-based instruction tailored to each student’s specific needs.

This places added pressure on learners with ASD or other behavioral disorders, as well as the parents, caregivers, and BCBAs that previously relied on in-person communication and therapy to ensure effective learning and progress.

How is Technology Facilitating Virtual Learning in Special Education?

While it can be challenging for teachers to provide guidance to parents and children remotely, there are several tips and best practices that educators can use to help learners excel in a digital learning environment.

Below are some ways technology can be used effectively to help bridge the gap for virtual learning, by allowing teachers to provide insight, information, and resources to both parents and students:

  • Provide clear guidelines for conducting online meetings. Both parents and students require clear guidance in navigating online meetings – from detailed instructions on downloading necessary applications, to rules of engagement in an online classroom. Technology is helping teachers and BCBAs conduct meetings with parents or caregivers and communicate about their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) - the federally-required education roadmap for students with one or more identified disabilities. By providing a bridge for the teachers/clinicians to the parents, it helps all parties become aligned on the pathway to the student’s success and learning progress. Don’t forget to help caregivers out along the way – not all are fluent in technology, and many may require a little hand-holding at first.
  • Use video tools that allow for screen sharing. Sharing screens with students is an effective technique educators can use to ensure effective two-way communication, facilitate the sharing of information and activities, as well as being able to visually walk them through specific goals.
  • Follow the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Guidelines when presenting online content. In some instances, online learning technology can allow teachers to improve learning experiences by including some steps that may be overlooked during in-person sessions. Some examples include using high-contrast lighting during virtual lessons, large fonts when describing a specific subject, and using captions and reducing audio levels when showing educational video content. All of these elements can create a sensory-friendly experience for the learner!
  • Store online learning materials in one place. One main advantage of online learning is that it can be used as a tool for teachers to holistically store and share information, materials, coursework, and more – all in one place. A definite change from paper handouts that tend to get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day life for parents and caregivers This method helps streamline lesson plans and facilitates collaborative learning, not to mention makes life easier for parents and caregivers
  • Continue education and therapy services. Technology offers opportunities to continue supporting student success from a distance. Online reading, videos, virtual office hours, and quizzes keep kids learning. Plus, opportunities like telehealth and digital ABA data collection enable BCBAs to continue providing applied behavior analysis therapy, when appropriate.

Where some districts were able to instantly pivot to online learning, others required more time and resources to launch formal virtual learning plans. And though the vast majority of children around the globe have been home from school as a result of COVID-19, their individual experiences continue to be wildly unique.

But one thing remains constant, regardless of the geographical location or school district – no one learner or child is the same. Education technology grants educators the freedom to clearly define and coordinate individualized lesson plans on a case-by-case basis until stay-at-home orders are lifted and children can physically return to school.

In the interim, both educators and learners alike will hopefully adapt to this change without significant lapses in progress. It is a team effort requiring all hands on deck – teachers, learners, and parents – and when it’s all over, the lessons gleaned from this experience will shed light on the adaptability and resilience of the children we serve.