Help Your Child With Autism Cope With School During a Pandemic

Challenges and Choices During COVID-19

In This Article

For the vast majority of children with autism, school has always been challenging. From confusing social expectations to sensory overloads to complex use of language, there are always obstacles to overcome.

There is no doubt that virtual, hybrid, and "socially-distanced" schooling makes it harder to provide special education, 1-to-1 support, and therapies in the school setting. On the other hand, oddly enough, smaller classes, quieter halls, and more time at home can be an advantage for some children with autism.

Parents help young child on computer
FG Trade/Getty Images

Challenges and Advantages

Schools are, in some ways, a perfect storm of challenges for children on the spectrum, because they are loud, bright, socially complicated, constantly changing, and require a high level of verbal comprehension and expression.

On the other hand, schools provide consistency, more or less predictable schedules, professional educators and therapists, and opportunities to build emotional, behavioral, academic, and social skills.

Challenges

During the pandemic, there are significant challenges to children with autism and their parents. Just a few of these include:

  • Changing schedule: Most children with autism thrive with predictable routines.
  • Issues with masks and sanitizing: Some children with autism find masks and hand sanitizers difficult or even impossible to use, due to sensory dysfunction.
  • Difficulty accessing therapeutic and support services: Most children with autism have individualized educational plans (IEPs), but it is challenging to deliver effective services when close 1-to-1 interaction is not allowed and, in some cases, children are not physically present to receive the services.
  • Communication: Most children with autism have speech and communication challenges. Some are unable to understand or use spoken language at all. But most distance learning tools rely on spoken communication or, at the very least, rely on children's desire to "win" games and/or interact with others—desires that are rare among children on the spectrum.
  • Challenges for parents: It's tough enough for a parent to become a homeschooling teacher to a typically developing child. Add the difficulty of helping a child with autism to adjust to, make sense of, and respond to online or at-home learning, and many parents feel overwhelmed.

Advantages

On the positive side, however, education during a pandemic can actually relieve some of the challenges that are part of the typical school experience.

Dr. Jeffrey Selman, Vice President of Clinical Services for First Children Services, which serves children with autism under its STRIVE Autism Care continuum, notes that "Kids who have social anxiety may find it easier to be home; sensory needs may be less of a problem and they are coping with fewer transitions and changes...Right now there are kids who are thriving despite the challenges caused by COVID."

In many cases, children with autism may experience:

  • Less social stress: With fewer peers around, masks required, and hybrid and/or distance schooling, there are fewer social requirements. This can be a huge relief to many children on the spectrum.
  • Less bullying: With fewer peers to support them, less unstructured time, and less time together with peers, bullies may find it harder to target children with autism.
  • Fewer sensory assaults: For many children with autism, fluorescent lights, class buzzers, crowded halls, microphones, and other ordinary aspects of the school day can be excruciatingly painful. Home-based or hybrid learning can radically reduce this problem.
  • More personalized education: Depending on the child, the teacher, and the parents, hybrid or home-based learning can actually be more customized than classroom learning. Teachers may be working with fewer children at once, parents may be able to provide customized support to their children, and online educational programs offer a range of individualized supports that are harder to provide in a general education setting.

There are a number of ways to work toward a positive experience for yourself and your child with autism, but the reality is that no situation will be perfect. Everyone—including teachers, therapists, and district administrators—are learning as they go.

That means that patience and flexibility are essential. It also means that you, who know your child best, will need to take the lead when it comes to setting up and managing your child's educational experience.

In-School, Virtual, or Hybrid Education?

One of the most important decisions you will need to make (assuming your district allows both virtual and in-school education) is whether to send your child back to their physical school. When making this decision, you will have to ask a number of questions that only you and your child can answer:

  • Can your child cope with the physical demands of wearing a mask and using hand-sanitizer multiple times a day?
  • Can your child cope with the inevitable changes they will experience in the school setting—which may include the elimination of favorite classes, types of therapy, recess, cafeteria lunches, etc.?
  • Can your child cope with likely continued changes to the school schedule which will occur as COVID becomes more or less of an issue and vaccines do or do not become available?
  • Does your child enjoy engaging with other students, teachers, and therapists? Would they feel lonely or frustrated without the social engagement of a brick and mortar school?
  • Can you be at home with your child to oversee and support virtual learning and therapy? If you can, do you feel emotionally and intellectually prepared to take on the responsibility of managing your child's day-to-day education and therapy?
  • Do you have the space, technology, and internet speed to make home-based learning feasible?
  • Are you and/or your child at high medical risk and uncomfortable being part of a school community?

If your child has trouble handling the ups, downs, and constant change that will be part of a school experience with COVID, you feel that you can (and want to) be home with your child, and you have the physical means to make virtual school work, then a virtual school year may be a very positive experience for all of you.

The reality, however, is that most children with autism and their families will find it hard to adjust to a virtual school setting. Hybrid options may or may not be available, and can be even trickier than school or home for a child on the spectrum because they require a great deal of flexibility

Managing In-School Education

Your child with autism is entitled to all of the special services described in their IEP. However, some services and programs will change as a result of COVID. Your job will be to ensure that your child receives appropriate services—with the understanding that flexibility and patience may be necessary as the school puts services in place.

Learn as much as you can about your state's school reopening guidelines. Each state is unique.

According to Autism Speaks: "While these plans will not contain detailed directives for school communities...these guidance documents may shed light on the options and flexibility that parents may be able to request from schools for their children’s learning needs as we navigate these unprecedented times."

If there is a committee or group involved with setting up classrooms, guidelines, and services in your child's school, consider joining it—or at least attending meetings. The more you know, the better you'll be able to advocate and make smart decisions for your child.

Review and discuss your child's IEP with members of their school-based team, and discuss available options. Where will your child be spending their school days? What kind of support options are available? How will their day to day lives change with COVID? How can the school help your child adjust to significant changes as they evolve?

Help smooth the process by working with your child to help them manage mask-wearing, anticipate changes, and cope with new ways of sitting, moving, engaging with classmates, and participating in therapies. To do this, you will need to be in very close touch with your child's teachers and therapists, both asking questions and providing any needed support.

Managing Virtual School

In many locations, students are expected to participate in distance learning at least some if not all the time. If that describes your situation, you are in an unprecedented situation—and you will find it challenging. That said, however, you and your child may also find it an exciting opportunity to bond and grow together.

Dr. Jeff Selman. whose organization provides in-school and in-home therapy through contracts with school districts, notes that parents are much more involved now than ever before, and that's a good thing.

Selman says "We have to be sure families are well trained and can deliver some of the instruction and intervention, and provide feedback on how it went." For some parents, home education is a heavy lift, and it can take time to develop the necessary skills. Fortunately, most IEPs do include a section on "parent training," and now is the right time to access that option to its fullest extent.

Selman also recommends that families be able to ask for help, whether from the teacher or the service provider. Familiarizing yourself with behavior intervention plans and other school-based interventions and therapies is important, but in the long run, the partnership is paramount right now. Selman recommends these strategies for home education: 

  • Visual schedules: Simple visual schedules using words or pictures or both can help your child preview and prepare for the day.
  •  Breaking down and reducing tasks: Many children with autism find it difficult to chain together a sequence of tasks (sit down, turn on the computer, log in, say good morning to the teacher). Most, however, can take on one element at a time. Some may need support every step of the way, while others may be able to learn the new routine with time.
  • Lots of reinforcement: Reinforcements are essentially rewards for a job well done, and they are especially important when your child is being asked to do more than usual. Reinforcements can take many forms, from play breaks to snacks to calming sensory experiences. Be sure you tailor reinforcements to your child's preferences, so they can be truly rewarding.
  • Shaping: In your home, you have a lot of flexibility to shape the setting and the school day to your child's particular needs. If your child has trouble sitting in front of a screen, perhaps they can move around, or build up screen time slowly. If your child does best at certain times of day, it may be possible to arrange the school schedule around your child's internal schedule.
  • Creativity: If there was ever a time to be creative in our approach to autism education, this is it! If your child can't interact with other children at school, says Selman, it may be possible to "contrive social situations online, such as Mindcraft social skills, fitness social skill groups, etc. 
  • Compassion: Compassion should be at the forefront, says Selman. "This is not the time to push a child through; if there are behaviors that are unsafe or distressing, that’s a time for families to take a break. When we’re getting stressed out, it's often best to try something easier, do something more preferred, and gradually increase demand again."
  • Collaboration: If your child is learning remotely, you and your child's IEP team are all working together. Stay in touch, share insights and suggestions, and support one another through this crisis.

A Word From Verywell

As the parent or caregiver for a child with autism, you may have already been feeling a great deal of stress before COVID hit. Now, you may be feeling overwhelmed by the additional expectations and challenges facing you. If that's the case (or even if it isn't!), it's important to remember that self-care isn't optional.

Your child will only be able to thrive during these difficult times when you, their caregiver, are rested, well-nourished, and both physically and emotionally well. If you find that you are experiencing unexpected levels of stress, it's helpful to reach out to your child's team and to your own medical provider.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. COVID-19 resources for schools, students, and families.

  2. Autism Speaks. Five ways parents can advocate for their child with autism in virtual learning.

Additional Reading
  • Selman J. Conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Selman. September 2020. Dr. Selman is VP, Clinical Services, Strive Autism Centers in New Jersey.