Making School Work for Kids With Autism During the COVID Pandemic

Resources, Tools, and Ideas for Success

Overwhelmed mother doing schoolwork with two sons in front of a computer at the dining table

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Students with autism can thrive during the COVID pandemic. To make that happen, both parents and educators can take advantage of existing resources and opportunities—and creatively structure the school day to help ensure success.

The reality is that, while some aspects of pandemic schooling are unusually difficult for children on the spectrum, many children (and their parents) are actually doing better during the pandemic than during a typical school year.

Top 6 Tips for Success

Your child with autism is going to need extra support during this time, and it will be up to you to ensure they have it. Here are some of the top tips from educators and specialists to bear in mind as you work with your child's school team.

  1. Be aware that COVID and the pandemic have no impact on your school district's legal requirement to provide your child with a free and appropriate education (FAPE). Even if it is difficult or requires special training and technology, it is up to the district to provide your child with FAPE.
  2. Don't assume your child should be at school as much as possible. Many children with autism do better at home than at school. That's because, without the sensory distractions and social expectations of school, they can focus on learning and on their own particular interests.
  3. Be sure to make use of your child's individualized education plan (IEP) to get them (and you) any special or enhanced services (or to document services that are being provided).
  4. Work closely with your child's teacher and therapists—and be as flexible and creative as possible during this difficult time.
  5. Use technology to its best advantage, and be open to the possibility that you may need to install and/or learn new software systems.
  6. Tap into online resources to help your child understand what the pandemic is, why people are scared, why masks are so important, and how to stay safe.

Know Your Rights

Before leaping into the special education fray, it's important to know what you and your child are entitled to under the law. If you have an autistic child, chances are you are already familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which guarantees a "free and appropriate" education to children with all disabilities.

You have also had experience with developing an individualized education plan (IEP) which includes accommodations, supports, and therapies for your child.

Required Services May Be Delivered Online

It might seem reasonable that legal guarantees of services would be suspended during an international pandemic. The reality, however, is that despite extra obstacles and costs, your school district is still required to stick to the IEP—though services may be provided remotely.

Here is what Wrightslaw.com, a site focused on special needs law, says about this issue:

"Many children's IEPs include related services—speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, tutoring, counseling, etc. Some school districts advised parents that 'these services cannot be provided virtually.' This is not true. School districts can contract with teletherapy companies to provide the speech-language, physical therapy, occupational therapy children with disabilities need to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as set forth in their IEPs."

Compensatory Services

If your district does not provide services as described in your IEP, you are entitled to something called "compensatory services." In other words, your district must compensate your child for the services they have lost. According to the Department of Education:

"In addition to the traditional use of the term 'compensatory education services' to describe services required to remedy a violation of IDEA that resulted in a denial of FAPE, this term is also used by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to describe services that may be required to remedy the loss of skills/regression as a result of extended school closures and disruptions to in-person instruction, circumstances caused by the pandemic that are beyond the control of schools." 

Using Your IEP

You can lay out appropriate accommodations and services in your child's IEP just as you did pre-pandemic. The difference, of course, is that your child's "recommended educational placement" may be his or her own home—and many services will probably be provided at a distance. So long as the services are provided safely and effectively, online "teletherapy" is a viable option.

In addition to ensuring that your child's accommodations and services are provided, you may also want to add certain elements to the IEP that support parent/teacher interaction in this unusual time. For example, says Amanda Morin, Senior Expert in Family Advocacy and Education at Understood.org:

"Parents should look at the Supplemental Services section of the IEP to determine what kind of additional training is needed for teachers and for themselves. With virtual platforms, there are additional needs for kids who have difficulty with verbal communication.

"How are we teaching teachers to do non-verbal cueing on virtual systems? What else can we put in place? Parents can also look at the Parent/Student Consultation section of the IEP and consider adding some additional services there."

While it's possible to try to cram your child's IEP with new services, however, Morin notes that it's important to prioritize goals in this unprecedented time. "We should ask ourselves: what can we really do this year in a virtual environment? We can’t do it all. What can we really move forward?"

Choosing the Right Educational Structure

Many parents need to work outside the home—so if in-school learning is possible, it's the best and only choice. For those parents whose work allows them to be home or to work evenings and weekends, though, it's possible to consider other options.

If you have a choice between hybrid and non-hybrid approaches to schooling, choose non-hybrid. Many experts say that hybrid schooling, because of the constant changes in schedule and expectations, is really the worst option of all.

Only send your child to school full time if they are truly able to follow all safety requirements including all-day mask-wearing, regular hand-washing, and social distancing. If they are having trouble with these requirements, a full day in school will be stressful—not only for your child but for their classmates, teachers, and therapists.

If you have the option of keeping your child at home and are comfortable doing so, consider some of the different ways in which your child can access information. If your child's teacher is taping herself, your child may be able to watch the screen for short stretches rather than for hours on end.

Asynchronous learning (learning at different times from other students) is fast becoming an acceptable option for students of all abilities and ages.

Remember that, even if your child is at home, you are not homeschooling. Rather, you are supporting a school-based education in your home. That means your participation may be necessary—but the teacher is in charge.

Making the Most of Technology

Schools are using a wide range of teaching and communication systems, and it can be tough to keep track of what they're doing and how and where to find what you need. Most use either Blackboard or Canvas as a basic tool for delivering lessons, but most also use other technology to support learning—especially for students with special needs.

Kate Garcia, Special Education and Science teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in the Philadelphia suburbs offers some insights into technology that works well and supports teachers, students, and parents alike.

Video

Teachers may be required to record direct instruction so that students and parents can watch and rewatch at their leisure. Often, direct instruction includes directions for completing specific tasks.

If your child's teacher is not doing this, you can ask them to do so as a way to support your child's learning. Garcia recommends Screencastify.com as one good option for capturing and sharing videos for a whole class.

Zoom

Zoom has become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic, and schools are no exception. One terrific advantage of Zoom is the ability to create "breakout rooms" where special needs students can meet with their aides or therapists to work together on an assignment.

If your child's teacher is not doing this already, consider recommending it as a good way to provide the 1-to-1 support to which they may be entitled. Therapists may also join Zoom sessions and engage with or observe students as they would in a real-world classroom.

Kami

Kamiapp is a school-friendly tool that allows teachers to upload a wide range of resources. It also offers text to speech and makes it possible for parents to record themselves as they request specific help from the teacher.

Google

The Google suite of tools provides more resources than you might expect. In addition to documents and slide shows, it can also be used to collect materials (via Google Keep), connect with teachers (via Google Forms), and much more.

Social Media

Some teachers have created Facebook or Instagram pages to support learning. There, they post learning and teaching strategies and updates, and even answer questions in real-time.

Social Interaction and Social Learning

Social engagement is important, but it's hard to set up "lunch bunch" or social skills groups in a virtual environment—especially for students who find even face-to-face interaction daunting. Fortunately, there are many ways to be social.

Depending on your child's needs and abilities, they may enjoy:

  • Online gaming in virtual worlds or virtual versions of real-world games such as Dungeons and Dragons or chess
  • Zoom groups that focus on a special interest, or provide an opportunity for structured interaction
  • Family experiences that may have been limited before COVID, such as shared TV time, or shared work on a jigsaw puzzle or board game

Social Stories and Other Tools

Children with autism may find it particularly difficult to understand the anxiety and uncertainty caused by COVID-19. They may also find it physically difficult to wear a mask, wash hands more often, or engage with others virtually when they prefer to see them in person.

To help your child prepare for and manage these challenges, you can use social stories, videos, and other multimedia resources that have become not only easy to find but also effective. You can also connect with others who are going through the same challenges. Some of the many available (free) options include:

Websites/alliances:

 Social stories/visuals:

A Word From Verywell

It can be extraordinarily difficult to manage special needs education during a pandemic, and there is no single "right" way to do it. While parental involvement is always helpful, there is nothing wrong with allowing teachers, aides, and therapists to do their job while you do yours.

The key is to stay in close communication with your child's team, craft the best IEP and learning experience possible under trying circumstances, and remember that even small forward steps are a sign of success.

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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. WrightsLaw. Special education and COVID-19: How schools can provide therapy services in IEPs. Updated June 9, 2020.

  2. Department of Education. Questions and answers on providing services to children with disabilities during the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak.

  3. Morin A. Conversation with Amanda Morin. October 2020. Senior Expert in Family Advocacy and Education at Understood.org

  4. Garcia K. Conversation with Kate Garcia. October 2020.Special Education and Science teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School.

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