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Distance Learning A Particular Challenge For Students With Autism

Jet is sitting on a stool and is drinking from his cup while working on his online school work.
Courtesy of Chandra Watkins
Jet works on his online school work with snacks and a stuffed pal at his side.

Face coverings, distance learning and barren playgrounds. This is the “new normal” for the education system, and for students with special needs, remote learning presents unique challenges. Students with autism learn and adapt in different ways from other children, so during the COVID-19 pandemic, the education of students with autism has been disrupted – and not only their educational routine but also their at-home routine, which could go something like this:

Shower. Brush teeth. Get dressed.

Now, fifteen minutes of playtime.

Socks. Five-minute break. Shoes on.

From timers to picture schedules, when it comes to individuals with autism, a routine is an absolute necessity. In order to navigate through the social world that is difficult for them to understand, a concrete routine allows many people with autism to function at their best.

Chandra Watkins, mother of nine-year-old Jet, describes distance learning as a heavy challenge for her family. While her son attends school in Fallon, Nev., for part of the day, the mornings consist of online learning.

Like many families, both Chandra and her husband work outside the home – specifically, she and her husband both work in law enforcement. This already presents a challenge in helping Jet with his schoolwork because they work odd hours. Jet occasionally visits his grandmother’s house for online learning.

While other nine-year-olds may understand a task, such as writing a couple of sentences or reading an assigned paragraph, with minimal guidance from a parental figure, Chandra has to sit right at Jet’s side for the entire duration of his online learning time.

Jet stands next to his poster board for his project on bugs. He is smiling proudly with his arms up to show off his work.
Credit Courtesy of Chandra Watkins
Jet and his school project on bugs.

Cues and time markers made Jet’s world go round before the pandemic, but now, with a new system of learning, the balance has been thrown off. Although other students Jet’s age may understand why they have more homework and can understand the pandemic – why everything is online, shut down and distanced – Jet has a harder time. According to his mom, he just doesn’t understand.

University of Nevada, Reno Professor of Speech Pathology and Ideology Debra Vigil said students with autism may have a difficult time grasping aspects called “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is being able to understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings from yours. Individuals with autism want to learn and are willing, but Vigil said getting there is the challenge.

Remote Learning Upends Routine

While some school districts in Nevada are allowing in-person learning, many schools are including a hybrid mix of in-person and distance learning. This is already difficult for students to get a handle on, and it presents a larger issue for individuals with autism. Not having a concrete routine and set schedule for a complete school day is confusing and unstable.

Similar to how some students have lost a season of playing sports or are missing out on a semester of a theater production, students with autism are missing out on things essential to their functioning and development, such as therapy, speech practice, social practice and aide assistance.

Chandra said during the shutdown from February to August, Jet could not attend speech therapy or occupational therapy.

“We went completely backwards when it came to everything. From speech to behavior, he just wasn’t getting those interactions through school,” Chandra said.

Vigil said before the pandemic, she was able to work with autistic students out in the world to give them real practice. They could step into a therapy room and interact hands-on with other people, and they could be motivated to work outside of their comfort zone.

Before COVID-19, Vigil said, “There was a lot more feedback that we can give in terms of social practice, and it’s a little bit harder to do this now because we can’t bring people in. Over the summer, we did have other students come into the Zoom room and speak to this student, but it is still odd and not the same.”

Lost Opportunities For Social Growth

For nine-year-old Jet, his issue regarding distance learning is that he struggles with being able to sit still and focus on the task at hand. Chandra knows that it is not like other kids, where they can be told, “This is what you need to get done for this class,” and they can complete it themselves with minimal help. With Jet, it is a slow and delicate process during which she sits beside him and goes through each task and instruction for his classes.

Vigil has encountered the same situation with some of the students with autism at the college level she works with over Zoom. She explained that one student she is working with just can’t grasp what it is they are supposed to be doing online. He cannot connect how this will work, learning through the computer. While in the comfort of his home, away from a regulated school routine, he prefers to not do the work since it is more challenging for him to complete it.

“Trying to get him to understand and then to carry it through in this time when he is more comfortable staying at home at his computer – we can’t push him a little more. That’s the struggle,” Vigil explained.

Another student Vigil works with struggles with asking questions. Socially, autism keeps her from being assertive when she does not understand the content or has to ask a question. While she is home, Vigil is unable to provide this student with the in-person assistance she needs.

Online Interactions May Reinforce Stigmas

In COVID-19 times, not only are individuals with autism having their routine and real-life social practice disrupted, but the general stigma against autism could be further solidified.

Chandra described many situations during which people just simply did not want to speak to Jet because they know he has autism. She said that people assume Jet does not want to participate or can’t participate, so they don’t reach out. “Just because he has autism doesn’t mean he can’t do things,” she explained.

According to Vigil, when it comes to the misunderstanding of autism, a majority of people treat it as a death sentence.

“They don’t know what it means, they are afraid, they think it is a death sentence, and then once they realize it is just a kid, things change. But it takes a while for people to adjust. And once they see a child, they realize that that child can do various, different things,” Vigil said.

Vigil added that students with autism want to be accepted like every other student. They want to learn, understand and be included. And that desire is particularly strong during this time of disconnection.

“They want to have a friend. They do want to play. They do want to interact. If people can learn to accept the differences, it’ll be so much easier. For them and for us,” Vigil said.

Jet stands in front of a window with his robot project he made out of home items.
Credit Courtesy of Chandra Watkins
Jet proudly shows off his handmade friend.

Chandra wants to remind parents that it’s the small things that count. While some days will be good, other days will be heinous. The world may feel like it is ending, but a new day will come – and it will be different.

While it may seem like a child isn’t succeeding in school, remember to consider the wins of the day: What are they succeeding at? What did they smile about today? What did they accomplish?

“Remind yourself it is a spectrum. You have to break it down into the little wins. Otherwise, you’ll get sucked into the ‘My kid isn’t doing good’ [thought pattern]. But if you are instead like ‘My kid screamed ten times instead of twenty,’ then that is the win. We are moving forward,” said Chandra.

This story was originally published to the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science's website on Nov. 9, 2020.

Kaylynn Perez is a contributor for the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

KUNR's Jayden Perez adapted this story for web.

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